Over the course of a lifetime in the Toronto music scene, Canadian jazz pioneer Archie Alleyne has seen more than his share of change.
Alleyne, a Beach resident who turned 80 on Jan. 7, was one of the first local black musicians to take the stage in the clubs along Yonge Street, helping to break down barriers for countless others who followed.
Growing up in the Kensington Market area, the drummer got involved in music early in his life. It was, at the time, one of the few options open to young black men.
“Most people in (the black) community worked on the railroad and the only other job available was shining shoes on the corner,” he said.
“Jazz music was the only thing that was ours – the Duke Ellingtons and the Teddy Wilsons, that was our entertainment.”
Alleyne was disenfranchised from school, finding he did not relate to what was being taught in his classes at Lansdowne Public School where history classes focused on European explorers.
“When they did highlight African history, it was always people with a big plate in their mouth,” he said.
“I thought ‘I haven’t seen anyone like that at Spadina and Dundas.’ I learned to read and write and add two and two and said ‘I’m out of here.’”
Alleyne, who has called the Beach community home for more than 40 years, started working at a button factory but soon found his passion for jazz.
He got a gig at the Parkside Tavern and eventually wound up as the house drummer at both the Colonial Tavern and the Town Tavern.
“I would play at the Parkside Tavern from nine to one in the morning, get home by three and then get a little sleep before going back to work at the button factory,” he said. “After a while, I had to ask myself, ‘Archie, do you want to play drums or do you want to make buttons?’ Well, that was an easy one.”
He noted the first taverns to allow black musicians were typically owned by Jewish families, which helped pave the way for his entry.
“Kensington Market at the time was a big black and Jewish area,” Alleyne said.
“The Jewish families understood what my community was going through because they had to deal with some of the same things.”
Just because Alleyne and fellow black musician Sam McClain were able to break down the colour barrier and play in what had been traditionally “whites only” clubs, it did not mean an end to the segregation. For years afterward, Alleyne said he fielded calls from friends who wanted to come see him but were afraid they would be denied entry because of the colour of their skin.
“I told them to come down and just walk past the doorman,” he said.
“Don’t say anything, don’t look at him. By the time he realizes you’re black, you’ve already seen a set.”
As he has continued to play into his 80s, Alleyne has become an unofficial documentarian of Toronto’s black music scene.
His Syncopation: Life in the Key of Black series highlights the talents of black artists past and present with live music and photographic exhibits showcasing some of those who helped break new ground for those playing today.
“For the last 25 years or so, I’ve been collecting photos of these musicians from their families,” he said. “If I don’t collect this history, who will?”
Alleyne is constantly looking for opportunities to bring his Syncopation series on the road to other communities with large black populations, hoping to both share what he has uncovered and learn new details about the black music scene in areas such as Chatham and Owen Sound.
While he has played with many of music’s brightest lights, including Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, Nina Simone and Lester Young, his favourite moments came when touring West Africa in the 1980s.
“For me, it was a chance to see the heart of my community and go back and see my roots,” he said.
While music has been good to him, Alleyne is intent on giving back. He has started the Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund (www.aasf.ca), which provides scholarships and bursaries to young people looking to get into a career in music.
For his contributions to the music scene, Alleyne was named to the Order of Canada in 2011 and has earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Urban Music Association of Canada and a Toronto Arts Award among his many accolades.
Alleyne performs regularly with his ensemble Kollage (www.kollage.ca) and can be seen on stage at the Magic Oven at Queen and Parliament.
He will perform a special 80th birthday show on Saturday, Jan. 19. at the newly opened Paintbox Bistro at 555 Dundas St. E. to kick off the bistro’s new Season of Entertainment program, which will feature a seven-date jazz program with plans to expand the live entertainment on tap to include indie music, live comedy and more.
Alleyne will play alongside pianist Stacie McGregor, bassist Artie Roth, trumpeter Alexander Brown Cabrera and legendary vocalist Jackie Richardson beginning at 8 p.m.
To reserve tickets to the show, call 647-748-0555.