New Year’s Eve was always a fairly big deal in the Paley household.
Ron Paley, the longtime leader of a 22-piece jazz ensemble that carries his name, guesses he was five years old when his parents Walter and Ann first coaxed him and his two sisters to stay up with them until midnight, to sing along with Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, playing on a living room radio.
Paley, 71, continued to circle Dec. 31 on the calendar right up until 2018, which, as it turns out, was the last time the Ron Paley Big Band rang in the new year in style, for a packed dance floor at the RBC Convention Centre.
"I can’t remember specifically but yes, I’m almost certain this current stretch — three years and counting — is, by far, the longest I’ve ever gone without playing somewhere on New Year’s Eve, going all the way back to my university days," he says, seated in the St. Vital abode he shares with his wife Qiuyan and their son Philip.
"Having said that, this is a very interesting time to be alive, with all that’s going on in the world," he goes on, noting that owing to COVID, he hasn’t even been able to practise with his band mates in what now feels like forever.
"My wish is, No. 1, that everybody gets through this safely; No. 2, that we learn from it; and No. 3, that we help others with what we’ve learned. Hopefully, getting the opportunity to play music for a live audience again will be my small way of helping, when this is all over."
Paley grew up in a home on Burrows Avenue, in Winnipeg’s North End. His father was a travelling salesman who played music professionally on the side. It was through his dad that he picked up the accordion, at an early age. (Give him a sec and he’ll find a black-and-white video on his phone of himself performing Dance of the Comedians on a locally-televised talent show when he was still in grade school.)
Paley switched from accordion to electric bass at age 13, after he spotted a Fender Precision bass — the lone guitar he owns to this day — hanging on the wall of a local music store. Before long he was fronting a unit dubbed Ron Paley and the Tempos, which performed cover versions of popular radio hits at legions, church halls and community clubs across town for $20 a pop, split five ways.
By the time he was attending Sisler High School, where he played clarinet in the school band, he had made up his mind to pursue music as a career. He chuckles, citing a menial, part-time job "building something or another" as his primary motivation.
"I didn’t do it for long, but I found it so boring that I promised myself I didn’t care what I had to do, or how much effort I’d have to put in to become a musician. All I knew was, I wasn’t cut out for working nine-to-five."
Paley studied piano at the University of Manitoba from 1967 to 1971. During his final year there, a guest instructor at a music camp he’d been invited to pulled him aside to compliment him on his skill and encourage him to apply to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, a much-heralded, private academy that has turned out the likes of Grammy Award-winning producer Quincy Jones, Steely Dan mastermind Donald Fagen and soul singer Patti Labelle.
"I sent them a tape and, much to my surprise, I was accepted," he says. "Boston is such a great city and living there was an absolutely amazing experience. There were two jazz clubs fairly close to school — Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop — I frequented quite often and my God, how I wish I’d kept a journal of all the outstanding musicians I saw play there."
Paley, who lived in a studio apartment a 45-minute walk away from campus, intended to study at Berklee for three years, but left after just one. He had a good excuse. One evening, while sitting in with a teacher-run jazz outfit that regularly held court at Boston’s Hotel Commonwealth, he was recruited to play bass for a touring band led by Buddy Rich, one of the most influential and innovative drummers of all time. (Five years ago, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Rich, who died in 1987 at age 69, No. 15 in a list of the 100 greatest drummers.)
Playing alongside Rich afforded Paley the opportunity to travel extensively. In addition to points throughout North America, the Buddy Rich Big Band also toured England and Australia, with Paley in the fold.
Following his tenure with Rich, Paley joined a big band led by another legend, Woody Herman, whose 1939 recording of Woodchopper’s Ball sold more than five million copies in the U.S. alone. Admitting it’s difficult to pick one highlight from his stints with either of the two, Paley ultimately chooses "that time" the Herman band shared a stage with Ol’ Blue Eyes, himself.
"I was playing electric bass with Woody Herman’s big band when we were booked to play for a month in different cities with Frank Sinatra, to record The Main Event (1974) album," he says. "Sinatra had his own pianist, acoustic bass player and drummer, however he wanted electric bass for one song during every show, a tune called Let Me Try Again. For the rest of the show while I was not playing, I was able to sit in the middle of the orchestra: to listen, to learn and to watch… Frank Sinatra."
Paley eventually grew tired of living out of a suitcase. He moved back to Winnipeg in 1976 and recorded his debut album, which he titled Boxton as a nod to his stretch in Massachusetts, the following year. The independent project was well-received ("Yes, it is straight ahead jazz. Yes, it is blues. Yes it swings, it rocks…" read the liner notes) but by the time of its release, he was already laying the groundwork for what would ultimately become the Ron Paley Big Band.
Recruiting capable players wasn’t overly difficult. Manitoba has always been a hotbed for talent, Paley says, so within a couple months he had assembled a full ensemble. Finding a suitable venue for a group of that magnitude to play, however, was something else, entirely.
From time to time Paley had performed at the Norwood Hotel as part of a trio, just piano, bass and drums. One day he approached Bob Sparrow, the inn’s owner, to ask if he’d be amenable to allowing the big band to play there. One Saturday afternoon set led to another, then to another. When all was said and done, the Ron Paley Big Band appeared at the "Wood" every Saturday, barring major holidays, from 1981 to 1985, serving up everything from jazz standards such as In the Mood and One O’Clock Jump to more contemporary numbers such as Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke. (Trust us, you’ve never really heard Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven until you’ve heard it done with a massive horn section.)
While Paley credits Sparrow for putting the big band on the map, by granting it a place to hone its chops on a regular basis, Sparrow maintains their association was definitely a win-win.
"Back in the ’80s we owned a recording studio where our parking lot now is, and for a long time, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra rehearsed there Saturday mornings," says Sparrow. "By noon, when they were done, all the musicians would pour in here to watch Paley and the big band go to work."
Sparrow chuckles, noting capacity in the room the big band played was 200, which meant a little over 10 per cent of that was gobbled up by those on stage. "Initially, none of us was sure how an orchestra that big was going to come across in a room that size, whether they were going to blow the roof off the joint or what," he says. "The sound turned out to be excellent, mind you, and I rarely missed a performance myself."
Sparrow hasn’t spoken with Paley in a while, but there was an occasion recently when he spotted him from afar, and was reminded of what he’s always felt was one of Paley’s finest attributes.
"One thing I’ve always admired about Ron is his genuine love for music," he says. "Not too long ago a small jazz band was playing at Inn at the Forks, which we also own. Ron was on his own, standing by the wall, and was absolutely immersed in every single note. It didn’t matter at all that he wasn’t up there himself; he just seemed so tuned into the music."
Janice Finlay, the current president of the Music Professionals of Manitoba union, is a longtime member of the Ron Paley Big Band. She was a Grade 12 student at Silver Heights Collegiate, where the Ron Paley Big Band almost always rehearsed ahead of gigs, when she heard Paley and his entourage for the first time.
"Lots of times when he was rehearsing, he’d ask (music) students who were hanging around after class if they wanted to sit in with him and the band," says Finlay, an accomplished saxophonist who teaches at the Winnipeg Conservatory of Music, and at the Manitoba Conservatory of Music & Arts. "He always reminds me that’s how he ‘discovered’ me, when he heard me practising something by Benny Goodman on my sax, outside the rehearsal hall."
Finlay, who successfully auditioned for Paley’s big band in the early ’80s, and has been a member off and on ever since (she left for four years to study music at McGill University from 1987 to 1991), credits Paley for teaching her "the etiquette of being part of a big, musical group."
"Ron was never the sort of band leader who would put his foot down, saying you have to play a song a certain way, even if it was one of his own compositions," she says. "He would present it to the band as a whole and if somebody had a better idea for an arrangement, he would not only adopt it, but totally embrace it."
Finlay was part of the proceedings the last time the big band played on New Year’s Eve. She definitely misses the opportunity to play for a packed house, but she misses the camaraderie that goes hand-in-hand with belonging to a closely-knit orchestra even more.
"We, literally, haven’t had a single rehearsal since March 2020, when COVID started," she says, noting if it hadn’t been for Paley, she likely wouldn’t have been afforded the chance to work with legendary musicians such as Wayne Newton and Frank Foster, both of whom enlisted Paley’s big band to back them up when they appeared in Winnipeg.
"The nice thing is, Ron has been amazing about reaching out and making sure we’re all doing OK. Every so often the phone will ring and it will be him, not necessarily asking about what I’m up to music-wise, but just about life, in general."
U of M professor Richard Gillis, another alumnus, describes Paley as "one of Winnipeg’s real treasures."
"Ron has given dozens of musicians an opportunity to play, and kept big band (music) alive in Winnipeg for many years," he says. "There are a lot of Winnipeg jazz musicians who depended on income from Ron’s big band gigs. I remember the line of vocalists — sometimes eight or 10 — waiting for their chance to sing, and I also remember the lineup in front of Ron after the show, as he wrote each cheque out. I could never figure out how he could to afford to pay all the musicians he employed."
More importantly, Gillis, who is also the artistic director for the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra, says every musician, young and old, can take a lesson from how Paley has conducted himself during a career spanning five decades.
"Not every city has the kind of band leader Ron has been, and the local scene reflects his influence. He’s never been competitive or unkind, and has kept himself busy with writing and performing."
Paley hasn’t performed live in nearly two years, that’s true — the last gig he recalls was at a restaurant in St. Boniface, when he accompanied singer Jennifer Hanson on piano — but that doesn’t mean he’s been sitting at home, twiddling his thumbs; far from it.
He’s pleased to report that he wakes up almost every morning with a fresh melody dancing around in his head, which he immediately records on his iPhone with the aid of his trusted Steinway piano or enters note-by note into his computer. He has pages and pages of snippets of what he hopes will become fully-developed songs down the road, enough for a few more albums, at least.
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Also, if things are able to return to "semi-normal" in 2022, he is slated to arrange the music and orchestration for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s May presentation of A Cinderella Story, which would mark the fourth time he’s worked with the RWB on that particular production.
As well, he’s never stopped hoping that Bring ’Em Back, a Broadway-style musical revolving around the big-band era "when swing was king" that he started working on more than 30 years ago, will find its way to the stage one day.
"All I need to do is find the right producer and possibly someone to hone my script — you can always make something better, right? — and we’ll be good to go. That would be a great way to come out of COVID, to go see a feel-good show like that, don’t you think?"
Before we let him go, we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask about his New Year’s Eve plans; specifically, whether he intends to stay up until midnight to welcome 2022 with his wife and son. That’s the goal, he replies. Just don’t expect him to break out into song when the clock strikes 12.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot…" he talk-sings. "This might sound funny to hear, given I’ve played it so often, but that’s about the only line from that song I know."
Ron Paley has been involved in dozens of recording projects, either as a solo artist, band leader or guest musician. Since playlists are all the rage these days, we pieced together a countdown of what we feel are 10 essential Paley cuts, which we’ve listed in chronological order. (Ask us again tomorrow, and it will probably be a different lineup, entirely)
1. Let Me Try Again, 1974 (from Frank Sinatra’s The Main Event, featuring Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd)
2. Jazzman, 1975 (from Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd’s King Cobra)
3. Blues for Ol’ Ed, 1977 (from Paley’s Boxton)
4. Tight Ain’t It, 1981 (from the University of Regina Jazz Band’s Montreux Again)
5. A Hunk A’ Funk, 1986 (from Paley’s Big Band Jazz Rocks and Swings)
6. Memory/Send in the Clowns, 1987 (from the Ron Paley Big Band’s The Big Band Dance Album)
7. Jumpin’ at the Woodside, 2002 (from Live at the Jazz Winnipeg Festival Vol. 1)
8. Jingle Bells, 2008 (from the Winnipeg Singers’ Swingle Bells)
9. Millennium Jump, 2012 (from the Ron Paley Big Band’s Bring ’Em Back)
10. U of M, 2018 (from Paley’s The More You Know)
— David Sanderson
Updated on Friday, December 31, 2021 at 3:16 PM CST: Corrects typo