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A & E MUSIC | Forever Jackie

Forever Jackie

Local legend leaves a legacy oflove, life & laughter

By James Tennant

“He was a reflection of everything we flower children were trying to say,” says Bill Powell. “He reflected our attitude: ‘It’s a great life, let’s live it.’ Jackie epitomized that.”

Jackie Washington knew how to play over 1,300 songs. He could play guitar in ways you had never heard before, haunting one moment, full of joy the next. He could play the piano and sing with perfect pitch. Yet the sound people recall most is his laughter.

Jackie Washington left an enormous hole in Hamilton when he passed away this June. We no longer have his encyclopaedic knowledge of music, his amazing talent for performance or his big-hearted, gregarious laughter. “He had the most infectious laugh,” says former manager Bill Powell. “Ask anyone, do you remember Jackie Washington? The first or second thing they’ll say is they remember his laugh.”

Jackie – it seems too formal to call him by his surname – was born into the sprawling Washington family in 1919. The grandson of a runaway slave from Virginia, Jackie was surrounded by music almost from birth; everyone in the family, from siblings to aunts and uncles, played an instrument, sang, or banged on pots and pans. Music flowed, joyfully, like water or wine.

“Everybody in that family played music,” recalls Jackie’s nephew, Brian Griffith, who grew up to become a professional guitarist. “There was a lot of music – but only Jackie played the guitar. I was just drawn to him. I would sit at his feet and watch him play.”

Jackie began to perform at the age of five and for the next 84 years, he entertained crowds with piano, guitar and his voice – whether singing, telling stories or laughing out loud.

“His incarnations as a performer were numerous,” says Ken Whiteley, the musician and producer who recorded and toured with Jackie in recent years. “In the 1930s, he was one of the Washington Brothers, who were popular. They played policeman’s balls, I believe, and clubs and nightspots. They played up north in Waubaushene, until his brother died.”

After his older brother Ormsby’s tragic drowning at the northern Ontario resort, the Washington Brothers were no more. Still, Jackie barrelled through life with delight. He had two marriages, children and grandchildren. He worked as a train porter. He joined the army during WWII, but was given a medical discharge. He worked at the American Can plant on Emerald Street despite the unspoken colour barrier. He shined shoes at the racetrack, where he handicapped horses on the sly. And through it all, he played. He played, listened and watched. He went to clubs and watched his heroes – jazz greats, swing bands, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Glenn Miller. He met them, learned from them and in many cases got to know them (well enough that rumours persist to this day; but no, he never did play in Ellington’s band).

Learning chords from some of the era’s best musicians helped Jackie create a style that few could emulate. Jackie played uncommon chords and had the ability to reach around the neck and actually play strings with his thumb. “He virtually had six fingers on that hand because of that thumb,” Powell recalls. “He could play thirteenth chords, which made other people say ‘how the hell does he do that?’”

While many referred to Jackie as a blues singer, the title was never entirely accurate. As Mississippi John Hurt once noted, Jackie played the blues differently than some. He played an orchestrated blues, even though he played on a mere six strings. Of course, the way Jackie played, it was never a “mere” anything. He emulated the way blues sounded when played by Basie or Joe Williams. He added to that elements of swing, gospel, jazz, pop songs, and songs brought to Canada by his grandfather, songs sung by slaves hundreds of years before, now mostly lost in time.

Writer and friend James Strecker (who published two books of conversations with Jackie, including More Than A Blues Singer) recalls trying to stump the musician. That elephantine memory was too powerful. “I had the Smithsonian collection of big bands,” says Strecker. “I’d put on these obscure bands and say ‘Aha, who’s this?’ And he’d say ‘Well, Jim, that’s so-and-so… and on the clarinet is… and on second alto is…’ He’s naming every goddamn person in that band. I think I played 10 cuts and then I said, ‘Let’s not do this anymore.’”

Jackie’s memory astounded. He famously remembered the birthdays of almost anyone he ever met. He knew the numbers of the trains that would rumble through the north end train yards, even the name of the driver and the driver’s children (“No, it’s true,” Powell insists).

As Jackie remembered them, so did people remember Jackie. More so with every passing year.

After playing locally for decades, the name Jackie Washington finally began to spread during the 1960s, when he started performing on the coffee house scene. Powell booked him at the Ebony Knight, alongside artists such as Murray McLauchlan and Joni Mitchell. One might expect Jackie’s music to be an odd fit with that folkie scene, but it worked – and everyone around, including Mitchell, McLauchlan, Gordon Lightfoot and many others – took notice.

“He was a reflection of everything we flower children and hippies were trying to say,” says Powell. “He reflected our attitude: ‘It’s a great life, let’s live it.’ Jackie epitomized that.”

Audiences agreed. From the coffee house circuit, Jackie went on to entertain larger audiences at folk festivals around the province and, eventually, the country. He became a virtual institution at some festivals; Sudbury’s Northern Lights festival even named an award for him. “He was a connection to an earlier time and place and we valued that so much,” says Whiteley. “He made that come alive, very much in the present. He brought all of this experience to the present moment.”

Jackie’s first record, the independently released Blues and Sentimental, found him more fans and received extensive airplay on the CBC (Peter Gzowski himself was an enormous fan of both the man and his music). It was the beginning of an upward trajectory that could have seen him rocket onto the international stage. Success was relative for Jackie, though, and playing seemed reward enough for him. Powell remembers when Harry Belafonte offered to have Jackie open a tour for him – and Jackie turned it down.

“He said, ‘That’s a long time to be away from the family and all my friends and the village… tell ’em thank you very much but I don’t think so.’ He could have been an international legend. What can you do? You shrug your shoulders, think of a big ball of love rolling down the highway, and say ‘That’s Jackie.’”

Jackie continued to play almost until his death. In 1993, his album Where Old Friends Meet, with Whiteley and Mose Scarlett, was nominated for a Juno Award. Two years later, he was inducted into Hamilton's Gallery of Distinction. In 2002, Jackie was inducted into the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame. The City of Hamilton established the Jackie Washington Rotary Park, not far from his childhood stomping grounds in the north end, in 2004. Yet some might say his most incredible historical achievement came in 1948, when Jackie became the first black DJ in Canadian radio, spinning jazz on CHML.

From Jackie’s perspective, however, race was never an issue – at least not one that he would raise. It’s said he avoided the United States largely because of his thoughts on race relations in that country, but his colour was something he rarely talked about. He didn’t see colour, and so why should anyone else?

“Jackie grew up in a time when they were limited to where they could play,” says Griffith. “By the time I came along, all that was gone; I seemed to be able to play everywhere. But that’s because of the people that moved before me.”

Racial issues were not the only difficulties Jackie faced. His life was filled with dips and curves. His health was notoriously poor; he was diagnosed with diabetes, which eventually claimed one of his legs and the vision in one eye. Yet his spirits were always high. If there were dark moments, if there was bitterness, it was all fleeting, shrugged off with a good-natured laugh and another song.

“Jack was an inspiration,” Whiteley recalls. “Just the love that he brought to the music. Musicians who were inspired by him – the music they make is nothing like what Jack plays and yet he was inspiring to them, just to have someone there doing it at 89.”

Tom Wilson, Tim Gibbons, Willie P. Bennett, Fred Eaglesmith, Paul Langille, Dave Rave and countless others count among those whose music may not sound like Jackie’s, but who loved and learned from the man nonetheless. Jackie’s lessons were always about much more than simply how to play a beautiful chord progression.

“He was telling us it’s bigger than us,” says Griffith. “That your music is not separate from your life.” For Jackie, music was life and life was music. If he was in your living room and a guitar was nearby, a conversation morphed into a concert and back again with ease. “There was that kind of continuum,” says Strecker. “Where the man is the artist is the man.”

Yet somehow, music was never the only thing in Jackie’s life. If there was one thing he loved more than music, it was people – so much, in fact, that on a recent birthday, Jackie gathered together with friends, family and fans on a stage in downtown Hamilton and proceeded to not play music. Strecker interviewed Jackie and Jackie told stories as people lined up to speak with the musical legend.

“As I recall, nobody played any music,” says Griffith, recalling the day. “We just sat around and listened to Jack tell stories. It reminded me of being seven years old, doing exactly what I did then, sitting at his feet listening to him.”

Hamilton sat at Jackie’s feet and listened for over eight decades. His was a rare talent, but even more extraordinary was his good nature, his storytelling and that unforgettable laugh. More than a blues singer, indeed. We are richer for having had him, and his loss will be felt for years to come.

“His talent was immense, but you took it for granted,” says Strecker. “It’s like having one of the pyramids in your hometown – sometimes you say ‘Wow,’ but sometimes you just walk by it and go, ‘Oh yeah, there’s the pyramid.’ Jackie was always there, like the public library or the farmers’ market. But he’s not there now. And that’s the bummer.”