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There was a time from the 1920s to the late 50s when jazz wasn’t just a kind of music for some Montrealers, but a way of life.

That was especially true for the musicians themselves, including Normal Marshall Villeneuve, now a witness to the city’s bygone musical past.

“I got a call from a gentleman named Roy Francis — he was a piano player at the Arcade Hotel on Windsor street just north of St-Antoine,” explains Villeneuve, during a conversation inside Upstairs jazz bar on Mackay St. earlier this month.

“Ended up staying at that restaurant six nights a week.”

The Arcade is, of course, long gone, along with other legendary nightclubs like the Alberta Lounge, which was further up the street.

Villeneuve grew up in Montreal’s southwest and quickly made a name for himself on the Black jazz club scene, located in a neighbourhood that, at the time, was called Little St-Antoine, where it seemed there was a venue on every corner.

“The café St-Michel became the Harlem paradise. Then they changed and that was another venue,” said Keith Palmer O’Neil, who was a regular featured drummer on the club scene.

“Then, we had the Black Bottom, which was 70 metres from Rockhead’s Paradise on St-Antoine. We had major names, Dizzy Gillespie, when they came to Montreal.”

Little St-Antoine would eventually become known as Little Burgundy, home to many of Canada’s Black railway porters, who earned a meagre living and faced rampant discrimination, but fought to change some of Canada’s biggest-picture inequalities, including its white-centred immigration system.

“My brother, Doug, he was a porter… my foster father, he was a porter also,” recalled Villeneuve of his youth.

But despite the hardships they faced, it was still better than living south of the border, said historian Dorothy Williams.

“Canada portrayed itself as being morally superior to the United States in many different ways, so that’s a lesson Blacks had taken,” said Dr. Williams, who researched extensively the history of African-Canadians.

“Canada certainly did a great selling job. People literally thought the streets were paved with gold.”

Still, even here, Black artists who could play in Montreal’s white clubs were often denied entry as patrons.

“The expectation was that Blacks were behind and could not move in the same circles,” said Dr. Williams.

Despite the odds being so stacked against them, however, many Black artists flourished.

“What I found made a difference is we were in an area where we were smothered by our people,” said Villeneuve.

And colour lines that divided the rest of society certainly didn’t prevent him from taking a young white drummer, Keith Palmer O’Neil, who had showed an eagerness to discover jazz as played by the legends of the day.

“I started playing gigs here and there,” said O’Neil.

“Then [Norman and I] just connected, and that was it. And then he started working at Rockhead’s, then I was getting gigs, because I’d finish at maybe 2:00, Rockhead would close at 2:00, so we’d head there and jam until 3:00.”

Those jam sessions, he said, brought talented and diverse musicians close together.

The early pioneers included Daisy Peterson, who taught her younger brother, Oscar Peterson, to play the piano. A few years later, another local boy would be awed and inspired by Peterson’s brilliance.

“I remember being in the back and walked up to the front of the United church. I sat down, and he had such a command over the piano,” Jones told CTV News in 2019.

A THREE-FLOOR HOT SPOT

In 1931, a young Jamaican immigrant and railroad porter named Rufus Rockhead opened Rockhead’s Paradise on St-Antoine at the corner of De La Montagne. And big international acts took to the stage every week.

“You had so many musicians playing Rockhead’s,” Villeneuve said. “I was fortunate that I came up at a good time.”

The Rockhead’s Paradise had three floors and a very flamboyant owner.

“He would greet women with a flower every night. To get in you had to go by him. ‘Good evening, young man,’” said O’Neil, imitating Rockhead’s distinctive voice.

But Villeneuve said that Rufus Rockhead was also a serious and demanding boss.

“Every second Sunday at 12 o’clock you had to be upstairs at the Rockhead’s on the bandstand. ‘Don’t come late or you’d have to buy somebody something,’” he recalled him saying.

By the 1960s, jazz was no longer divided along colour lines in downtown clubs like the Esquire Showbar, the Casa Loma, or Chez Maurice, but the jazz scene was also slowly faltering.

Rock and roll was taking over. Recorded music was taking the place of live bands and the city administration put immense pressure on the many clubs owned by the underworld.

Former mayor “[Jean] Drapeau, he passed the anti-mingling law and ruined everything” recalled O’Neil, with bitterness. “There was no more making a living as a musician.”

A handful of jazz clubs remain in Montreal, including the Upstairs on MacKay Street, which carry the flame of the city’s musical golden era.

Today, the legends of Little Burgundy are remembered with street names and murals honouring their impact and achievements as the music lives on.  

This content was originally published here.

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