Disciple and friend of Oscar Peterson, Oliver Jones' career as a jazz musician peaked later in life. Gifted with amazing technique, he first mastered classical music before moving on to a wider variety of musical genres. He fostered a growing affinity for jazz in the 1980s when he signed with the Justin Time label and started making concert appearances all over the world.
Born on September 11, 1934 to Barbadian parents, Oliver Theophilus Jones grew up in the same Montreal neighbourhood as Oscar Peterson, where he also studied classical piano with Oscar's sister, Daisy, as a youngster.
A child prodigy, Jones began playing the piano at two and a half years old. He gave his debut performance at the age of 5 at the Union United Church in Montreal. By the time he was 9, Jones was hitting the stage on a regular basis. As he grew up, he continued to pursue his music studies in theory and composition, all the while prowling the clubs and bars in the area.
Jones worked like this for years, getting club dates and making a living out of chart hits before setting sail for Puerto Rico in the early 1960s, where he became musical director of the Kenny Hamilton Show Band.
He stayed there for about 15 years, doing tours of the U.S. and Europe. This experience and exposure to concerts sparked his initial interest in jazz, giving him the chance to meet - and play with - other musicians from the States.
Return to Montreal
His career soared to new heights in the 1980s once he settled back in Montreal. He was handed a golden opportunity by the jazz world and he seized it. In 1981, bassist Charlie Biddle made him the house piano player in his club. The friendly banter between the piano and the bass delighted their audiences, making his name on the jazz scene in Montreal.
In the same year, the pianist made his first appearance at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. He would return almost every year afterwards, taking part in opening and closing festivities on several occasions.
For essential listening in the Oliver Jones discography, check out the material he recorded on the Justin Time label. In 1983, his album, Live at Biddle's, recorded with Charlie Biddle on bass and Bernard Primeau on drums, was Jones' first attempt at a trio format. This would later become a winning formula and his preferred ensemble size. His first solo recording, The Many Moods of Oliver, was released the following year.
1995 ended on high note with the release of Light of Burgundy, which was well received by the critics and public alike. He dazzled audiences with material from that album as part of the Piano Plus series featured at the Festival that year.
Oliver Jones is considered an improviser who is very at ease in his art, playing with a sober, appealing approach that harks back to the swing era and bop era harmonies. He expanded his trio format and moved up to a quartet, playing with saxophonist Fraser McPherson, a disciple of the Lester Young school, guitarist Oliver Gannon and bassist Michel Donato.
On the Road
In the mid 1980s, the pianist started racking up the Air Miles as his numerous tours took him on the road all over Canada, the U.S., Europe and Australia, demonstrating he could be as prolific onstage as in the studio.
His international success could easily be attributed to his incredible talent, not to mention the patience, hard work and relentless determination that helped him earn his rightful place among the heavyweights of jazz.
In 1988, he was the headline act at the Justin Time gala organized by the Festival. The following year, he was recognized with the honour of playing with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, along with artistic director, Charles Dutoit. The same maestro would later hand him the Oscar Peterson Award, only twelve months later at the Place des Arts.
Amsterdam, New York, Copenhagen, Sydney have all welcomed Mr. Jones with open arms, showering him with honours and accolades generally reserved for the major contenders in jazz. Some call him the Ivory Lion, delivering his flamboyant swing sound to audiences everywhere, built on his powerful technique that is sensitive yet uplifting at the same time.
Showcasing local talent
Upon his return to the Festival he invited some of his friends to help celebrate the local flavours of jazz. Once he put the word out on the street, many heeded the call, including the Vic Vogel Big Band, and the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir. He wanted to showcase the diversity of the local music scene and offer the public a taste of what is available out there. The choral concert, part of the festivities for Montreal's 350th Anniversary, was also the closing event that year, and will surely go down in history as a special musical event for the city and for the Festival.
Among the many achievements he accomplished throughout the 1990s, one of the most noteworthy was the release of his second album, Just 88 in 1993. It featured the compositions, Blues for Laurentian U and Dizzy-Nest, landing him a Félix award. He followed that album up with From Lush to Lively in 1995, a big band recording. In 1997, he released another trio album, Have Fingers, Will Travel, recorded with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jeff Hamilton at the legendary Capitol Studios in Los Angeles.
He went into semi-retirement, but this didn't stop him from agreeing to appear at the Festival in 1999 as part of the Invitation series, where Jones got top billing, playing four nights in a row. One night, he gave a solo performance and then he played with Stephen Barry, Herb Ellis as well as Angèle Dubeau and La Pietà.
Retirement? Who said anything about retirement?
Oliver Jones announced his official retirement in the year 2000. It seems, however, that the pianist simply couldn't resist returning to the music scene.
In 2004, Oliver Jones was joined onstage by none other than his dear old friend, Oscar Peterson, in an unforgettable concert that was the main closing event and the highlight of the Festival-definitely another one for the history books.
The following year found Jones joining forces with Montreal singer Ranee Lee, who had talked him out of retirement in 2000, to record the album called Just You, Just Me. He also found himself making his way to the stage once more to play a few tunes as part of the Festival program.
In spring 2008, he kept himself busy launching a new album, Second Time Around, and accepting an invitation to play at the Festival with a fellow pianist named Jones, Hank Jones, to be more precise.
In 2011, Jones returned to the Festival to pay tribute to his late friend and mentor Oscar Peterson. The following year, he played a concert showcasing pieces from his own repertoire.
2013 saw the release of the album Just for My Lady.