Friends of Hugh Oliver
photo by paul, december 2011

On the occasional Friday afternoon between 5 and 7 during 2011 I would drop into the Southern Cross Lounge at the TRANZAC (Toronto Australia/New Zealand Club) and take in some trad and mainstream jazz played by a group of ex-OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) professors who go by the name of The Foolish Things. During the band’s 2nd set, Hugh Oliver and Annette Shaffer would get up and sing some standards.

Sometimes this weekly event would take a different turn. When pivotal band members couldn’t make it, Annette and Hugh would do short solo sets, singing and accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars. I would do likewise, Geordie Wilson would too, as would the occasional dropper-in to this extremely sparsely attended event. In November 2012 The Foolish Things (minus vocalists) decamped to another venue, leaving Annette and Hugh to fill the Friday 5-7 slot every 7 days.

Around this time Marco DeFelice was making a colossal effort to produce a documentary about Mr Oliver, ‘The Ballad of Hugh’, accompanied by ‘…And All That Crap’, a soundtrack of sorts, which followed the 4 or 5 previous Hugh albums arranged and produced by Michael ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal.

When Hugh had a stroke in January 2013 it was hard to see the event continuing. It seemed to have run its course. Once I turned up and Annette was strumming some chords alone in a corner. The fantastic barmaid Chrissie also upped sticks.

Then, with the help of nurses, loved ones and the noble exertions of Marco and Rosie the now 84-year old Hugh started to make a comeback, doing short sets in his wheelchair accompanied by the afore-mentioned heroes plus me on piano. On these occasions the attendance would swell, old friends return. Furthermore, the open stage proper, now being advertised as ‘Friends of Hugh Oliver’, was gathering momentum.

Through the persistence and enthusiasm of Annette and the hospitality of the Tranzac (including new barman Tom) new faces like Wayne Neon, Brian Pickard and Catherine Phillips have appeared and others have dropped in, associated with the open stage at Dave’s on St Clair and the country/folk based ‘Jamzac’, run by Josie Miner on Saturdays.

I turned up once after a long trip to the UK and realized I did know and like a few people in this town after all. On one occasion in August I counted 6 people on stage when the show was only 5 minutes old. In earlier times we would have had at least half an hour of Annette’s great alt-country stylings before anyone else sidled up to the mic. The old Friday afternoon trad jazz workout has metamorphosized, first into a lonely singer-songwriter space and then into a multi-instrumental folk bash.

Last month I looked up from the piano and the place was packed. It was Hugh’s 85th birthday the next day and we were once again pulling him through some renditions of songs featured on the ‘…And All That Crap’ CD. Athanasia Pallas – who assisted Hugh on the excellent double CD recitation of his long poem ‘A Fog of Grey Voices’ – had baked a guitar-shaped birthday cake and organized a nice little gathering in the other room.

Annette tells me that the Friday 5-7 slot had been occupied by The Foolish Things since before 2000, that being a creature of habit has kept her singing, playing and hosting all this time and that this experience makes her feel ‘wholesome’. Credit to her for keeping the faith and uniting the friends – whether they know it or not – of Hugh Oliver.

A previous post featuring Hugh

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