The funny thing is, that in some circles, Archie Alleyne is known as a restaurateur. For instance, ask any American who has spent at least one summer in Toronto, and he’ll probably mention the Underground Railroad, the soul food restaurant that Alleyne owned for more than twelve years.
But Archie Alleyne is a drummer. A seasoned jazz musician whose career began more than thirty years ago, he has worked with Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday, and Lester Young. Today, after an eleven-year absence from the music business, Alleyne is back, vowing that this time he is a drummer first, last, and always.
KB: You are indeed a rare animal; a black Canadian jazz musician.
AA: I guess I am at that. There aren’t a whole lot of us around, but we do exist.
KB: You’re from Toronto?
AA: Yes. Born here in 1933, and lived here all my life. Both of my parents were born in Canada, although my mother was of English descent, and my father, Bajan. My grandmother came to Toronto at the age of 17 to work as a domestic.
KB: When did you first become interested in music?
AA: As far back as I can remember, music was always a part of our household. My father was a railroad porter, and was off travelling most days. I used to spend a lot of time with my grandmother and aunt, and there was always music on the radio, or a record on the phonograph. I was raised listening to jazz: Duke, Billie Holidav. Parker. Miles and so on.
KB: When did you start playing?
AA: It’s got to be 30 years now. I had my first professional job when I was nineteen. Before then I worked a number of factory jobs, because it was the only type of work I could get. I quit school after the 7th grade because I couldn’t get into it. Reading and arithmetic bored me. A lot of times after I’d leave work, I’d hang out with the guys. A lot of them were into music through the church, and we’d all meet in somebody’s basement for a jam session. Back in those days, if you couldn’t make it in school, you were expected to learn a trade. So for a while there, I enrolled in carpentry school at night. On the way home from a jam session, I’d get a piece of wood or something to make it look like I’d been to class.
I started out playing the piano, and from there I went to the trumpet. I liked both, but I thought it would take too long to master either of them, and I was impatient to get started playing right away. I thought it would be easier to play the drums.
KB: Did you have any formal training?
AA: I had a few rudimentary lessons, maybe four or five, but that was it. Jack McQuade, a drummer, and one of the original owners of the Long & McQuade music stores, used to come by the house once a week to give me lessons. But that didn’t last too long. I really didn’t need the lessons. I just knew what to do. In fact, I had my first professional job less than six months after I decided to start playing.
KB: Do you still feel that playing the drums is easier than perhaps another instrument?
AA: No way. Drums, like everything else, involves putting in a lot of time and practice if you want to do it well. It’s just that drums are my thing. For me it comes easier than it does to some people. I’m not sure what it is, but I can just feel the way it’s supposed to sound.
KB: Do you read music?
AA: I read, but not nearly as well as I should. Again, I have difficulty retaining anything of that type, so my education in that area is very limited.
KB: Have you ever found that to be a hindrance to your career?
AA: Of course. There are so many outlets of work available for the drummer: jingles, studio work, big band, symphonies, etc. The majority of those jobs require that you be able to do something as basic as reading a chart. I lost out on a lot of jobs because I didn’t read fast enough. Mind you, I’ve had my share of work. During the late ’50s and through the ’60s, I was the busiest jazz drummer in Toronto. I’ve done a lot of studio work. I’ve done jingles, and I worked with big bands. But I could have spread out a lot more and been more diversified in my playing had I been able to read.
KB: In a recent interview, a fellow musician referred to you as a “listening” drummer. Can you explain this?
AA: A drummer’s role is a complementing role. It’s our job not to get in the way. You’re not playing by, or for, yourself. You have to listen to the other musicians, and assist rather than overshadow.
Let me tell you a story. This goes back to the late ’50s, when the Pres [Lester Young] was playing at the Towne Tavern. Usually, when a musician came into the Towne, we’d have rehearsals, but the Pres didn’t rehearse. He came in, played his tunes, and that was it. Well, this is the first set of the first night. We get up on the bandstand, and I’m dying inside. “Hey, this is Lester Young! I used to listen to him when I was a kid. So this is my big opportunity. Right?” So he counts in the tune, and right away I’m banging, splashing, flashing, and lickety- splitting all over the place. After one of his solos, he sashays over to me and whispers, “Hey, Arch, just give me a little linktie boom.”
That was good for me. From then on I settled down, I played easy, and I accompanied him. The music sounded good and the coloring was nice. Whenever anyone else came in, I played for them; not for me.
KB: So the Towne Tavern was your schoolroom.
AA: Yeah, it was. Musicians today are so well schooled that they don’t make mistakes. We used to do our rehearsing right on the gig, where we’d be making all kinds of goofs. But there was a spontaneity that just doesn’t happen anymore. I was house drummer at the Towne Tavern for 13 years. I took the first local jazz rhythm section into the Towne, and after that, they got right into it. Bud Freeman, Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Carmen McRae, Teddy Wilson—these are just some of the people who taught me how to be a musician. It was a hell of an experience working with giants like Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins.
In 1958, we played with Billie Holiday. After the engagement her manager gave us each an extra $35. That was a lot of money then, and it was the first time anybody ever did anything like that.
KB: Why do you suppose it’s so difficult for a musician to make it in Canada?
AA: Canada, and particularly Toronto, does not support local talent. There just aren’t enough outlets in Canada for the Canadian musicians to express themselves, and most of the time they’re passed over for an American in town. During the ’50s and ’60s there were at least after-hours joints you could play in, but today, even those have dried up. We’re so close to the United States that we’re influenced by everything that happens there. So strongly influenced, that the club owners and agents here are reluctant to go with our own. I guess a part of it too, is that New York is just the capital of the arts. If you don’t make it there, particularly in jazz, you don’t make it anywhere.
KB: So why didn’t you go?
AA: I did. I’ve worked a few clubs in the States: The Blue Note in Chicago, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit; we even did a week in Birdland. But the States was too heavy for me. I couldn’t handle it.
KB: Too “heavy” in what way?
AA: The color thing. You have to remember, when I was in the States, the Civil Rights Movement was in its very early stages. I’d go into a barbershop, and they’d refuse to cut my hair because my skin was black. The motels where the white musicians stayed would turn me away. I just couldn’t deal with that. I mean, sure, we had prejudice in Canada, but it wasn’t as open or direct. And maybe because I was on home ground, I was better equipped to handle it. But in any case, I limited my travel to the States as much as possible.
Had I spent more time in New York, or gone there to live for a while, I probably would have been more successful. But I was busy at home. I always had work, so I didn’t feel the pressure that some of the other musicians felt to “make it” in New York.
KB: When did you leave the music business?
AA: Ironically, because the music business wasn’t secure enough. I had a family to support, and I had to think of them first. It’s a hard decision to make, but when you’ve got to put food on the table for four kids, you have to get your priorities straight. So when my partners approached me—partially because of the following I had as a musician—I jumped at the chance for a little security.
KB: But why give up your playing? Why didn’t you continue with your music when you weren’t at the restaurant, or better yet, introduce jazz to the Underground?
AA: If you’ve been to the Underground Railroad, then you know that it’s not a good room for jazz. It’s split into sections that just wouldn’t be right for the sound. I did try to do both. The Underground opened in 1968, and I didn’t completely give up my playing until two years later. The hours were conflicting. Too many times I’d book a gig, and then realize I was needed at the restaurant at the same time. It wasn’t easy trying to split myself in two.
KB: So you gave up the music. Do you regret that?
AA: Sure, in some ways. But in many others, I don’t. I know I did what I had to do at that time. I did what was right for then. And I learned a lot from being involved in the restaurant business: the hours are basi cally the same as a musician’s, you’re out there among the people, and it’s another form of entertainment—this time appeal ing to the sense of taste, rather than hearing. In the restaurant business you provide a service. During the time I was away, I was able to observe the music world without being too closely involved, and I realized that we provide a service in the music business as well. When I was younger, I used to be a staunch jazz musician. I wouldn’t listen to anything else, I wouldn’t venture beyond what I liked, and I virtually ignored the audience. But you can’t do that. Jazz music is a very personal music, and if it’s going to be presented publicly, I think we should offer just a little more than our personal expression. Just as presentation is important in the restaurant business, I think it’s important to the music business.
The restaurant helped me to become just a little more business oriented, which I think you have to be in order to survive. I think I learned a better rapport with the general public. My theory is, that if we’re playing in a club, that clubowner is paying us to keep the customer happy. In effect, those customers are paying us. So I don’t feel that it’s prostituting my music or my principles to give people what they want to hear.
It also gave me insight into the problems the clubowners are facing. Prices on every thing are constantly going up. The overhead has become so high that a lot of clubs can’t make it. The Underground Railroad was just one casualty among many. Last year we went into receivership. The partnership was dissolved, and the business regained by one of my partners.
I miss the restaurant business now that I’m away from it. I’ve learned to have a great deal of respect for whatever I do, and I did that well. But it’s music that makes me happy, and I was never really happy away from it.
KB: You’ve been away 11 years. Do you feel you’re playing as well as you did 30 years ago?
AA: I think I’m playing better. My technique has matured, and I find it easier to control. Twenty years ago I was playing every day—day and night. I didn’t even think about my playing—I just did it. Now my attitudes have changed. I’m not out to challenge or outplay other drummers. I just want to make good sounds.
KB: So many writers have commented on your brushwork, that one interviewer asked if you didn’t tire of playing 4/4 on brushes night after night. Do you?
AA: The proper use of brushes is an art, and there aren’t a whole lot of drummers who use them. Basically it’s the bebop drummers who know how and when to use their brushes, and there aren’t many of them. I think my training came from backing so many vocalists. When you’re playing behind a vocalist, you can’t drown them out. But in addition to that, the sound systems years ago were rotten. The speakers rarely worked, and were usually hidden somewhere where they wouldn’t interfere with the decor. The bandstand was usually the last thing added in any club design, and most of the time, with the cheapest materials available. If you were making a lot of noise with your sticks, you couldn’t hear anything. You learned to appreciate the quiet rhythm of the brushes.
KB: Have you taught at all?
AA: I’ve had a few students; mostly young drummers that have been into rock, and want to learn some jazz techniques. They usually have drums, and all kinds of cymbals, but they can’t play 4/4. With brush work, they’re totally lost. It’s nice to see students you’ve been working with starting to tune their drums, and getting rid of some of the pads and stuff.
KB: You bought a new set of drums recently.
AA: My other set was nearly 26 years old. The new set looks good on stage. I also added a Roto-Tom, wind chimes, and triangle, for musical effect. And of course, I have my cymbals. My ride cymbal is 30 years old. It’s a K. Zildjian, and it’s hand woven. Not like the cymbals they make today that are pounded into shape until it dulls the sound. Mine is like a Stradivarius. I’ve had a lot of offers for it, but there’s no way I’d get rid of it.
KB: Does Archie Alleyne have a favorite drummer?
AA: That’s a hard one. I have a lot of favorite drummers. There’s a lot of talent out there. Locally, I’d have to say Pete Magadini and Jerry Fuller. I love Art Blakey. I even pasted a picture of his head on my body in one of my scrap books. The man is too much. He’s the only drummer I know who can play the drums and get the true drum sound out of them. Without taking bottom heads off, or taking heads off his bass drum, and adding all the other paraphernalia that changes the sound, he plays the drums, and they sound like the drums. I t h i n k it probably has a great deal to do with the touring he’s done through Africa, and the percussionists he’s been exposed to. A lot of guys are putting new heads on their drums, which is effective, but which doesn’t give you the true sound you need in jazz.
Blakey uses that press roll, and rim rhythms for that percussive sound only he can get. He’s also one of the few drummers who uses a K. Zildjian, rather than an Avedis. And you have to give Blakey credit for constantly exposing new talent.
Of course, I like Roach and Philly Joe Jones. Where Blakey is a primitive drummer, Jones and Roach are lyrical. I used to listen to Max Roach faithfully, and quite a few years back, when he was playing at the Colonial with Clifford Brown and Richie Powell, they used to call me over to jam with them in the afternoons when Max wasn’t there.
Max came in one evening to sit in, and he broke my bass drum. Before he left Toronto, he gave me a new head for it. It was a timpani head, and it was the best sound I’ve ever gotten out of a bass drum.
KB: What’s ahead for you?
AA: I’ve formed a new group, which we’re pretty excited about. It’s called the Archie Alleyne/Frank Wright Quartet, and we’re all Toronto-born jazz musicians. We plan to do some recording in the near future. Connie Maynard, our piano player and musical director, has written a few tunes for us. Right now, we’re playing the clubs in Toronto, and maybe we’ll do some touring. Financial success for jazz musicians is limited to a chosen few. We intend to be among the group that attains it.
Further down the line, I’d like to open another restaurant; this time incorporating my music. I’d like to use the skills and talents that I have in both areas. It’d be like having the best of two worlds.