Charlie Biddle: Father of Montreal Jazz

Ed Hamilton on underrated bassist and bandleader who died in 2008

Charlie Biddle and his bass fiddle brought Jazz to Montreal and all of Canada. Biddle a large strong man like Charlie Mingus, passed away February 5, 2008 and only one city in North America really knows who he was and why he was so important to that city. Charlie, as he was known to all, was a jazz bassist extraordinaire and restaurateur for 55 years.

When you went to Montreal, you had to go to the premiere Jazz club--Biddle's Jazz and Ribs on Aylmer Street and hear him play with his trio and have some of the famous Barbecue Buffalo Chicken Wings. His trio consisted of Oliver Jones,on piano, and Wali Muhammed on drums. On many occasions singer Ranee Lee would come by and blend in with her vibrant lyricism. After serving his country in WW 2 and returning home to Philadelphia, he studied music at Temple University on the G.I. Bill. “Racism in Philly” as Biddle stated, “expatriated me to Montreal in 1948, and “Mount Royal” became my newly adopted home.”

Jimmy Failla, Director of Security (who first told me of Biddle) at the Hyatt Regency, (where all the musicians stayed who played at the Montreal Jazz Festival) remembered Charlie Biddle saying, “When you mention Mr. Biddle you are talking about a legend and what he means to Jazz and to the city of Montreal. One year Charlie and his kids had one of the most outstanding Jam Sessions ever performed at the hotel. You definitely cannot say enough of Mr. Charlie Biddle--- he was a true gentleman in every aspect of the word.”

Canada was virgin soil for jazz and Biddle traveled, played and planted jazz seeds in every corner of Quebec. He literally presented jazz to all of Canada as jazz musician and later as a promoter. Biddle played with Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Tadd Dameron and Lionel Hampton. In 1967, as promoter, he brought John Coltrane, Pepper Adams, Bill Evans, Johnny Hodges, Art Farmer, Thad Jones, and Tommy Flanagan to Montreal.

Biddle’s most successful accomplishment in 1979 was organizing Jazz Chez Nous, a 3-day Jazz Festival that everyone predicted would be a failure. The next year, Andre Menard and all the others who doubted and underestimated him started the Festival de Jazz de Montreal—now recognized as the number one jazz festival in North America and the world. Drummer Leon Chancler and trombonist Garnett Brown who both had previously performed at the Fest encouraged me not to go to the North Sea Festival but to Montreal saying all the music I wanted to hear was there.

In 1995, Biddle with his son and three daughters, Charles Jr., Tracy, Sonya, and Stephanie, performed at the festival and were honored as the First Family of Canadian Jazz. At the 23rd Montreal Jazz Fest, he performed brilliantly with his trio throughout the 10 day fest.

Biddle inspired many people who heard him play, including pianist Oliver Jones who recorded his first album Jazz and Ribs at Biddle's for Jim West’ Justin Time record label. It was the first album release for the label. Director Jonathan Lynn signed Charlie to appear in the movie My Cousin Vinnie and later Bruce Willis featured Biddle’s in The Jackal.

As Harriet Tubman is legendary for leading slaves to Canada via the Underground Railroad, Charlie Biddle liberated Canadians from the confines of traditional music and led them to the promised lands of jazz. And they've never looked back. Charlie Biddle’s Montreal Jazz Festival creation has surpassed the Montreux, North Sea, Umbria, Antibes, Monterey, Newport, Playboy and other jazz festivals. Montreal, Quebec and all of Canada have an African-American to thank for bringing and spreading the music of jazz to Canada. With his bass, Charlie Biddle, was a one man band of jazz whose name will forever be synonymous with the Montreal Jazz Festival. For this monumental endeavor, he will certainly one day be enshrined into the Canadian Jazz Hall of Fame. Leaving a legacy the jazz world will never forget; he is forever the Father of Montreal Jazz.

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Ed Hamilton