Guitarist Ed Bickert Dies at 86

A sensitive player and reluctant star, he stayed close to his native Canada but gained acclaim worldwide

Ed Bickert
Ed Bickert

Ed Bickert, a Canadian guitarist whose genteel, thoughtful personality was reflected in his sensitive playing style, died Feb. 28 in Toronto. He was 86.

Bickert’s family announced his death in a press release, which also attributed it to complications from cancer.

Bickert was Canadian jazz royalty—all the more so because, unlike such peer countrymen as Oscar Peterson and Paul Bley, he never attempted to break into the New York jazz scene but spent his entire career in Canada. “He’s not an aggressive guy, and in the United States, you really have to be,” his longtime friend and accompanist, bassist/vibraphonist Don Thompson, told The Globe and Mail last year.

Nevertheless, he gained international acclaim, especially for his tasteful, harmonically inventive work in the 1970s with saxophonist Paul Desmond. Before Desmond, Bickert spent 20 years as perhaps the city’s top-call guitar accompanist. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1996.

For all his stature as a player, Bickert displayed a modest, soft-spoken, and self-effacing persona, a reluctant star and even more reluctant bandleader. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that he first recorded under his own name. “I’ve always been a bit — well, more than a bit — apprehensive,” he told the Toronto Star in 2012. He was also famously quoted as saying, “I was born to be a sideman.”

Edward Isaac Bickert was born Nov. 29, 1932 in Hochfeld, Manitoba, and grew up in Vernon, British Columbia. His family was both a farming and a musical one; his father played fiddle, his mother piano, at country dances. Bickert took up the guitar at eight, learning enough chords to join his parents onstage.

Moving to Toronto in 1952, Bickert initially began a career as a radio engineer before finding success in the city’s jazz club circuit and graduating to studio session work. He was a member of bands led by clarinetist Phil Nimmons, trombonists Ron Collier and Rob McConnell, and flutist Moe Koffman. The latter made Bickert party to a surprising success in 1957, when their recording of “The Swingin’ Shepherd Blues” hit the U.S. Top 40 chart. He subsequently toured with Koffman on a regular basis through the early ’60s, then with McConnell through the mid- and late ’60s.

Bickert also regularly appeared with American jazz musicians who passed through Toronto, including Duke Ellington, Ruby Braff, and Frank Rosolino. In 1974, the esteemed guitarist Jim Hall recommended Bickert to Desmond, who subsequently hired him for his classic recording Pure Desmond. Bickert also appeared on four live recordings with Desmond, all of them made in Toronto.

The work with Desmond widened Bickert’s exposure, sending him on world tours in the late 1970s with such stars as Milt Jackson and Rosemary Clooney. According to the Toronto Star’s Peter Goddard, they “inevitably had to talk him into touring and then only for a limited time.”

Bickert began working with Don Thompson in 1969, a collaboration that lasted for the remainder of his career. Thompson backed Bickert on the latter’s first album, Ed Bickert (with drummer Terry Clarke), recorded when the guitarist was 42 years old. They last recorded together in 1996, in another trio featuring trombonist McConnell as the third member.

“He’s perfect,” Thompson told The Globe and Mail. “The inner voice movement was perfect, the logic is impeccable, every chord was the best possible chord … it was perfection all the time.”

Though he made a dozen albums of his own and led his own trios and quartets, Bickert was never comfortable in the limelight and was much more prolific as an accompanist. He gave up even that in 2000, when he announced his retirement following the death of his wife Madeline. Nevertheless, his influence was undiminished, especially in his home country.

“Jazz guitarists around the world rightly revere Ed Bickert,” Montreal guitarist Mike Rud told The Ottawa Citizen’s Peter Hum. “But for Canadian jazz guitarists, I think he was the very voice of impeccable musical judgment—when to play, when not to.”

Bickert is survived by his daughter Lindsey and sons Jeffrey and Timothy. The family is planning a private funeral service.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.