The Art of Everything By Mary Anne Pankhurst On the Art of Uprighting a Grand Legacy in Jazz: Pianist Bill Clifton

The Art of Everything By Mary Anne Pankhurst On the Art of Uprighting a Grand Legacy in Jazz: Pianist Bill Clifton

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Michael Clifton says that from the moment he first saw the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in ’64 it burned onto his brain like a laser beam.
Beatles-ed-sullivan

But for Clifton – who was then just a kid in Cornwall, Ontario, and who, with brother Dave would eventually form a rock band called The Clifton Brothers – he’s not talking nostalgia.  He’s giving me context for the greatest seismic shift that ever rocked the world, and how it not only transformed the terrain of modern music but left his cousin – jazz piano great, Bill Clifton – in a pop culture wasteland.

bill_clifton_sm

Yet, to suggest Bill Clifton’s story is “sad” would be far too blue a note.

The man was talented, classically educated, and in the span of his professional career throughout the 1940s and 50s, he knew both fame and fortune.

Perhaps more importantly, Bill Clifton earned the respect of jazz legends including pianists Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson; singers, including Sinatra; his label, Columbia Records; as well as the big networks – CBS and NBC – for his person, artistry, modernism, recording innovations, influence, and even his moniker “Canada Bill.”

As a side bar, Clifton was among the first musicians ever to make a long-playing record, which when seized upon by a Columbia Records visionary, revolutionized the industry by un-slaving the listener from having to get up and restart a single track every couple of minutes.

But Bill Clifton’s life ended tragically at age 51 in 1967; facts Michael Clifton only learned as an adult:

“We grew up on stories about our famous cousin but people didn’t talk about suicide back then.”

I’m curious: What made Bill Clifton’s work unique from Big Band contemporaries like Benny Goodman, Glen Miller or Duke Ellington?

“Bill’s response to the big, showy, hyper-theatrical jazz of that era was: ‘Whoa! Slow it down.’ He made jazz ‘deep,’ cut away the noise and gave it a streamlined sophistication that moved jazz from the realm of dance music to introspective listening.”

Then what?

“After the Beatles, and maybe with the exception of emerging artists like Brubeck, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Bill’s style of melodic, accessible jazz just wasn’t cool anymore.”

Not “cool” or worse – square – were the death knells of the 60s.  So certain kinds of gigs just dried up.  As a result, Clifton was forced to accept work on cruise ships.  And one night after a performance, he took a fatal drug overdose. But not before leaving a note requesting he be buried at sea.

Ship authorities on the SS Stockholm honoured Bill’s request.

Thankfully, Oscar Peterson’s autobiography A Jazz Odyssey puts the spotlight on Bill Clifton’s contributions. And Toronto-based Michael Clifton is doing his part to keep Bill’s legacy alive with a biography, a Clifton record label, a CD compilation of jazz solos and a website soon to be live at: billcliftonpiano.com.

But before all this, you can have a little listen at LINK

***

A few final notes about Michael Clifton from the Cornwall years…

Michael told me about growing up in Riverdale and how – at age 11 or 12 – he traded up his acoustic-folk for an electric guitar and amp at a thrift shop at First and Pitt. But something told Michael that he and the guitar weren’t a perfect fit so he handed it over to brother Dave.

Meanwhile, Michael discovers his buddy Rick Shaver has a drum kit at his house. It’s his Dad’s kit but Rick agrees to let Michael try it, and moment the sticks sizzle on the hi-hat Michael “knows.”

Yes, he’s a drummer.  And I imagine the hi-hat moment must surely rival the mop tops in Michael’s memory.

But if the early Beatles were the template for thousands of garage and professional bands alike, The Clifton Brothers did its part push the format’s limits.

Anti-pop, “FM” and leaning to the avante garde, the Clifton Brothers had the additional sound of an electric fiddle that Michael says “blew peoples’ minds” at gigs like The Townline, The Parkway, The Cornwallis and The Royal.

By the way, if there are any CFN readers out there who have photos of The Clifton Brothers’ performances, maybe you’d let Michael know (?)

I’m sure he’d dig it.

And remember, if there’s art in what you do, I want to hear from you via artofeverything@cornwallfreenews.com

alpins aoe

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12 Comments on "The Art of Everything By Mary Anne Pankhurst On the Art of Uprighting a Grand Legacy in Jazz: Pianist Bill Clifton"

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Reg Coffey
Member

This is a great set of music. I have listened to it all repeatedly and I can honestly say it is now one of my favorites.

Furtz
Member

Cool story. Almost missed it amid the clutter.
For sure the Beatles and the “British Invasion” changed the face of popular music, generally for the better. Interesting too is that most of the big British groups were heavily influenced by earlier American blues guys and rock n’ rollers.

Michael Clifton
Guest

@Furtz
Thanks for your interest Furtz.
I’d like to recommend this article:
http://www.renniesong.com/dartreview/bill-clifton-and-his-modernist-moment/

Bill Clifton was also an auto-didact intellectual and a world class athlete. The year these recordings were made Bill competed in th U.S. National Singles Indoor Championships and survived a few rounds
He was also a “scratch golfer and a strong swimmer.

Furtz
Member

@ Michael. Your cousin was quite something for sure.
So sad his life had to end that way.

Michael Clifton
Guest

@Furtz
He liked to live life BIG. When the resorces to do so ran out, he couldn’t see another way.. Yes, so developed a human being but like so many, or all of us, he possessed an achilles heel.

jules
Guest
I just read this article now and WOW! I do know that when the Beatles came over they took over many good bands and there were some American bands who were great and couldn’t make it in the US at all on the charts until they left for England and then became on the top charts. I personally have never liked the Beatles at all and there were other groups that I liked much better like Peter and Gordon and others. If you look at Elvis Presley he was the first one who made “rock n’ roll” and he never… Read more »
Furtz
Member

So Jules, you aren’t a Justin Bieber fan?

Michael Clifton
Guest
Thank you to everyone who commented about Bill Clifton. Bill’s choice to end his life by suicide is truly puzzling in light of his incredile talents and intellectual insights. Sadly, there is a long list of jazz musicians that have ended their lives this way. Bill Clifton devoted his entire life to being a professional musician. He, like many dedicated professional jazzmen of the time turned his back on a conventional career in business, the trades etc.. For many a jazz musician of the time, there was no turning back. I often think of Bill Clifton’s influence on and friendship… Read more »
Reg Coffey
Member
I will also admit to being a Beatles fan. I grew up in that era and enjoy classic rock and roll but I also expanded my appreciation of music to include many genres. Some of my favorite albums include the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Willie Nelson’s Stardust Memories, Coltrane’s Night Train, Rob McConnell’s Even Canadians Get The Blues, Beethoven’s 6th and 9th symphony, any of Gordon Lightfoot’s early albums, Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage, Nora Jones’ Come Away With Me, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Israel Kamakawiwo`ole’s Facing Future, etc….. and now Bill Clifton’s Red Shadows. Damn, now I’m… Read more »
Michael Clifton
Guest
@Reg Coffey Reg I want to voice solidarity with: you, Jules and Furtz.. The British Invasion was a good thing, even if you didn’t like the Beatles (and Jules, I’ve gotta love your honesty on that one) there was so much to love. So much great music. I’m particularly fond of the songwriting of Gerry Marsden of Gerry And The Pacemakers. A few of his compositions including “Ferry Cross The Mersey” and “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin'” still reduce me to a puddle of nostalgiac goo. They truly rivaled the Lennnon/McCartney songs of the same period. I could… Read more »
jules
Guest
Thank you Mary Anne and I was deeply touched by this story and felt that this man should have gone on in life and that there is always hope. I was never a Beatles fan but I do agree that there were the odd tunes that I like. Yesterday was not bad as a song. I much prefer the oldies of the 50’s and the 60’s but good tunes. The gentleman in question Bill Clifton was a real artist and artists are very sensitive towards their work. I have all oldies at home and love to listen to good music… Read more »
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