PREVIEW: In This Post
- Account of Leonard Cohen’s first recorded performance: “The Gift” with Maury Kaye – Montreal, April 8, 1958, including video (audio recording of Cohen poem recitation and photos from first performance)
- Background information re Bandleader Maury Kaye (including his role in Leonard Cohen’s performance) & the mid-century Montreal jazz scene, including Leonard Cohen’s participation in it
- Examples of ongoing influence of that jazz culture on Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen’s First Recorded Performance: “The Gift” With Maury Kaye – April 8, 1958
[In 1957,] as a post-graduate at New York’s Columbia University (where Jack Kerouac got in on a football scholarship), Leonard Cohen had spent much of his spare time in the boho clubs of the Village, where the Beat-style fusion of poetry and music — “I heard Kerouac read to piano, that was good” — was drawing crowds…1
The next year, through the efforts of Maury Kaye,2 (pictured on right), an outstanding jazz pianist and trombonist as well as probably the most sought after and popular bandleader in Canada,3 Leonard Cohen and other poets were presenting their work in similar fashion, accompanied by the music of Kaye and members of his band, to club audiences in Montreal. The following excerpt is from Swinging in Paradise, The Story of Jazz in Montreal by John Gilmore:4
Video: Leonard Cohen’s Performs The Gift
Montreal – April 8, 1958
As it happened, at least a couple of photos were taken of Leonard Cohen’s first show with Maury Kaye and a recording was made of him reciting one of his poems, “The Gift” (later published in The Spice-Box Of Earth) and answering a question about the propriety of a poet being a “nightclub celebrity.”
The following video comprises that recording as the audio track and the photos of Cohen and and other images of Dunn’s and St Catherine Street as the visual elements.
Leonard Cohen With Maury Kaye – The Gift
Dunn’s – Montreal: April 8, 1958
Video by Allan Showalter
In addition to Cohen and his friend, Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, who reigned as Canada’s premier man of letters until his death in 1984 and was Leonard Cohen’s Literature professor at McGill University, partnered with Kaye, as indicated in this excerpt from Friends Bid Farewell To Great Maury Kaye by Len Dobbin:5
I can remember a particularly musical Kaye combo that appeared upstairs from Dunns in the late ’50s that included readings by poets such as Louis Dudek
Leonard Cohen talked about his collaboration with Kaye in an interview with William Ruhlmann:6
I don’t think there were too many people doing it at the time…I was working with a pianist and an arranger, Maury Kaye. I did a few weeks with him. We worked together at a place called Dunn’s Birdland, which was a room on top of Dunn’s delicatessen on St. Catherine Street in Montreal. He used to write big band arrangements. He had about a 12- or 15-piece band and this little stage, and it was his gig. I’d come on at midnight, and I kind of improvised while he played. Sometimes he was playing the piano by himself and sometimes doing parts of arrangements or tunes played in a somewhat subdued way while I took my own riffs. Or sometimes I’d do set pieces, like a poem from Let Us Compare Mythologies. We did that off and on for a month, and then I worked with a great jazz guitarist from Winnipeg by the name of Lenny Breau.
Sylvie Simmons writing in Mojo,7 provides a similar description and more specifics:
Perched on a stool in the middle of the stage, flanked on one side by Maury Kaye on the piano and, in any space available, by various members of Kaye’s 15-man band, at around midnight on April 8, 1958, Leonard Cohen, 23, gave his first professional performance.8
“Maury Kay, who was a very gifted pianist and jazz arranger, had a jazz band,” recalls Cohen, “and we started improvising together in a club on St. Catherine’s Street” — Dunn’s Jazz Parlour, which occupied the uppermost floor of a Montreal smoked meat delicatessen.
Already an acclaimed poet in Canada, Cohen had quickly developed a distaste for the poet’s usual form of performance, the poetry reading.
“I was invited to read, but I never really enjoyed them. The idea — the influence of the universities — was to read with a slight English inflection, which was meant to dignify the poem. But I liked singing, chanting my lyrics to this jazz group. It felt a lot easier. And I liked the environment better. You could drink.”
In An Interview with Leonard Cohen conducted by Michael Harris,9 Cohen again set his performances at Dunn’s against an academic perspective on poetry. To the question, “What do you think of academia and/or academic poets,” Cohen responded
I never saw myself in the academy. In fact, as soon as I could, you know, I got work in a nightclub above Dunn’s restaurant, called Birdland. I used to read poems or improvise them while Morrie Kay and his jazz group played. I even thought that that was somehow too tame for it, too academic.
Ira Nadel expands on the episode in his Leonard Cohen biography, Various Positions:10
Leonard Cohen & The Montreal Jazz Scene
You Can Take The Poet Out Of Saint Catherine Street
But You Can’t Take Saint Catherine Street Out Of The Poet
Accounts of Leonard Cohen’s jazz club debut have sometimes suffered from lack of context. Ones understanding is abetted by the knowledge that, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, jazz has thrived in Montreal, lending an unmistakable flavor to the metropolis. As the introduction to Jazz City Montreal puts it:
There are many different ways to interpret Montreal’s rich jazz history…New Orleans’s mom, proximity to New York City, a longtime culture of cafés and nightclubs, a gangsta’ town, a place of convergence of rivers and railroads, a multicultural town with French flair, Paris’s daughter, Canada’s first real city. Each of these factors and many others, have all contributed to creating a place where live music thrives day after day, year in, year out. From the early ragtime period, right up to today’s zero tolerance progressive’s, there has always been the idea that jazz music was fun, and that it should swing… all nite long.
Montreal hosted premier world-class jazz players, including Louis Armstrong, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, and many, many others, as well as Canadian performers like Maynard Ferguson and Oscar Peterson. And venues for jazz, including but mot limited to jazz clubs, have long proliferated. 11 Performing above Dunn’s, Leonard Cohen was in the middle of Montreal’s night life – St Catherine Street.12
Moreover, during his adolescent and young adult years, Cohen was a stalwart participant – as a performer, as an audience member, and in some cases as a celebrity guest – in Montreal’s extensive and important jazz community.
And Leonard Cohen’s professional career as a singer-songwriter has been impacted by those experiences.
Not only are jazz influences evident in the musicology, for example, of Leonard Cohen’s Recent Songs and Dear Heather albums (it is easy to imagine “Villanelle For our Time” or “Morning Glory,” sans female vocals, as part of a setlist during the 1958 Cohen-Kaye collaboration), but Saint Catherine Street is still a feature in Cohen’s style and stage demeanor, as set forth by Walter Tunis in his review of the March 30, 2013 Leonard Cohen Louisville concert:13
[Leonard] Cohen portrayed elder romantic, poet philosopher, enlightened mystic, jazz hipster, socio-political correspondent and, yes, even dirty old man. [emphasis mine]
And, I would submit that Leonard Cohen’s early interactions with Maury Kaye and the other components of the Montreal Jazz Scene are the genuine provenance of “Anyhow” from the Old Ideas album.
Note the final portion of Cohen’s introduction to the song [emphasis mine]:
This is the moment when I take my first cigarette … I’ll step back into my old self. I’ll begin to hear the strains of the music of the most beautiful jazz orchestra in the world. My thoughts will settle, they’ll smooth out. I’ll be able to develop some kind of charitable take on my shabby life. I’ll be thinking of the past.
Leonard Cohen – Anyhow
Louisville: March 30, 2013
Video by Wirebirds (Henry Tengelsen)
Credit Due Department:
I owe special thanks to jazz pianist and adventurer, Billy Georgette, who provided invaluable insight into the Montreal jazz scene during the 1950s and 1960s as well as information specific to Maury Kaye, Dunn’s, and Leonard Cohen. His web site, Jazz City Montreal offers a unique perspective on that city’s rich jazz history.
The photo of Dunn’s atop this post by Al Bohns. The photo of Maury Kaye is by Ernie Mills.
The original Leonard Cohen-Lenny Breau poster is held in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto. The ads for the Black Orchid Club and Dunn’s were found on Jazz City Montreal
The colorful view of St Catherine St midway through the video is a postcard found on several sites without attribution. The final black & white view of St Catherine St in the video is from the exhibition, St. Catherine Street Makes the Headlines!, at the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History.
The audio track used in the video is from the private collection of Hippy1948.
- Leonard The Versifier by Sylvie Simmons, Mojo, April 2002. Found at the phenomenal Speaking Cohen site. [↩]
- Publications offer various spellings, but the name of Montreal’s jazz pianist and bandleader was Maury Kaye (born Morris David Kronick) [↩]
- Billy Georgette, personal communication, May 15, 2013. An incomplete but helpful, succinct biography of Maury Kaye can be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia. A sense of the esteem in which Kaye was held can be garnered from his obituary, Friends Bid Farewell To Great Maury Kaye by Len Dobbin. Montreal Gazette: Feb 10, 1983 [↩]
- Swinging in Paradise, The Story of Jazz in Montreal by John Gilmore. Ellipse Editions, Victoria, Canada: 2011 [↩]
- Friends Bid Farewell To Great Maury Kaye by Len Dobbin. Montreal Gazette: Feb 10, 1983 [↩]
- “The Stranger Music of Leonard Cohen” by William Ruhlmann, Goldmine, February 19, 1993. [↩]
- Leonard The Versifier by Sylvie Simmons, Mojo, April 2002. Found at the phenomenal Speaking Cohen site. [↩]
- Designating Leonard Cohen’s “first professional performance” is a matter of art rather than science. I would hold that Leonard Cohen’s first professional performance was his initial paid gig as a member of the Buckskin Boys, which preceded his jazz-accompanied poetry recitations by several years. [↩]
- An Interview with Leonard Cohen by Michael Harris. Duel: Winter 1969. [↩]
- Nadel, Ira Bruce. Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. University of Texas Press, 2007. [↩]
- See Jazz City Montreal for a list of clubs as well as jazz performers. [↩]
- While the location of this Leonard Cohen performance, the uppermost floor above Dunn’s delicatessen on St Catherine Street in Montreal, remains constant in the different versions of this story, the name of the location has varied to include, either alone or in permutations, Birdland, Jazz Parlour, Progressive Jazz Parlour. Moreover, Billy Georgette, a Montreal jazz pianist, who was a contemporary or and acquainted with Leonard Cohen, reports he and his colleagues are unfamiliar with these names. That location was most widely known as simply “Dunn’s Upstairs” or the “Black Orchid Room.” [↩]
- in performance: leonard cohen by Walter Tunis. posted March 31, 2013 at The Musical Box . [↩]