Early February, 2014. The weather’s still cold and ambivalent. I’m in a basement at York University, staring out the window at snow and people hunched against the wind. A seminar of past graduates of the English programs has just ended, and the crowd is nervously swarming around the panellists, hoping some of the success will rub off. The unanimous message of the day: this will not be easy.
Eventually I corner a globe-trekking documentary filmmaker and ask him about his first steps as a journalist, before he had any name recognition. He leans over with a secret: You want to know how to be a journalist? Tell people you’re a journalist. Winking at me, he pops a tiny, rounded carrot into his mouth. If they give you the interview and you publish it, he adds, crunching, then you weren’t really lying, were you?
Thursday night, a week later. It’s colder. I’ll admit that wasn’t the most convincing advice I’d ever heard. But he’s the famous one, so I took his word for it and now I’m walking alone under the streetlights of Toronto, down a frost-leavened sidewalk on a dead-end road lined with empty factories. This is where Jaymz Bee lives, or so the invitation said. At the end of the street, a rusting chain-link fence half lost in vines and a clapped-out Toyota hold back the rush of the Gardiner. I turn down an alley, go through a dim, snowed-in parking lot and arrive at a blank, steel door with a piece of paper taped to it. I stand there for a while, thinking.
Behind the door there’s a long, dusty, dry-walled hallway but I can hear faint music now. As I near the end and push open the last door, I’m caught up in a swell of lights and sound, like I’ve stepped onto a movie set. The loft is warm, candlelit and strung with blue Christmas lights, postered in pieces of pop art, and cluttered with interesting and eclectic furniture. A crowd of dashing people mills about, laughing and drinking, as hopping and acrobatic tunes bounce off the paintings. Overwhelmed, I smile as Jaymz — in a wild, purple suit and shock of white hair — shakes my right hand and welcomes me, slings a drink into my left, and introduces me to a group of young musicians. Then he’s already gone, welcoming someone else.
What I know about jazz could maybe add up to a sentence or two, but still I work my way around the room, looking for openings to introduce myself, and try hopelessly to remember the accolades each impossible person lists off. As I wander, a world-famous bass player is chatting with the international talent agent and producer who is friends with the gorgeous, slender singer laughing beside the son of a Canadian master poet, himself a professional pianist and novelist. Suddenly there is a shift in the room and Jaymz is calling people up to the piano and guitar at the front. It seems random, how he picks, like I should hide in case his eyes fall on me. Live music begins; a singer picks up Jimmy Cox’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” and from an old standard she makes a masterpiece. For no one else but this small group of friends. The crowd cheers and claps at subtleties that I miss. I nurse my drink.
It’s not that I don’t have anything to say for myself. I’ve just finished two undergraduate degrees in English and creative writing at a good school that should give me confidence. But for all my training I still don’t have a job. Last year, Statistics Canada recorded youth unemployment in Ontario at 17% and 18% in Toronto itself. Nationwide, youth unemployment, month-to-month, ran at roughly half.
I’m one of those youths. Of my friends who studied English with me, a tiny percentage do work that relates even remotely to their degree. Many of us are interns, but internships don’t pay anymore. A 2013 CBC article cited the number of Canadians working without paycheques as between one and three-hundred thousand. Recently, the Ministry of Labour began a series of raids on unpaid internships in the magazine industry. The internship I got didn’t get busted, but it wouldn’t have helped because they never did have the money to pay me.
Nights like the one at Bee’s party are tough. I’ve been luckier than some students — my degrees were subsidized by throwing hay, milking cows, building decks, driving lawnmowers, herding goats and washing golf carts. But even without crushing debt, financial security in the arts world is not easy to come by. Right off, I feel a strong kinship with the jazz scene. The determined jazz artist might be a vision of the future for poets and writers in a world ever-more visual and less literary. Unfortunately, there just isn’t room for everyone. As Jaymz reminds me at the end of the party, there are only so many people who can fit into his apartment. I don’t expect to be invited back, not because of any grudges or cruelty on Jaymz’s part — simply because there isn’t room.
In school the advisors were missionaries, selling faith in their system. It is the Church of Plan A: a checklist of courses and a checklist of credits. You’re paid for your work in grade points and told they will buy your cruise line to success. Then you’re out, swimming, in a crowd of other bachelors, scanning the horizon for something to hold on to. And then someone like Jaymz comes sailing by with a flock of beautiful, talented women tanning on the deck and a CD player packed with spinning tunes. As if it were so easy.
He carries an incredible résumé with him. For the record, Jaymz Bee is: a musician, an entertainer, a best-selling writer, a producer, an event-coordinator and a radio personality on Jazz.FM91 in Toronto. He has been: a night-club owner, an art gallery curator, a talk-show host and a director (commercial and music). He was the lead vocalist for the “rock-funk-jazz-circus” Look People for a decade (they received five CASBY nominations for Small Fish, Big Pond), played across Europe and North America and then led a final show which was opened by a musical performance featuring adult movie stars. With his Royal Jelly Orchestra he has released eight albums and turned rock and rap megahits into cool lounge tracks. There’s a “lounge-lizard” cover of Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” out there thanks to Jaymz & Co. Now he’s in an alt-pop project called Bonzai Suzuki. He loves sailing and cycling and parties. Google his effervescent blog or website to see all of that — he tells the stories better than I would, having lived them.
There’s the impression of him, suavely conducting his party in the glitzy suits, as a kind of trickster god who smiles devilishly at you while weaving a dream of the real thing. That’s why I found his email in the first place, after finding him at one of his trademarked Jazz Safaris across the city. Maybe this would be my chance at stealing whatever secret he’s put to work. He never sold out, never got stiff and lame or exploded into a celebrity supernova. All your life, as you half-jokingly apologized to relatives for having majored in English or some hard-to-explain field of theory or even jazz itself, you dreamed about this. Once the party ended, as I coaxed my old Buick back up the highway, I kept waiting for the lights and sound to fade and to find myself treading water again.
One of the things I was most interested in hearing Jaymz talk about was his approach to critics, so I led toward that in our interview. His works over the years are varied but almost always in some kind of liminal space, out in the border towns of popular tastes. He responded by musing on the nature of the industry, calling this an age of “plenitude.”
“There seems to be an audience for any genre,” he reflects, “and so much music to weed through. Being an artist today is more fun than ever but it’s harder than ever to make any money at it. I don’t want to win people over. I’m here when they are ready for me, and while my record sales of various projects in the past decade aren’t staggering by any stretch, the concerts I do are jam-packed and more and more people ‘get me.’”
I want to believe I get Jaymz Bee as I pour over my notes at home and try to gather the framework of an article. I watch his music videos and eye his body language, his voice, anything to find an insight that could crack his enigmatic success. He stays coy about his youth and the secret of his name (saving it for his memoir) and attributes his incredible energy to wolf naps and healthy living. Is it just some natural skill? My mind returns to the documentarian’s words. You want to know how to be a journalist? Well, here I am, doing that, and I might be in over my head. Eventually I decide he must have been talking metaphorically — that what matters is confidence in oneself.
Confidence, according to Jaymz, is set in a foundation of acceptance and detachment. “I still forget that because I dress so flamboyantly some people are laughing at me, not just smiling because life is so awesome. So to me, everyone is happy when I get all dapper-dan to paint the town.” He adds: “I’ve been not-caring for so many decades, why would I start worrying about being cool now? I never cared much for the song but I love the sentiment: ‘It’s Hip To Be Square!’”
He offers the example of a snarky dismissal he got from a critic in Calgary, who in a review accused him of stealing a Simpsons gag for one of his songs. “We’d been performing ‘Ape City’ since the late eighties in Switzerland. When I saw The Simpsons doing ‘Rock Me Dr. Zaius’ I thought solidarity, not hey, they stole my idea! Again, water off a duck’s back. I am thick-skinned.”
In all of my encounters with Bee, solidarity is a recurring theme. At the party, and the Jazz Safari before that, he was busy every moment, either helping someone set up or catching up with a line-up of friends. When I ask him about his most satisfying accomplishment, he quickly moves to talking about what his bands have achieved together, and the times when he got a CD produced for some under-recognized genius, and eight years of globe-crossing Jazz Safaris that bring audiences to the bright, young voices of jazz who are struggling to be heard in the plenitude. A harmony appears then: if I had to spout a definition of jazz after all I’ve seen and heard, it would be somewhere in the coordination of the musicians. At the party, as the players warmed up, they grew more and more comfortable until they could communicate so subtly that it seemed supernatural. Jazz beats with a spirit of improvisation — yes, I know that’s not much of a breakthrough — but what strikes me is how it’s a communal one. The song doesn’t live in the technical ability, but in the act of buoying your band mate as they take a chance, with a faith that they will be there in turn to support you.
During an intermission in the music a friend of Jaymz confides in me that behind the façade of levity is a very hard working man. She chuckled, pouring another glass of wine. “Trust me, he only makes it look easy.” Definitely, he admits that times have been tough before. As a young artist himself, adrift in the world of music, Jaymz remembers the hardest part was being nearly homeless for long stretches.
“When I would come back from Europe after spending half a year over there I’d stay with various friends, sometimes for a night or week, and when I was lucky I could sublet something for a month. But I was always moving — no place to call home. I didn’t want to put anyone out so I did a lot of dishes and cleaning as thank you.” That lifestyle led to a philosophy of giving back: “Now that I have a nice pad, I have a guest room and always invite friends from far away to stay with me. It feels good to pay back all those people who helped me.”
As the music wound down and the guests began to leave, Jaymz said goodbye to me just as warmly as he’d welcomed me, dropping a sly reference to why I’d been invited. “Now you’ve seen the place,” he pointed out. And I realize something, looking back: he was giving me a gift. The other young people I talked to that night all talked about how they’d been helped along by Jaymz, given guidance and support. Of course, I was no different, even though he barely knew me. This party, the interview — he was a step ahead of me the whole time.
I think I must have realized this on a wordless level before that moment, during a soaring, bruised solo by a pianist I never had the chance to meet. Live music, done seriously, is rapturous in its intimacy, and the whole party was drawn into the performance and made part of it. When Jaymz speaks about parties (and he literally wrote the book on cocktail parties — look it up) he speaks in a mystic tone for reasons I understand now. “If a party is done properly,” he says, “it should be as uplifting as going to the opera, attending a church service or seeing your favourite sports team win a game. I’ve never really been into sports, and there are only so many operas mounted in a year. Add to that the fact that church attendance is on the decline and that leaves parties and concerts as the best place for people to congregate.” Parties and music and art, I realize, serve a human need — for acceptance, perhaps, but more so for simple congregation. To be around people like you, who inspire you or fascinate you. To make new friends and new connections and find new opportunities.
What’s been wrong all this while has been that school itself set me up to fail, with its cosy determinism and all things in their rightful place. There is no Plan A, no structure and no actual land of “success” waiting at the end of a life of checklists. “Making it” is a process of living with the full knowledge that you might fail — that maybe no one will hear your EP or read your stories. More than that, in school I got caught up in the rhetoric of “my” career, which I was supposedly buying from them. “My” career and “my” success. And suddenly Jaymz’s boat seems less shark-like when I realize he’s circling to pick people up.
JAYMZ BEE can be heard weekdays at 7 a.m. on Wake Up … with Heather Bambrick and Saturdays at 6 p.m. on Jazz In The City on Jazz.FM91. Among other projects, he is currently writing a book of memoirs entitled Compulsive Disclosure Disorder. He thinks you should start with Afro-Eurasian Eclipse by Duke Ellington, Prelude by Deodato, Smoochy by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bob Till You Drop by Ry Cooder and Do It Yourself by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
JACK HOSTRAWSER is a recipient of the York University President’s Prize and once chased tornadoes across the Midwest. His writing has appeared in Existère, The Fieldstone Review, In The Hills Magazine, The Quilliad and Steel Bananas.