Blues legend Jim Byrnes shares his deep connection with jazz

Legendary blues musician Jim Byrnes takes a little musical detour with Hot Air host Margaret Gallagher to share some of his jazz favourites.

He grew up surrounded by iconic jazz heavyweights in St. Louis before moving to Canada in the 70s

Jim Byrnes released his 10th album, Long Hot Summer Days, in November 2017 and is playing shows in Vancouver Jan 27 and 28. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

Legendary blues musician Jim Byrnes takes a little musical detour with Hot Air host Margaret Gallagher to share some of his jazz favourites.

Originally from St Louis, Mo., Byrnes spent his teen years absorbing all the music he could at the local clubs and playing open mics at cafés surrounded by some of the most iconic jazz heavyweights.

"There was an area called Gaslight Square. It was our version of Greenwich Village back in the day, and there was a little club there … Here I am, 16 years old, sitting in this club with Miles (Davis), George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter was playing bass and Tony Williams," he said.

A young Jim Byrnes in 1961 (jamestbyrnes.com)

"I got to be known as a blues singer, a blues guitar player, but I have always listened to (jazz) music and paid great attention to it."

Moving north

After serving in the U.S. Army for about a year in Vietnam, Byrnes moved to Toronto in the early 70s and got involved in the music scene there but said he fell in with a rough crowd of addicts and felt the need to move on.

He reconnected with a man he served with overseas who had settled in Ucluelet, B.C., and made the move to the secluded island town.

"At that time, there was not even a road to get out to Ucluelet. It was just a logging road. There was an entire cadre of Vietnam basket cases that were living out there and so I went out there to join them."

"It was very different to be in a place where there's not all this fantastic musical activity, but there were secrets to be learned in the woods, in the forest."

Life altering accident

In 1972, just six months before his 24th birthday, Brynes was involved in a car accident that pinned him between two vehicles and had both of his legs amputated.

"I was 2,500 miles away from home. I had maybe $60 to my name. I knew a lot of people but I only had maybe two people I would call friends and one of them was my friend George, who to this day is my best friend."

While he was in the hospital recovering, George brought in a reel-to-reel tape recorder full of recordings for Brynes to listen to.

Inspiration Series event at CBC Vancouver features persevering bluesman 2:38

Peace Piece

He recalls one night about two weeks after the accident. His mind was adjusting to his new reality and he was gripped by his reliance on the pain medication they were giving him.

"I was really waiting for that nurse to come in with that shot, really waiting. I realized, man, this is no good. I told the doctor, look, you can't give me any more of those painkillers because I don't want to spend the rest of my life selling pencils on a corner somewhere."

Bill Evans' Peace Piece was playing on his tape recorder that night and Byrnes says his association of struggle and strength with the jazz tune still carries him through life.

"To this day, to remind myself how far I've come, I listen to this piece every now and then. It really means something to me."

Byrnes recently released his 10th album, Long Hot Summer Days and plays Friday, Jan 27 and Saturday, the 28th at the Deep Cove Shaw Theatre.

To hear the full interview, listen to media below:

Bluesman Jim Byrnes shares some favourite jazz tunes and the personal stories behind them with Hot Air host Margaret Gallagher. 54:00

With files from the CBC's Hot Air