British Columbia

Vancouver jazz guitarist Henry Young breaks down racial barriers through music

The Chinese-Ukrainian guitarist got his start in a multicultural band with some neighbourhood friends. His upcoming concert, a fundraiser for the Aoki Legacy Fund, highlights the use of music to break down racial barriers.

'Music has no racial barriers, period. It’s an international language,' says renowned musician

Henry Young in studio, chatting to CBC's host of Hot Air Margaret Gallagher about his upcoming concert. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC )

Henry Young started his music career after a chance encounter at a gas station in Chinatown and, nearly 60 years later, is one of the most enduring names in Vancouver's jazz scene.

The Chinese-Ukrainian guitarist got his start in a multicultural band with some neighbourhood friends.

Young was friends with namesake of the fund, Harry Aoki, a Japanese-Canadian musician who was interned during the Second World War. Aoki was a strong advocate for multiculturalism in Canadian music.  

"I give Harry credit — music has no racial barriers, period," Young said. "It's an international language. Once you start playing, everyone knows that it's music."

That's the message Aoki was trying to get through, he told CBC host of Hot Air Margaret Gallagher.

"Put a piece of music in front of a person," he said. "As long as something goes one-two-three and everybody plays, it always comes out at the end."

Chance encounters

Young, who left school at an early age, had always been interested in music. In his late teens, while working at a gas station, he met guitarist Tommy Chong and his band.

"They came in an old rickety car with three square wheels. I don't know if they had Gaffer tape in those days but the car was held together with clothes hanger wires," Young said.

Chong didn't have any money to repair the car, Young said, so they worked out a deal: he would fix the car in exchange for guitar lessons.

Young then went on to start a band with some friends.

"The band was called the Mischiefs because we were a multiracial band," he said. "We had a Chinese lad on drums, we had an African American singer, we had me and two other Ukrainian fellows."

Touring internationally 

Later in his music career, Young met jazz singer Nina Simone while working as the house guitarist at Marco Polo.

She was looking to hire someone, Young said, and he was eager to meet his idol.

He played a couple of sets for her and was hired on the spot.

Three weeks later, he signed a contract and ended up touring internationally with the iconic artist.

Now, more than half a century since his start, Young enjoys music as much as ever.

"I've always had a passion for music," he said. "I do more listening now. Part of being a musician nowadays, you should listen as much as you practice."

Young is performing with his quartet at the Harry Aoki Legacy Fund Fundraiser on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 5.

To hear more, click on the audio segment below:

With files from Hot Air.