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Swing-era jazz icon Eddie Graf gets back on stage

Jazz fans will recognize Eddie Graf's name as one of the great arrangers of Toronto's swing era.

94-year-old remembers songs and stories from WWII era

Eddie Graf leading the Eddie Graf Orchestra in this undated photo. (Supplied)

Jazz fans will recognize Eddie Graf's name as one of the great arrangers of Toronto's swing era, and they can get re-acquainted with him and his music this weekend. 

He began his musical career in the early 1940s, playing clarinet and later the alto saxophone, as well as arranging. He entertained troops in Europe during the Second World War, and continued his musical career long afterwards.

Graf is 94 now. His memory is fading, and he doesn't perform much anymore.  

But Saturday night, both Graf's memories and performing years will be rekindled with a special concert. Graf will be back on stage again at St. Andrew's Church for an evening of music and stories from the war years.

Graf will be accompanied by his son, Lenny, who plays with him, along with some bandmates from the old days, and of course his walker, which never leaves his side.

But besides his son, Graf can't really remember his bandmates from his heyday.

"Well there are fellas in that band that are still alive .. one of them is..." Graf struggles to remember, and eventually gives up with a laugh. "I'm in my 90s — 93, 94, not sure which. I forget things very quickly."  

But when his music plays, he immediately recognizes it as his own composition.

"That's something I wrote!" he exclaims as his band rehearses the music from the era.

Graf's stories have thankfully all been recorded — in his music. He handwrote all the notation and charts for his arrangements.

"The thing is, it's a language. If it's a swing chart he's writing, you know exactly what he wants by how he writes it," says John Liddle, Graf's friend and lead trumpeter for 30 years. "Now everyone uses computers, where with Eddie's writing, you knew exactly what he wanted by how he wrote. It's pretty cool."

Liddle says Graf's compositions have all the turns of a complex narrative.

'He will make it very playful'

"He writes counter-melodies that enhance the initial melody," he says. "The melody is unexpected, but still makes sense. It's like a story, and a story that takes you on some turns and twists."

His son says Graf still gets up at 7 a.m. every morning, has his breakfast, and then spends a couple of hours at the piano — arranging and composing music. When Lenny sits in with his father's band, he's still surprised by the 94-year-old's latest arrangements.

"There are a lot of musical forms that have certain boundaries and limitations. But jazz is something where there are endless possibilities. Eddie, he still writes beautifully, he'll take the forms, adhere to certain conventions, but he will go beyond those conventions," the younger Graf says. "He will make it very playful."

When Lenny asks his father to describe how he writes his music, Eddie's answer is brief.   

"I can't tell you could go any way," he says.

At his advanced age, Graf has trouble holding a conversation.  But while he struggles with words, music still allows him to go places where language no longer takes him.

Voices of Peace, Dreams of Home takes place Saturday, October 24, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. at St. Andrew's Church (King Street West and Simcoe Street). Tickets can be bought here, or at the door with cash or a credit card.


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