John Heward

John Heward: Drumming in Time and Space

Mike Chamberlain, Coda Magazine, no. 318, December 1, 2004

As I’m circling the block in search of John Heward’s house in the Griffintown area of Montréal (south of downtown and north of the Lachine Canal), I see bassist Dominic Duval stepping out of a small restaurant. It’s 10 o’clock in the morning, and I deduce that Duval and Heward, who, with Joe McPhee, form the trio Undersound, have just had breakfast. Sure enough, Heward walks out right behind Duval. It turns out that Duval has been at Heward’s home for a couple of days mixing an album the two recorded with pianist Dana Reason. As the two friends and musical comrades-in-arms say their goodbyes, I stop the car and ask Heward exactly where his home on Murray Street is, and, just as important, where to park.

Heward’s reserved and gracious manner reflects a privileged Anglo-Montréal upbringing, though he’s never condescending. The home that he shares with Sylvia Safdie, herself a visual artist, reflects artistic and social sensibilities that have apparently served Heward well. Their residence is the former CCM bicycle factory, and he and Saidie live on four floors of the building There’s a music roorn, a billiards room, two large studios (the “dirty studio” and the “clean studio”, Heward calls them), a kitchen, an office, numerous bedrooms, a large living space dominated by a long rectangular dining table and a sitting area decorated with plants and African masks, and a rooftop terrace. Clearly, Heward knows how to live well. I mention the encounter with Duval and the house because they are an indication of the way that Heward apparentdy seamlessly integrates his life and work.

When asked what comes to mind when he thinks of Heward, Duval replies, “He’s always a gentleman. He is very giving in what he does, and that shows in his attitude toward life and art. He has a certain focus about him. He has a very personal style—it’s what he is as a person. And he plays great snooker, and he likes good Scotch and fine food,”Duval concludes with a laugh.

Indeed, the apparent simplicity of his paintings, many of which are comprised of a single swatch of color on a large, unstretched canvas or rayon, finds an analogue in his drununing style, which tends toward economy of means. As Duval puts it, “How he perceives his role as a musician is no different than how he perceives his role as an artist.

“McPhee describes Heward as a very intellectual person, arid a wonderful artist. “He’s a percussionist, rather than a regular drummer with a trap set, who makes music with his instrument in much the same way he makes art.

“Although Heward’s activity as an artist spans the second half of his seventy years, he grew up m an atmosphere where it was taken for granted that art was a part of life. His aunt was a figurative painter; A.Y. Jackson was a frequent guest in her home. After graduating from Bishop’s University and then abandoning graduate studies in history at McGill, Heward moved to London in the late 50s, where he worked with Penguin Books as an editor. He found the London jazz scene mteresting in those days, spending a certain amount of time hanging out at Ronnie Scott’s, where he saw people like Joe Harriott and Tony Oxley.

On his return to Canada, Heward spent a few years in Ottawa and also worked as a consultant for the Canadian pavilion at Expo 67. I was during this time that he started painting.

Becoming a painter was not exactly the fulfillment of a childhood dream, however, as Heward explains it.

“I came back in the early 60s, and I was going to stay with publishing, but I was vaguely dissatisfied with it because it seemed seconhand to me and I knew I was looking for something that was more hands-on. There was something stirring in me and I thought maybe it was writing, but I knew very early on that it wasn’t writing, it’s too linear for me. I’ve always been this sort of space/time warp sensibility. And in the end it turned out to be painung, much to my surprise, because I didn’t think I had any kind of ability. My aunt was a very wellknown Canadian painter, Prudence Heward, and the family had quite a few sculptors and painters here and there, so I grew up with it, but I didn’t think that I had anything to contribute.”

“I met this guy in Ottawa, Andreas Hammond, a painter, who more or less told me, “Just do it! Stop muttering, “Wouldn’t it be nice.” He took me to his studio, sat me down, and said, ‘Do it!’ And I did it. In the end, it turned out to be something that will be in my retrospective as my first painting, “Mask of Mingus.””Mask of Mingus” is a figurative painting, and though it foreshadows Heward’s later concern with masking, it is not typical of most of what was to come. His work is abstract and gestural, resolutely original. Until rayon became unavailable, it was Heward’s signature material. His pamtings usually consist of a primary figure—a block of color at the edge of the painting, a calligraphic mark, a triangle. When not on display, the unstretched pieces of fabric hang on hooks in his studio, like suits on a rack. Heward displays his paintings by hanging them from a ceiling or from the corners of the gallery so that the viewer can perceive the piece from various angles. This aspect gives the paintings an artefactual quality, and in fact, Heward has sometimes gone back and reworked a painting on the same piece of fabric.

While the paintings have a physicality about them, there is something meditative about viewing them, and the marmer in which they are made invites an interrogation of meaning.

“My making thinking is very much a blend between abstract expressionism in the largest sense, not just the painting sense, and minimalism in the visual sense, almost the formal sense of the minimal object, what it can mean. Not just that it is what it is, but that it’s a concretion or reduction of elements that one can see clearly, and feel clearly, and clearing away some of the dross, some of the undergrowth,” he says.

Heward was spurred into becoming a drummer in much the same way ehat he became a painter. “I’d been a visual artist since around ’65, stareed taking it seriously around 1970-it’s a lonely business. The studio is a lonely place, and I loved the idea of performance, in the sense of sharing in the making of something with others. And I’d done some art performances with a little music in them as a sort of step in that direction.”According to Heward, he had drummed as a teenager, and for short periods of time, but didn’t seriously take it up again until 1983. The encouragement came from Yves Boulliane, a painter and a bass player who had played with Jazz Libre du Quebec.

“We were close,”Heward says. “We talked a lot about painting and so on. I said I wished there was an artists’ jazz band in Montréal, that I’d love to start playing again and get involved in music again. I was listening fairly intensively most of the time, but not obsessionally. If it came my way, it came my way, and I’d go and see things, but, you know, it was one of a number of interests. And he said, ’Well, come on. Get yourself a kit of drums, and we’ll do a duo.’ So I started playing with Yves and started meeting other people like Robert Lepage and Robert Lariche, who’s now an alto player who lives in Paris. We got a few gigs together and then recorded that album with Yves as a duo. It’s an extremely interesting record, probably one of the first strictly bass-drums thing going.”

“And then people started taking me seriously in some sense, started playing with people who came to town, like Lisle Ellis. Did the Tuesday night G-Sharp thing, then Glenn Spearman came to town. He was going to live here. He was moving from the coast, but he decided to go to Boston because Raphe Malik was there. They had a long friendship,” Heward says. “But I got together and recorded Utterance with him. Utterance came out as a cassette first. And then after Glenn’s death, Bob Rusch put it out on CIMP. That duo with Glenn was a real breakthrough.”

“In those days, in the 80s, we had the Murray Street Band, and all sorts of people used to come down here, Robert Gelinas, a pianist, and we did a number of gigs as a band, anywhere from five or six to ten, eleven or twelve,”he laughs.

“We did club gigs and we rehearsed down here, but we never recorded. It was a fun band, a pure improvisation band and sometimes it was a very good band.”The music was terrific for me because it took the pressure off painting and the sculpture and broadened things out for me. And I had that social interaction and then I found out a lot about space/form/time things, which what painting is about what the music is about. So it was very largely intuitional, plus, you know, hearing that some things were quote-unquote possible. I didn’t hear those things and then say, ’Oh, I can do that.’ A lot of it was sort of discovering that I could do it.

“Heward’s recorded output is not large, though he has been relatively busy on that front in recent years. Undersound, the trio with multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee and bassist Dominic Duval, have released two albums on Leo, and the John Heward Trio, with bassist Michael Bisio and reed player Joe Giardullo, recently released Let Them Pass on Drimala. And there is the upcoming Dana Reason Trio album that Heward and Duval were mixing the weekend I visited Heward’s home. In addition, Heward ’s home is a bit of a private center for improvising musicians in Montréal, with jams and rehearsals taking place there several nights a week.

Joe McPhee sees parallels between Heward’s painting and his music: “Like with his drumrning, you have to use a kmd of peripheral vision to really see it Just when you think you see it, it changes right in front of you. It moves. It’s like an optical illusion.

“For Heward, clearly the two practices are connected.

“Most people call me a kind of spatial painter in music. That’s not a bad description. I use a good deal more space than most drummers. Space and textures, with kind of a multi-dimensional space rather than linear rhythm, with always a pulse under it—I try to play a pulse rather than a beat Sometimes I’ll play a beat just to estab]ish a thing to work away from, work around.”

“Essentially, what I have tried to do is the instantaneous making and listening to the music, shaping it that way. Listening to what others are doing but making them do some of the things that I think the music should do. The rest of it is almost a social intuition kind of thing, to get on with these guys. I mean, off the bandstand it might be something else, but on the bandstand. And most of the people I play with are friends. It’s a deeply spiritual experience, playing music and listening to it. And that’s fed me a lot of energy. Music is about energy and mass.”

“A lot of people say that they don’t umderstand the music that I’m involved in. And I can see that,” Heward says, implying that he doesn’t necessarily understand it. “Many classical musicians that I know are terrified by it, they’re literally terrified, because there aren’t the rules and the regulations and the linearity. But others discover something in it that is faseinating, which is a totally different way of looking at things to come to the same point in the end. Music is music, whether it’s made through a history of the interpretation of something, or whether it’s made in the instant, out of apparently nothing. But it’s never nothing. It’s the accretion of experience of those making it and those hearing it And the opening up of experience in new directions

“When it comes right down to it, there is no separation of life and art for Heward — neither in the way he lives his life nor in the way he produces hus art. This e%ends to the way in which his art making is integrated with his living space and in the interactior~ he enjoys with fellow musicians. As Joe McPhee says about Undersound. “We’ve never had a rehearsal. We get together, have a few drinks, tell a few jokes, get up on the bandstand, and we just play. It’s about living.”