Sunday, March 02, 2008

Farewell to Jeff

Jeff Healey was a presence in my life for such a long time that it's a shock that he's dead and a shock that he was only 41. The cancer that claimed his vision 40 years ago has now taken his life.

I first saw Jeff Healey at a Sunday night jam session at Grossman's Tavern in Toronto. He would have been a teenager then and that would have been the early '80s. Jeff's band was the house band that night. In those days Grossman's got great musicians but the venue was very basic - a tiny corner of the bar with monitors on beer cases - and the band was just about to go on when I heard someone say, "I didn't bring Jeff. I thought you brought Jeff!" and then there was a delay while one of his band-mates went to pick him up. They blew the lid off the place.

In later years I saw Jeff Healey many times, as a rock star and a jazz great. He showed up unexpectedly at a Bonnie Raitt concert at the Ex; I'll never forget listening to him while watching bungie jumpers bouncing upside down just outside the stadium. One summer evening I rode my bike to Ontario Place and leaned up outside the Forum fence to listen to him.

Jeff had a CBC radio show for a while called My Kind of Jazz on which he played from his collection of 78s. His gravelly melodious voice was a natural for radio. I heard him another time doing an interview on the CBC, describing a young woman who was singing lead vocals with his jazz band; he heard her talking and although she had never sung, he could tell from her speaking voice that she could be great and had encouraged her to learn.

The last time I saw Jeff was at the Elora Festival a year or so ago, playing jazz in the Gambrell Barn. It just doesn't seem possible that he's gone.


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