There are times when we wish for what could be and mourn for what is lost. It takes time to become reconciled with the loss of a person who so personified the spirit of making the music come alive. When we lose an important person in our lives, their memory lingers on so strongly that we actually see them them ephemerally in the places we ourselves haunt.
For every performance, there are people typically sight unseen from the public, the van drivers like Phil who greet the musicians at the airport, an Elizabeth who makes sure that there is enough but not too much food and drink to slake the tastes for a hungry or thirsty musician before they hit the stage. I once saw a guy at the Victoriaville Festival who spent a solid hour making sure that the chairs didn’t squeak, applying a bit of lubrication here and there, changing the chair out if he couldn’t get rid of any noise that a wiggling bottom might induce. These good folks are everywhere in the jazz world, they take no special credit for what they do be it volunteer or paid work. If you want to know who they are, you have to go to the late show and even then not all of them will be there, for some are working long after the last applause of the night. They are typically well remembered by the musicians the next time they come to Vancouver.
Carl Chinn was one of them, but more than that he was the most amazing of all. On January 30 of this year, a week after Carl Chinn left us, about 250 people gathered at the Vancouver Creekside Community Centre. There were people present who hadn’t seen each other in a dozen years, but we were tied together because Carl was an absolute inspiration in our lives. The mood was sombre, the music community of Vancouver staggered by the loss of a man universally recognized for his unrelenting drive and ability to make the music happen. Maybe Wayne Stewart said it the best, speaking in the style of a Black American country preacher. “Carl was always there. When you needed a certain amplifier, Carl made it happen. When the flight was delayed or needed to be rescheduled, Carl made sure the ticket was changed. He practically had the whole schedule of North American and International airlines coming into Vancouver memorized. Carl never let anybody down, and it didn’t matter if it was 3 a.m. or 8 a.m., Carl was there to make it happen.”
But it was not only the Vancouver jazz community that was staggered by the loss of Carl. Tributes poured in from musicians all over the world. Some of those profound messages can be found here, including Ken Pickering’s eulogium. On April 12, a number of Vancouver musicians gathered at the Western Front, one of Carl’s favorite hang-outs, and played “Music for Carl.” DB Boyko hosted the evening and told a few Carl stories, and Ken Pickering recounted how Carl made a difference in peoples’ lives. The shock of Carl’s departure had turned into a time for reflection, and any place where gather together musically-minded friends, we become sombre when the subject of Carl inevitably comes up.
At “Music for Carl” Ron Samworth, part of group including Kevin Elaschuk, Peggy Lee, Dylan van der Schyff, said, “The piece I played for Carl was called ‘Fare Thee Well’ – after the folk tune of the same name. I wrote it just after my father passed away last summer and I sometimes play it as an intro to the folk song. Carl’s passing touched me deeply and I thought it would be a nice tribute to our friend.” The composition was introspective, providing the heart-searching into life and death, of living on when dearest friends have departed.
For myself, I remember Carl as the guy who smoothed the way through the maelstrom of Vancouver International Jazz Festival logistics. There is always the right time to get the interview or the photo, and Carl had the intimate, secret knowledge of how to land precisely on that time zone without splashing mud on somebody’s carefully polished shoes. He also had the discrete, understated language that required careful listening to get to the heart of the matter. Here’s an example:
Svirchev: Carl Babe!
Carl: “Svirch, what do you need?”
Svirchev: “What time is the Lace sound-check?”
Carl: “Other phone is ringing, I’ll call back in five.”
Precision is the operative word for three-hundred seconds later the mobile rings and Carl says: “They start at two. A month ago the singer asked for a certain microphone. Today the singer changed her mind and wants another type of microphone. We have to do some hustle. Try 15:30, ignore the atmosphere, it will settle out. Cool?” Oh, yeah, level-headed, no panic, a warning notice in his voice, pay attention to the vibrations. Stated but with a slightly dark sense of humor. That’s Carl Babe.
But this year of the 29th Vancouver International Jazz Festival is different. Although he had left the Festival employment a few years ago, Carl could always be found at the gigs, typically in the late hours. This Festival is our first Festival without Carl. It’s a time for a sentimental mood. Some of the visiting musicians will inevitably ask about him. Carl’s friends will walk into the Iron Works for the late show, and automatically look into the dark corners at the back of the room. There in our ephemeral vision we’ll see that strong jaw, those penetrating eyes, the slightly curved tilt of the lips ready to make a pithy and perhaps cryptic comment. Then reality will kick back in and each one of us will silently say, “I miss you. Carl.”
Note: The photo of Carl Chinn was taken in 2002 with Kevin Whitehead at a launch for his book, New Dutch Swing at the Virgin Megastore. The Clusone 3 (Michael Moore, Ernst Reijseger, & Han Bennink) also played.