To prepare a pair of fried eggs for all of the jazz musicians on recordings named Bill Graham would require an entire dozen. Of this crowd assembled for breakfast, only the pianist Bill Graham -- who plays on only one record in 1948 -- seems more obscure than the drummer credited with a half dozen sessions, beginning in 1953 backing up none other than Charlie Parker. But to knowledgeable jazz fans in Toronto Billy Graham was a local legend. Born and raised on the Manitoba prairies, Graham was already playing drums at the age of eight. His professional career began in the '40s, however, and it wasn't very long before he and one of his associates decided to head east looking for musical action.
Montreal was the spot where the drummer built his reputation. By the early '50s, Graham was considered one of the main jazz percussionists on the scene, along with Walter Bacon and elder statesman Wilkie Wilkinson. No surprise, then, that Graham got the call when Charlie Parker, also known as "Bird," flew into town, a gig the drummer described in later interviews "...like riding a fire engine around a corner at 90 miles an hour -- you're just hanging on by the tips of your fingers." Accompaniment for Parker on this Montreal visit was a combination of several American players and members of a band Graham drummed for, the Canadian All Stars. These recordings by Parker have been at times the only documentation of Graham's playing to remain available. While some of the work he did in Canada was fortunately documented by the CBC radio "transcription series," these albums have unfortunately never been easy to find for members of the public: fanatics can always try to rescue a discarded promo copy from the junk shop, where it might be found piled up just behind the used hockey equipment and the rack of winter toques.
A wonderful obituary written by Toronto journalist Mark Miller fills in many details that otherwise would only be available via a healthy discography. Graham became a member of some excellent rhythm sections, working with bassist Bob Rudd alongside visiting organist Hazel Scott, for example. On the Montreal scene, Graham played in outfits including the Delta Rhythm Boys, the Three G's and the previously mentioned Canadian All Stars. During the '50s he conceivably would play one night in a club setting with a new quartet headed by brilliant pianist Paul Bley, the next night in a strip joint. In the mid-'60s the drummer headed back home to Winnipeg, accompanied by his young daughter. He spent nearly a decade there playing and teaching as well as backing up visiting performers such as the avant-garde multi-instrumentalist Ken McIntyre.
Presumably following the advice of Horace Greeley, Graham next tried to west coast, arriving in Vancouver in 1974 and settling in with local hotshots such as Fraser MacPherson and P.J. Perry. He also worked frequently at recording sessions and in theater pit bands. This base lasted only a couple of years. In 1976, he relocated to Toronto, his final shift in geographical position. Movie audiences in Canada who were routinely treated to short films sponsored by the National Film Board may have heard Graham on the soundtrack to titles such as Of Sport and Men, Runner, and Ski while waiting for blockbusters of the day to commence. As the grand old men of the Canadian jazz scene such as Graham and his sidekick Gordie Fleming either retire or pass away, it is hoped that several long-planned reissue projects involving their recordings have or will soon hit the CD racks. ~ Eugene Chadbourne
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