Peter Appleyard Wizard of the Vibraphone
by Murray Ginsberg
The career of legendary jazz artist Peter Appleyard spans more than five decades. He has performed with some of the world's greatest musicians, among them Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson. He was the most played artist on FM radio in the 70s and 80s, while his award-winning TV jazz series, 'Peter Appleyard Presents' was broadcast across Canada from 1978 to 1981.
Peter Appleyard is an enthusiastic showstopper, all jazz and mallet work, dazzling melodic improvisation and breath-taking harmonic variations. Since Lionel Hampton, with few peers in the vibraphone world, he's the greatest jazz vibraphonist on the planet.
Born August 28, 1928, in Cleethorpes, England, he studied piano at age 14 and began learning drums on his own. "At 16 I was playing with various dance bands. I had a bicycle with a trailer behind it and would ride 10 to 15 miles just to play a gig," he recalls. He began his performance career with Felix Mendlessohn's Hawaiian Serenaders, the most popular dance band in England and the first to appear on British television. During this same period, he was conscripted into the Royal Air Force where he played dozens of drumming engagements with the RAF band.
After 18 months with the RAF, Appleyard performed with various leading British orchestras. In December 1949 he accepted an 18-month contract to play in Bermuda. Then in 1951 a vacation trip to Canada led him to move to Toronto. Hearing Red Norvo's trio with Charles Mingus and Tal Farlow inspired him to switch to vibes and form a trio that also used bass and guitar. They played the Colonial Tavern, the most important jazz mecca in Canada's largest city. At the Colonial he also heard and met Artie Shaw, Errol Gamer, Count Basie, Muggsy Spanier, and others. His Toronto reputation grew as he was featured vibes soloist with the Calvin Jackson Quartet at the Park Plaza Hotel, and eventually formed his own quartet.
Somewhere along the way Peter took a trip to New York City, which created a new musical focus for him. "I headed down Broadway and heard George Shearing and his quintet and Lionel Hampton's big band at Bop City. That was the thrill of a lifetime," he says. The extraordinary influences of piano great Shearing and vibraphone colossus Hampton changed his life forever.
By 1956 Appleyard was taking his quartet on tours and club dates. He has also enjoyed a long standing association with CBS Radio and Television which led to him winning the Arthur Godfrey Showtalent contest, and appearances on the Andy Williams Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the Today Show with David Garroway. His busy schedule in New York in the late 1950s included months-long engagements at the Embers and Round Table. The Dukes of Dixieland, Steve AlIen and Andre Previn also played there and helped him get a contract that resulted in three Audio Fidelity albums. Throughout his long and prestigious career Peter has appeared in virtually all jazz venues in the USA, Asia, Europe and Canada.
At the Embers Appleyard met Benny Goodman, who hired him for a concert in Hackensack, New Jersey. In the sextet were Hank Jones, piano; Milt Hinton, bass; Bobby Rosengarden, drums, and Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar. A few months later, Appleyard joined Goodman's group, which turned out to be the beginning of an eight-year relationship and friendship. The Goodman band, including Appleyard, was later formed to open the Rainbow Grill in New York City.
Highlights of tours with Goodman from 1972 to 1980 included a 1972 recording On Stage, Live at the Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen (Time Life Recordings); Benny Goodman All Stars with Zoot Sims, George Benson, Hank Jones, Slam Stewart, and Joe Venuti (Columbia Records).
In 1976, Frank Sinatra invited Peter Appleyard to appear with him, Ella Fitzgerald and the Count Basie Orchestra for a two-week engagement at the Uris Theatre in New York City. In the '80s he appeared with Sinatra again in an Ottawa fundraiser organised by Canadian comic Rich Little, which raised over $500,000 for the Ottawa Civic Hospital.
On July 24, 2005, I was happy to meet Peter at the Robert Farnon Memorial Tribute at St. Paul's (the Actors') Church in Covent Garden, London, which was packed with friends and colleagues who came to pay their respects to their late hero. I knew that Peter had been a member of the Robert Farnon Appreciation Society for years.
In early April of this year some friends and I travelled to Rockwood, a pleasant village 50 miles west of Toronto to hear Peter and Friends at La Vi//e Auberge, a lovely restaurant that was sold out for the concert. Peter lives on a 31-acre farm in Rockwood, from where he tours the world. The concert included jazz pianist John Sherwood and super bassist Neil Swainson. Although I've known and worked alongside Peter on various TV shows and live concerts for years, it wasn't until that Rockwood afternoon when I was astonished to hear him play drums (while pianist Sherwood soloed on various standards,) then actually play the piano with his right hand while Sherwood backed him with his left. On one ferociously high-speed tempo tune, Peter's million-note-per-bar variations rivalled the great Oscar Peterson.
On 30 June 2006, Peter was invited to the UK by Guy Saint-Jacques, acting Canadian High Commissioner in London to help celebrate Canada Day (July 1), Canada's 139th birthday. The programme, Canada On Stage, in Trafalgar Square, began at 5pm and presented not only Peter Appleyard but also a diverse range of talent from across the country that entertained a lively crowd of listeners until 9pm.
At 9pm, my partner and I were fortunate to be invited to Canada House where Peter and Friends entertained some 300 guests from 9 until 11pm. Peter brought pianist John Sherwood from Canada and added two of Britain's finest musicians to complete the group - bassist Paul Morgan and drummer Bob Worth. To say the least, Peter and Friends had the audience whistling and applauding until the show ended.
Peter Appleyard is considered, by fans everywhere, to be one of the leading jazz percussionists in the world today, and certainly a Canadian national treasure. He is the proud recipient of the Scarborough, Ontario "Civic Award of Merit" for his outstanding contributions to the international and Canadian music scene. He has also been honoured to receive The Order of Canada in recognition of his international stature as a musician and "Good Will Ambassador".
He is undoubtedly the greatest jazz vibraphonist alive.
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