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Archie Alleyne, renowned Toronto jazz drummer, dead at 82

06/08/2015 01:10 EDT | Updated 06/08/2016 05:59 EDT
Archie Alleyne, a Toronto jazz drummer famous for his work with American vocalists like Billie Holiday, Ben Webster and Lester Young, has died, his family confirmed Monday. 

Alleyne had been fighting cancer for several years. He passed away at Bridgepoint Health at the age of 82.

Archibald Alexander Alleyne was born in 1933 and grew up in the Kensington Market neighbourhood. After teaching himself the drums, he became the house drummer at Town Tavern in the early 1950s.

It was at the Town Tavern that Alleyne earned his legend as Toronto's premier jazz percussionist.

It was at that bar he played with legends like Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster. He later toured the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean as a jazz drummer.

A departure from music

Just as his career was taking off, Alleyne had an unexpected exit from playing music in his early 30s.

In 1967, he was involved in a serious car accident on Lakeshore Boulevard as he was driving home from a concert. As he tells it, he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a lamp post, he told Vice News earlier this year. He did not perform jazz again until 1982.

Though he was not playing drums on stage at the Town, he was still in the spotlight. During his time away from jazz, he became a partner at the Underground Railway restaurant in the Bloor and Sherbourne streets area. 

Opened in 1969, the restaurant was an unorthodox addition to Toronto's restaurant scene. It was black-owned and specialized in soul food. The restaurant to this day is seen as trailblazing, as black restaurateurs were a rarity at the time and the soul food on the menu was considered a first for the city.

Alleyne owned the Underground Railroad with several partners, including Dave Mann, the Toronto Argos' first black quarterback.

The restaurant changed ownership in the early 1980s and shut down a few years after that.

Pushing jazz forward in Canada

By 1982, Alleyne was back playing music with Up Here, an album with the Frank Wright Quartet. For the album cover, he and Wright posed in tuxedos and instruments in front of the Flat Iron building on Front Street.

But Alleyne became frustrated with the progress of jazz music in Canada since he was last playing music in the 1960s.

In 1983, the drummer launched a protest aimed at the Canada Council for the Arts for excluding jazz when providing subsidies for recordings. He called it discrimination, and recruited a number of high-profile Canadians to join him in the call for change.

Eventually the federal government provided funding for jazz recordings. 

A few years later, he led another successful lobby to get more black musicians into the Toronto Jazz Festival.

All the while he continued to make jazz.

In 1989, Alleyne toured countries in the Caribbean and Africa with pianist Oliver Jones.

A concert they played in Nigeria was turned into a concert film by the National Film Board of Canada. Called Oliver Jones in Africa, the 1990 film is kept at the American Library of Congress for its cultural import.

More recently, Alleyne established The Archie Alleyne Fund for aspiring musicians. He was recognized for his efforts with a Harry Jerome award in 2015.

Alleyne was named as an officer for the Order Of Canada in 2012.

Colour Me Jazz: The Archie Alleyne Story, an autobiography written with Sheldon Taylor, is set to be released next week.

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