Growing up in a musical family, John Tank was exposed to a variety of instruments, including the violin and the piano. It wasn’t until he picked up a saxophone, however, that he found his calling, one that has made him something of a jazz legend more than 45 years down the road.
“I think the saxophone chose me – it was a mutual love affair,” said the K-W native who’s called New York City home for the last three decades.
He’ll be making a homecoming Saturday night (Apr. 17) to perform at the Registry Theatre, a show that will include guest pianist Bernie Senensky.
That concert will feature the old-school jazz – think Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane – that Tank has become known for.
That New York sound is a long way from that made by a five-year-old taking lessons on the Hawaiian guitar. He stuck that out for about a year, but it wasn’t until his teens that he came back to music lessons. He considered the guitar but was introduced to the saxophone through a friend, which would prove to be the defining moment in his musical career.
Starting on a $3-a-week rented saxophone, along the way he encountered high school music teacher Michael Bergauer, the legendary mentor for many regional musicians. Bergauer had an eye for real talent and knew from early on that Tank was special, having him concentrate on the tenor sax. With Bergauer’s support, he began to play in local dance bands. It did not take long for Tank to realize that he wanted to make his life in music.
“Music is great. It did a lot for my life. I was a young lad who had no direction – when I found music, it just consumed me,” he explained.
Beginning in 1961, he sought out the great Canadian saxophone player and teacher Paul Brodie, himself a student of Marcel Mule, Director of the Paris Conservatoire and considered the world’s greatest classical saxophonist.
“Paul Brodie taught me that you have to put everything you have into it.”
Following two years of intensive study with Brodie, Tank attended Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music. He returned to Canada and played the Toronto scene in the early ’70s before settling in the heart of the jazz world, New York City, and has lived in Manhattan ever since.
Tank has released three CDs and also appears on recordings by the iconic bassist Charles Mingus.
For Saturday’s concert, Tank will be playing six new compositions, tunes that he’s never performed before, along with some standards. It will be a classic jazz show, with the focus on the instrumentalists rather than the voice-heavy jazz that is prevalent today.
He’s been in the scene long enough to know that jazz’s popularity is cyclical. The current success of jazz and jazz-tinged singers is a double-edged sword, however.
“I’m not really pleased with the way the so-called jazz field has evolved: we’re awash in singers,” said Tank, noting the popularity of jazz singing means fewer opportunities for players. “They’re not getting a chance to have their music heard.”
Other genres of music – pop, rock, R&B – are completely dominated by vocalists, but jazz was the one real outlet for instrumentalists. Today, however, about half of what you hear in the genre is vocal music. This gives him pause, especially when considering the future that awaits young jazz players. In New York there are thousands of young kids learning jazz – but what kind of music scene will they find then they get older? he mused.
It’s already a tough market given the economy.
“There are three million musicians and three jobs,” he joked.
So we won’t expect him to break into song, then?
“I tell people, ‘just so you know, I’m not Lady Gaga,’” he laughed.
For this show, it’ll be the instruments front and center. And in the intimate confines of the Registry, it’ll be their natural sound, without amplification – “The sound is much better acoustically.”
John Tank will be joined by Bernie Senensky (piano), Jim Vivian (bass) and Ted Warren (drums) for the performance that takes place Apr. 17 at 8 p.m. at the Registry Theatre, 122 Frederick St., Kitchener.
Tickets are $18, available at the Centre in the Square box office by calling 578-1570 or toll free 1-800-265-8977 or online at www.centre-square.com.