Katie Malloch retires

I was at the Rex Hotel in Toronto last week for the first time in ages and I was surprised to see a mention in the club’s schedule for a “Katie Malloch Farewell Event” coming up this Wednesday. I checked, and it’s true: the host of CBC Radio 2’s Tonic (and, more significantly, the host for 23 years of Jazz Beat) is retiring at the end of March.

It’s impossible to express how much she’ll be missed by Canadian jazz musicians and fans. She has been den mother to the whole community, coast to coast, for decades. To be blunt about things, she’s already missed to some extent, and has been ever since the boneheads at Radio 2 made her give up Jazz Beat for Tonic, on which she is required to play a certain amount of disposable fizzy lounge-lizard chantoosie fare. It’s still impressive how much real music she manages to sneak past the bouncers, but clearly she has had enough of it and she is going off to well-earned rest with her family.

A very large part of everything I know about jazz comes from listening to Kate. I would stay up late in high school and listen to That Midnight Jazz, the show she hosted then, on a Walkman. Later, Jazz Beat brought its invaluable double dose of in-concert recordings, from a Canadian group in the first hour, an international star in the second. I taped many of those concerts so I could have the sound of jazz in my parents’ car any time.

I met her at the Montreal International Jazz Festival when I moved to Montreal in 1989. I was entirely unsurprised to learn she is drop-dead gorgeous: full lips, big dark eyes, a constant smile, the way she would lean in and swear like a truck driver when somebody was screwing up. Scottish with a bit of Mohawk. A Gazette colleague told me that in the early ’70s she had, probably without even trying, dazzled and confounded much of the male student population at McGill. By the time I met her she had a family and an instinct to look out for musicians and reporters who, as is typical of both species, had no idea how to organize their personal lives. When I showed up with a girlfriend she would want all the details. When I didn’t she would frown and offer counsel. Every summer she’d update me on the Byzantine complexities of one prominent guitarist’s love life.

Musicians sang like canaries when Kate interviewed them. At first they would flirt. Then when she asked about family they would happily talk about that, because nobody else ever asked. And when she asked about music they replied with the respect and the specific information you can only get from a musician if it is obvious you know what you are talking about, as Kate surely does.

If there are off-stage announcements before a large public event in Montreal, Katie Malloch usually makes them. You want her voice in an audience’s ear, in English and impeccable French. Every single musician in town, and in most of the other towns where musicians gather to try to make their mark in rhythm and tune, remembers the day Katie Malloch met them or mentioned them on air.

She is on a little farewell tour. Of course each event features the best musicians in the best venues. She was in Vancouver last week where the Cory Weeds Quintet, abetted by at least four musicians who used to live in Montreal, played at the Cellar. On Wednesday she’ll be at the Rex in Toronto with Barry Elmes, Mike Murley, Don Thompson — a generation of musicians who rose to challenge the city’s sleepy musical conventions at just about the time she was rising to prominence at the CBC.

A week later she’ll be at the big Lion d’Or cabaret in Montreal, because so many people in her hometown love her that they couldn’t possibly fit into the city’s flagship club, Upstairs. Of course Kevin Dean’s quintet will do the musical honours. Special guests will fly in from every direction. I’ll be stuck overseas, but I know it will be a hell of a party.

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