Hugh O'Connor (1928-2020)

I wanted to share the sad news of the passing of one of my favourite Ottawa jazz musicians, an inspiration and a mentor to me and many other local players.

Click here to see a short article on Hugh's passing.

My quotes at the end were taken from this written interview with Peter Hum:

1) When did you play with Hughie and where? How many gigs did you do with him? 

I got to play with Hugh every Sunday for at least a year at Chez Lucien around 2007/2008, right up until I moved to Boston for grad school at the New England Conservatory.  It was an education just playing with him, learning the tunes he wanted to play that I didn't know and figuring out what he was looking for from the piano from moment to moment.  And of course hanging out and chatting between sets or spending the afternoon at his house playing and listening together. 

2) What was Hughie like as a person? 

Hugh was already in his late 70's when we got to know each other, and despite me being in my late 20's, we had more in common than a lot of people I knew at that time.  I remember talking with him about the Colbert Report that was just gaining popularity, he thought it captured true satire better than anyone had in a long while- I don't think I hung out with anyone else who was still up that late.  He would have a genuine conversation on any topic with anybody who cared to sit down and say hi.  His interest in other people and the world in general made a lasting impression on me. 

3) What was Hughie like as a musician? 

Hugh's playing was effortless, playful, and exciting to hear in person.  Of all of the regularly performing jazz musicians in Ottawa over the years, I think I went out of my way to see Hugh play more than anyone else.  His playing was always fresh even though I was familiar with all of the tunes he played.  He had a direct connection between his voice, his ears and the instrument.  If you played a song in a different key it didn't change anything, he would seamlessly be able to play any melody that he could vocalize.  I think his aural/vocal approach to improvising and phrasing resonated with me more than any other musicians I have played with, or heard in person. 

4) What did you learn from Hughie? What rubbed off? 

I think for a good chunk of the time we played together I was in my head worrying that I wasn't doing 'the right thing', and wondering if Hugh even enjoyed playing with me.  Looking back on our time playing together, I think had a more carefree approach than I realized to playing, sometimes it was good, sometimes less good, and occasionally it was exceptionally great.  There were a handful of times he would pay me a compliment - and maybe because they were so rare they felt earned and I felt like I genuinely was growing as a musician. 

He was the first musician to encourage me to feel a larger pulse (2 per bar instead of 4).  I'm sure others will mention this but he would take the time to establish a feel for a tune before we started by singing a drum groove instead of just establishing a bland quarter note pulse and counting down.  I don't think he thought about it, he was just already having fun playing the tune before it even started. It made for good music from the first note of each tune. 

Personally, up until I met him, I hadn't known many musicians (especially jazz) who played full time without teaching or a day job as their main day-to-day activity.  I think Hugh was the first person I worked with who only took gigs when he thought they would be enjoyable.  During his downtime he was living a simple life, with music at the centre.  Every time I saw Hugh he was having a good time, whether he was on the clock or not.  Maybe that had to do with the context of when I would see him, but regardless I aspire to that kind of life. 

5) If you have anything else you want to share about Hughie - an anecdote, for example - please do. 

Something that came up a lot, especially when I would talk about various things I was working on-  Hugh would always attribute this quote to a friend of his, but I will always attribute it to him.  There's one thing we can always work on, "Listen better."

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