Eighty-nine people have already registered for the Community Heritage Roundtable on Wed. Jan. 25 when Don Smith, Aimee Benoit and I will talk about Calgary’s economic boom of 1912. It’s great to see so many people interested in the history of our city. This is the first of several centennial celebrations that have been planned for this year. Watch for future announcements regarding the centennials of the Calgary Public Library, the Stampede, the Grand Theatre, and other local institutions.
Cedar Walton was supposed to play in Calgary tonight. Chick Corea was supposed to play on Friday night, followed by Ben E. King on Saturday night. But none of that will happen now because C-Jazz, the local organizers of the Calgary Jazz Festival, have abruptly pulled the plug on the annual event.
Is it possible the shows will still go on? Likely not. The last time a Calgary jazz festival was forced to fold-in 2006-an angel was waiting in the wings. The angel was the now troubled C-Jazz, which had been formed six years earlier when Jazz Festival Calgary became too big for its boots. Jazz Festival Calgary had been launched in 1980 with some 75th anniversary grant money from the provincial government. As Jazz Festival Calgary expanded, with more and more focus on international acts, C-Jazz emerged as a local organization dedicated to promoting Calgary jazz artists. With a grassroots rallying of citizens and performers, C-Jazz was able to save the 2006 jazz festival and keep it going until now.
Much the same thing happened in Edmonton. When that city’s famous Jazz City crashed in 2005, after running successfully for twenty-five years, jazz fans across the country were shocked. Jazz City was one of the longest-running international jazz festivals in Canada. If it could fail, who would be next? The answer, of course, was Calgary.
The Edmonton Jazz Society was the saviour that resurrected Edmonton’s jazz festival. It had been running the Yardbird Suite jazz club for several years, and it was ready and waiting to launch the new Edmonton International Jazz Festival when Jazz City went down. The new festival started modestly-with a focus on Edmonton and other Canadian talent-and built slowly with the help of Jazz Festivals Canada. Its headliners this year include Chick Corea — who will thus be able to salvage something from his now-shortened Canadian tour — Nikki Yanofsky and John Pizzarelli.
Jazz City and Jazz Festival Calgary both died because of money woes. The C-Jazz folks now find themselves in the same boat. They don’t have the cash flow to cover the day-to-day expenses of the festival, and there’s no angel in the wings ready to bail them out. Has their festival, like its predecessor, gotten into trouble because it became too big for its boots? Perhaps. It has come a long way from its Calgary-oriented roots over the past four years, regularly featuring such big names as Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis and Allen Toussaint. Great for Calgary jazz fans, but not so great for C-Jazz’s bottom line. Last year’s festival left C-Jazz with what the Calgary Herald today describes as a “significant deficit.” A scaled-down version of the festival for this year would seem to have been the right way to go. But when the board members looked at the books this past weekend, even that option became impossible. Too bad.
My favourite neighbourhood Chinese eatery will be operating under new ownership as of July 1, 2010. The current owners have retired. I don’t know if the new owners will keep the name, Charly Chan’s Rice House. I don’t even know if they will continue to run it as a Szechuan restaurant. They should. It has been part of the neighbourhood for so long-twenty-seven years-that Charly’s has become an institution.
When Charly’s first opened, in 1983, Kensington was just starting to reinvent itself as a trendy neighbourhood synonymous with modern, middle-class style and comfort. The old Kensington, otherwise known as Hillhurst, had been a pastiche of wartime bungalows, vanilla-flavoured walk-up apartments, corner groceries, coin laundries, and appliance stores. Black and Decker City. The new Kensington was dotted with architect-designed homes that looked like miniature grain elevators. Instead of appliance stores, it offered the shopper everything from custom tanning to mountain bikes. Silk lingerie, beauty salons, and linguine with clam sauce. Patio tables with Cinzano umbrellas, interlocking red-brick sidewalks, and the Plaza Theatre art cinema. Post-modern commercial architecture in the sun-baked California style.
The new stores and restaurants, many of them now long gone, proclaimed to the world that Kensington was no longer a sleepy, working-class inner-city neighbourhood populated by students and hippies. It was now a place where you could shop for Stilton cheese, gnocchi, pesto and French bread, buy the New York Times, and listen to Bob Erlendson’s jazz piano during Sunday brunch. It was a place where you could take in a foreign film, drink expresso, buy a novel, and savour the salty taste of the patented deli-fries at the Kensington Delicafe. If I had written this piece back then, the Deli owner would have given me a couple of dining coupons as “payola.”
Charly Chan’s offered such Szechuan favourites as fried shredded beef, salt-and-pepper seafood, and Mongolian chicken. Its only competition in the neighbourhood, the venerable Lido Café, offered a more traditional selection of “Chinese and western cuisine,” including chow mein, chop suey, and fried-egg sandwiches. The Lido opened at 8:00 AM every day except on Sunday, when it opened at 1:00 PM “People are supposed to go to church,” explained the waitress. She put an “out of order” sign on the counter jukebox to stop customers from complaining they received only one play instead of two for fifty cents.
Long before Starbucks and Second Cup moved into the neighbourhood, the owner of The Roasterie was serving café au lait to his customers in cereal bowls. He had researched the market and discovered that Canadians love their coffee. “We’re number twelve in the world after the Europeans,” he said. A sign on his wall said, “Even when it’s hot, you can have a coffee and still be cool.”
Canadians, it seems, also loved to collect things. At Toys from the Attic Collectables, you could find a treasure trove of vintage Coca Cola memorabilia, Victorian vanity cases with sterling silver accoutrements, and classic Elvis albums in the original shrink-plastic wrappers. A collectable, explained owner Brian Lehman, was defined as anything worth keeping and up to forty-nine years old. Older items, aged fifty to ninety-nine years, were classified as heirlooms. Items more than one hundred years old were classified as antiques. Who knew?
At Blue Vinny Foods, the weekend chef could never resist a joke. “I’ll let you have it for free if you eat it with your hands,” he told a ten-year-old girl who ordered Eggs Benedict for breakfast. She giggled and declined the offer.
Walt Healy sold motorcycles and snowmobiles at his Kensington store until he was into his late seventies. He rode his bike every day, year round. Did it get cold in winter? “Not when you dress for it.” How about traction on the icy streets? “With a sidecar, no problem.” Walt died with his boots on, at age eighty-three, after attending a dinner for vintage bike enthusiasts. His friends said afterwards that the dinner was probably the best send-off party he could have asked for.
The Snoboard Shop urged its customers to “live original, die original.” The customers needed no further prompting. Skate-boarding youngsters competed with pedestrians for sidewalk space. Neighbourhood cars sported bumper stickers that said, “I Share the Road With Cyclists.” You don’t see such bumper stickers any more. Now the cars are festooned with silly little Flames’ flags, even when the team fails to make the playoffs.
Sandpiper Books promised its patrons that if they visited the store in the afternoon, they would often get to meet a “famous Alberta author.” On a sign in the window, they could read a fortune-cookie quote from Bartlett’s. “Every child is an artist,” said a quote from Picasso. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
Artists were often seen around the neighbourhood. They came down the hill from the Alberta College of Art to pick up supplies at the R.A. Barnes store, and showed their works in the Kensington galleries. If they couldn’t afford the gallery rental, they would show their works on the sidewalk. As long as the weather stayed nice, you could always expect to see a one-person exhibition on Tenth Street or Kensington Road.
The Kensington Deli featured live music every night. It could be a folk artist, singer-songwriter, or a jazz performer like violinist Karl Roth, who would tell his audience, “We would like to play for you the Canadian version of the well-known Duke Ellington tune, Take the Train, Eh!” On a summer night, the Deli was the best place to relax with a nightcap after a filling plate of sizzling chicken and Szechuan noodles at Charly’s. The sweet sound of Roth’s violin would follow me as I headed home along Kensington Road. The moon would be in the first quarter, and the sky would be cloudless. It was always a beautiful night in the neighbourhood.