Jeff Healey & The Jazz Wizards
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Jeff Healey & The Jazz Wizards


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The best kept secret in music


"Music Reviews, reviewed by Stephen K. Peeples"

Toronto-born Jeff Healey earned kudos from his peers and a fair amount of cash from the record-buying public in the ‘80s and ’90s as a blues-rockin’ guitar slinger with a singular style he developed by playing a Fender Strat stretched flat across his lap.

If that’s your point of reference for Healey, you might find this third album and first live set released by Healey’s Dixieland band, the Jazz Wizards, a big surprise. It’s a wild but ultimately rewarding flashback to the birth of New Orleans jazz, which is no mean feat for a bunch of guys who grew up and live more than 1,100 miles north of the Big Easy, and in a completely different culture.

Healey, blind due to eye cancer in 1967 at age one, started playing guitar at three and fronted his own blues-rock band, Blues Direction, at 17. A couple years later he put together a new trio, with Joe Rockman on bass and Tom Stephen on drums. An indie single caught Arista’s ear and the Jeff Healey Trio’s debut album, See the Light, scored U.S. platinum, with a little help from the single “Angel Eyes.” Healey never let sightlessness stand in his way, nor did he work that angle as a marketing gimmick. Once he started playing, no one cared if he had three heads.

After the turn of the century, Healey exposed his other musical roots, the music he’s loved as much as the blues and rock since childhood – ragtime and New Orleans Dixieland jazz. Pioneered by giants like Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, it’s the music that bridged the field songs of the latter 1800s with the swing of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman and the Dorseys, between the late ’20s and mid-’40s. All of it laid the foundation for Parker, Dizzy, Miles, Coltrane and the other pioneers of modern jazz.

Healey picked up the trumpet a few years back and developed a style loosely based on Louis Armstrong’s early stuff from the ‘20s, when Pops was fronting the Hot Five and Hot Seven (a touchstone for generations of post-Armstrong cornet and trumpet players). Healey also started hosting a trad-formatted radio program, “My Kind of Jazz,” initially heard on CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Company), then online at

In 2002, Healey assembled the Jazz Wizards from like-minded local and regional players, and set out to simultaneously celebrate and pay homage to the joyful noise and mournful dirges of Dixieland and hot jazz. They cut a couple of albums, Among Friends (2002) and Adventures in Jazzland (2004), released on Healey’s independent HealeyOphonic label.

By Healey’s count, he and the Wizards had played a couple dozen gigs by mid-‘05, when he decided to record them in front of a live audience for their third outing. Released on the Stony Brook label, It’s Tight Like That captures the band conjuring up the Crescent City spirit at Hugh’s Room, an intimate folk club in Toronto, in front of appreciative audiences over two nights in late August 2005.

Healey blew lots of trumpet, played a little guitar and sang most of the leads. He’s not in Pops’ league, but knew what to play, his chops were okay, and his enthusiasm and attack compensated for whatever seasoning he lacked. His vocals were a little rough-hewn, perhaps from his years on the road touring with his trio, and lent to the character of the songs.

Joining Healey on the front line as Special Guest Wizard was Chris Barber, British trombone legend and skiffle architect in the mid-1950s (and therefore a direct influence on the desperately impressionable Quarry Men in Liverpool). By the early ’60s, Barber was a trad-jazz legend, and at a time when blues was on the skids in America, he was instrumental in getting black American bluesmen, including Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Louis Jordan, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, over to England.

In their audiences of mostly white British kids were acolytes like John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and various Rolling Stones, who threw all that stuff back at young and still-clueless American white kids and sparked the great blues revival of the late ’60s. Instead of fading into obscurity, guys like Muddy Waters are legends.

Barber made the initial contact, asking Healey to fly to the U.K. to join his band for some dates there and in Europe. Healey was done with long tours, especially so far away from home, and talked Barber into traveling to Toronto instead. Richard Flohill, a local friend of Healey’s and a Barber fan as well, booked and promoted the Hugh’s Room gigs to facilitate the event.

Healey, then a 39-year-old whippersnapper, and Barber, a scrappy pappy at 75, collaborated with the Wizards on the repertoire, much of which was called during the performance.

Under Healey’s buoyant guidance, they opened with a full-tilt “Bugle Call Rag” that got the band and the audience wide-awake inside of six and a half minutes.

Wizards Christopher Plock ripped on reeds (clarinet, soprano and alto sax), Dre - Audio Video Revolution

" – Jeff Healey & the Jazz Wizards"

Long before Jeff Healey burst onto the '80s blues-rock scene with an unorthodox lap-steel-like approach to conventional guitar and a flair for radio-friendly pop songs like "See the Light" and "Angel Eyes," he had a deep jones for 1920s and '30s jazz. His first major release in that vein, a live recording with his eight-piece Wizards and British jazz revivalist/trombonist Chris Barber as his guest, takes Louis Armstrong's historic Hot Five recordings and Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club band as its swinging twin axis of influences. Sure, the results aren't groundbreaking, yet they're authentic and fun, thanks to spirited performances and a selection of mostly playful uptempo chestnuts, including "Sing You Sinners," Georgia Tom Dorsey's suggestive title track, and Bessie Smith's "Keep It to Yourself." Barber's trombone solos are hale and raucous, but Healey's his own ringer, fretting elegant, classic guitar lines and pulling boisterous double duty on ebulliently squawking trumpet. --Ted Drozdowski -


-Jeff Healey and the Jazz Wizards "It's Tight Like That", released March 28, 2006, Stony Plain Records
-Jeff Healey "Among Friends" re-released September 2006, Stony Plain Records
-Jeff Healey "Adventures In Jazzland" re-released September 2006, Stony Plain Records


Feeling a bit camera shy


Jeff Healey: An unusual, passionate, committed musician

Okay, two simple facts first:

• Jeff Healey is arguably one of the most distinctive guitar players of our time.
• The man who sold millions of hard blues/rock recordings is equally at ease — and always enthusiastic — playing the infectious, joyful pop music of the ’20s and ’30s that’s usually described as “traditional” or classic jazz.

Which means the 40-year-old Toronto-based musician has two bands, two musical lives — but not a trace of schizophrenia! Now he has released a new CD, It‘s Tight Like That, on Canada’s internationally distributed label, Stony Plain.

A life in music: A quick summary

Healey’s story has been told before — but here’s the quick version:

Blind since early childhood, he picked up his first guitar when he was three, and began to play it flat across his lap, “accidentally” devising the revolutionary technique that became his signature style.

His parents — he was adopted at an early age — encouraged him in every way possible, and helped him discover the joy and the depth of early American music. He played his first gigs when he was six, and by his teens had played a variety of music in a number of different bands.

He had also begun to amass a formidable record collection — he now has well over 30,000 78-rpm records, in addition to thousands of CDs and tapes, and later created a CBC Radio show, which he named “My Kinda Jazz.” (The programme still continues today on Toronto’s 91.1 JazzFM station).

By 1985, he was playing — and singing — electric blues at Grossman’s, a happily seedy bar near Toronto’s Chinatown; within two years, he was joining B.B. King on stage at a festival in Vancouver, had become friends with Stevie Ray Vaughan, made a series of demo recordings, and cut a deal with the Arista label, headed by the legendary Clive Davis.

The first record, See the Light, was released in 1988, and a starring-role in the movie Road House (opposite Patrick Swayze) gave his career an international lift. And the first record also had one other element: A smash hit single — the John Hiatt/Fred Koller song “Angel Eyes,” (also covered by such hardcore country groups as New Grass Revival), and marked by excellent and expressive vocals.

Two years later, a second album — Hell to Pay — was released, and this one featured guest appearances by two other great guitarists, George Harrison and Mark Knopfler. Alas, a third album, seen as a “new beginning” by Healey’s American record company was the beginning of the end of the Jeff Healey Band’s run, at least as far as recording was concerned.

Developing a new musical direction

It was not, however, anywhere near the end of this determined artist’s recording career.

Working hard, he had learned a new instrument and became an accomplished trumpet player, modeling himself on his all-time musical hero, Louis Armstrong. Two superb traditional jazz albums followed: Among Friends was released in 2002 and Adventures in Jazzland came two years after. Both featured Jeff on guitar, trumpet, and valve trombone — and many of the musicians who came together to be renamed Jeff Healey and the Jazz Wizards. Both CDs were released independently and achieved modest distribution.

While forging a new musical direction, Healey took on other challenges, including the creation of a downtown Toronto club, Healey's, that has since presented hundreds of international and local artists, and which continues as one of the best live music venues in the city. And along the way he was presented with an honorary Doctorate of Letters degree by McMaster University.

The Jazz Wizards play at Healey's every Saturday afternoon (unless they’re on the road) and each Thursday Healey himself holds an informal jam with a variety of special guests. Usually (but by no means always) the musical menu is the sort of blues-based rock that initially gave Healey an international reputation.

And while Jeff Healey’s musical focus with the Jazz Wizards is to bring the music of the past into the present, he is still asked to assemble bands to recreate the powerhouse blues to which he remains sentimentally attached. He undertakes tours in Europe two or three times a year, but he limits his road work for personal reasons.

A family man with a year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter he prefers to stay close to home. “I’ve traveled widely before — been there and done that,” he says, determined to avoid the lengthy, exhausting tours that marked his life in his twenties and early thirties.

Musically, his two lives seem to work well — if only because he has never been happier, or more enthusiastic about the music he loves.

On stage, he remains a charismatic figure, at ease and always ready with a laugh, and his musical skills have matured in a way that he could not have imagined when he started his musical career.

A fascinating artist to watch — whether playing guitar or trumpet — he’s