Jeff Healey and Colin Bray first met in a tavern when Jeff was sixteen years old. Yep. Underage. They discovered they had a lot in common and quickly became friends. It would be a friendship that lasted. Healey began hosting a radio show on station CIUT– FM and when his touring and performance schedule picked up,Bray took over the show for him and still hosts "Sugar Foot Stomp" today.
Bray worked on stage with Healey often and appeared in the Beautiful Noise television performance.This interview proved invaluable for my review. I spoke with Colin by phone last week after his radio show; and the subject was Jeff Healey.
What is your favorite story about Jeff?
Jeff wasn't handicapped by being blind. There were frequent instances where you couldn't tell he was blind at all. We played a festival once and I was waiting on him down at the stage. He was meeting with other performers about a quarter mile away. I looked up and saw him with another member of our band in a golf cart heading towards me — and Jeff was driving! They drove right by a cop who paid no attention. He loved the water and often drove a speed boat, too.
What was Healey's greatest strength as a musician?
He liked the rhythm section. He had fabulous rhythm! He would bring his guitar and join the rhythm section, and it was great.
Tell us about his early musical influences.
His first influence was country music. In small town Ontario in the early seventies, there wasn't much else and he really loved it. He had a strong interest in Johnny Cash and his father took him to a Cash concert and somehow managed to get Jeff back stage. He met Johnny Cash and was so stunned, he couldn't speak. He was about ten or twelve years old. In fact, when Jeff was twelve, he cut a country music CD, multi-tracked, and he played all the instruments.
Then he was influenced greatly by his grandfather's records. Jeff had begun collecting 78s at an early age and loved the dance bands like Ted Weems and Paul Whiteman from the 1920s and 30s. In the end, he had 27,000 records. I know. I inventoried them for his estate.
Jeff learned to play guitar with the guitar laying on a bed so he continued that style as he grew up. He played guitar with it flat on his lap and was influenced greatly by Eddie Long.
What about jazz influences?
Louis Armstrong. He was Jeff's hero and became Jeff's biggest influence of all. He really liked Armstrong's timing and phrasing. Jeff patterned much of what he did after Armstrong. Composition of the band, song selection, use of female vocalists, and of course playing a trumpet. Jeff was very much influenced by American music.
I noticed that Healey played trumpet with the mouthpiece off to one side.
[a chuckle precedes the answer] Yeah, he played it wrong. But it's hard to tell someone they're playing an instrument wrong when they can play so good! He played that way because of his teeth.
Was Django an influence?
Yes, Jeff was very familiar with Django. He liked the rhythms. Actually, I had a gypsie jazz band called "The Grand Bouche Swingtet". Jeff played with us often and when he did, he played a Gibson Archtop guitar — a "grand bouche" guitar, which means "big mouth". So, yes, gypsy jazz was a part of Jeff's repertoire.
You said Jeff grew up liking jazz. Tell us how he got into rock and blues and then finally back to jazz.
Jeff was an excellent guitarist. He sat in with bands and performed at clubs. He got into rock and blues for the money. He did really well at it. He won two platinum records in Canada and was in a movie, too. It was Road House with Patrick Swayze. By the way, he detested that movie!
He didn't like touring which is so important in rock music. He liked to be at home. I never had any interest in rock music and I had a good paying jazz gig one night and convinced Jeff to come sit in with us. On the way home, we decided to form a jazz band. As soon as his contractual obligations with the rock thing were over, we started up the "Jazz Wizards".
How did you choose the other members of the Jazz Wizards?
Of course, Jeff was the attraction. We contacted guys we'd played with before and then the old "friend of a friend" thing — referrals. Back to the Louis Armstrong influence, Jeff wanted a female singer.
Jeff eventually produced two CDs for her, I think on the Sensation label. Nicole Stoffman sang with us until she hit it big in television, then Jeff discovered Terra Hazelton. She worked with us in lots of festivals and live shows and she was on the Beautiful Noise DVD.
On the DVD, Jeff said the band always tried to put on a show that they themselves would like to go see. In addition to being a part of some great music, what did you like most about the Jazz Wizards?
We had a lot of fun! There was a constant patter between Jeff and Chris Plock (saxophone) and the other band members. Always an exchange going on with the audiences. It was an act, but we all had a good time. Jeff's label for himself was not a guitarist, singer, nor trumpet player. He called himself an "entertainer" and that's how he would want to be remembered.