It always comes as a bit of surprise to be reminded that Toronto, Canada, in the 1950's and 1960's had a small but thriving music scene. With the intimate concert facility, Massy Hall as the focal point, three or four clubs in the downtown core hosted everything from jazz and blues to rock and roll. The Silver Rail, The Colonial Tavern, and The Golden Nugget hosted acts ranging from the rockabilly sounds of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks to the cool jazz piano of native son Oscar Peterson.
The most famous recording that exists from this period is of course the 1950's concert from Massy Hall featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillispe, and other heroes of the bebop era. While nothing can match that concert for star power, Toronto attracted quite a few other notable names. Although not many recordings exist from those times one that does is from a concert that was given at the Golden Nugget in 1966 by pianists Don Ewell and Willie "The Lion" Smith.
While studio recordings of the two from their time in Toronto were released under the title of Grand Piano, Stride Piano Duets: Live In Toronto 1966 is the first time the recording of their club date has been issued. The promoter of the gig at the Golden Nugget had arranged for one night's show to be recorded and had given the tapes to Don Ewell. It was his wife Mary who provided them to Delmark Records in 2007 just before her death, having inherited them from her husband when he died.
Willie "The Lion" Smith began his career as a jazz pianist before World War I. Aside from a two year stint in the army overseas he had been playing ever since. He was considered one of the foremost pianists of his era, and was considered one of the great innovators of early jazz piano. Stride piano, judging by what I heard on this recording, offered players far more freedom within a song to improvise and create than other forms of that era. While the player is still had to follow a tune, it was a far cry from the tight constraints imposed on a pianist by the fixed rhythms of ragtime.