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Canadian jazz legend reflects on career, Africville roots

Jazz musician Joe Sealy — who won a Juno award for his 'Africville Suite' and lived in Halifax— reflected on his past in a virtual African Heritage Month event
piano palying black and white

When jazz pianist and composer Joe Sealy reflects on his long career in the music business, he sees a road to success that came out of Africville and his family’s roots in the historic Black settlement.

The Toronto-based musician was interviewed during an online conversation Saturday co-hosted by the TD Halifax Jazz Festival and Halifax Public Libraries.

In the virtual chat — an African Heritage Month event — between Sealy and interviewer Charles Hsuen, Sealy said he’d been performing his Africville Stories concerts prior to last year’s arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in Canada.

His presentation is a more recent version of his Africville Suite, Sealy’s Juno Award-winning recording from the 1990s.

“We all hope that we can survive this pandemic and get back to some live performances,” he told Hsuen at the end of their talk. “I really miss it.”

Earlier, Sealy was asked about his family roots in Nova Scotia — ties that stretch back to 19th-century Africville. Seay's father was born there in 1910.

Hsuen raised the impact the 1917 Halifax Explosion had on the family. Sealy’s father was a boy at the time of the disaster.

“There was a lot of shrapnel that fell (on Africville), and one of the pieces of shrapnel hit my dad in the head,” Sealy says.

His father survived and when he was nine-years-old, Sealy’s Barbadian-born grandfather moved his family to Montreal for better economic opportunities.

While growing up on Montreal’s South Shore, Sealy was a music student of piano teachers in the city. He then joined the Royal Canadian Navy as a young man.

Later, he was accepted to study at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, and received an honourable discharge to attend school. 

In the 1960s, Sealy busily worked for a period in Halifax, playing gigs and handling music-related tasks for CBC Television. One of Sealy’s jobs was playing in a trio, The Unusuals, which included the late Charles (Bucky) Adams and Chuck Cornish.   

Sealy, now 81-years-old, would go on to wear various hats in the arts. That included sitting in on the piano with several jazz giants, getting involved in musical theatre and doing radio broadcasts.

In 2010, he received the Order of Canada. A biographical blurb accompanying the honour describes Sealy as “a renaissance man” — musician, producer, musical director, arranger, composer and actor.

“His compositions are noted for their melodic invention,” it says.

Sealy was profiled a year ago in a piece posted by the Songwriters Association of Canada. In it, he recalls his packed schedule while multitasking in Halifax.

“As soon as I got to Halifax, in the first week, I was working seven nights a week and also recording every Sunday, plus (doing) a radio show every week, and videotaping every other Saturday,” the association’s story says.

Sealy told Hsuen on Saturday he moved to Halifax in 1967 and that he “was just so busy.”

But he wasn’t finished.

Prompted by the popularity of The Unusuals, Sealy, Adams and Cornish opened an after-hours club on Gerrish Street in 1968.

A couple of years after Sealy moved to Toronto in the 1970s, multitalented entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. performed in the city. Sealy was hired to play background piano music during the introductory part of the show.

“All I did was play softly behind him, and, you know, it was great,” he says of the performance that took place around 1978.

In Nova Scotia, former Africville residents, descendants and supporters last year rallied for reparations.

The Black neighbourhood in Halifax's north end was razed in the 1960s for industrial development. A $3-million redress settlement was reached in 2010, but the agreement didn’t provide compensation to individuals or households.

“Forcibly relocated, the former residents of Africville and their descendants were scattered,” says the Africville Heritage Trust’s website. “This is an example of the ‘urban renewal’ trend that destroyed similar neighbourhoods across Canada.”

The liner notes in the Africville Suite CD — recorded in Toronto in 1996 — say Sealy’s ancestors settled in Africville, by the Bedford Basin, in 1848. Neglected by successive Halifax city hall administrations, it’s now a national historic site.

In those record notes, written by the artist, Sealy says music was a big part of the Africville community.

“Jazz, soul, blues and gospel," his liner notes say. "Not a home in Africville was without a piano or an organ."

Africville also had high-profile visitors during its time.

Jazz legend Duke Ellington visited decades ago as his second wife’s family was from Africville; they’d see her relatives in the community when Ellington’s band played in Halifax.

Sealy portrays this musically on his Africville Suite album in the tune, 'Duke’s In Town.'

The recording's liner notes also say Boxing great Joe Louis once stayed in Africville after he’d retired from the ring and was in Halifax to referee wrestling matches.

Sealy composed a tribute to Louis, Brown Bomber which was the famous fighter’s nickname.

“When Joe realized that Blacks were usually discouraged from staying (at the Lord Nelson hotel where he was booked)," the liner notes say, "he was outraged and immediately checked out."

According to the notes, he stayed the night in Africville as a guest of a well-known family in the close-knit community.

In his interview with Hsuen, Sealy said Louis had heard the family of boxing champ George Dixon lived there and he asked the wrestling promoter if he’d talk to the Dixons about the possibility of hosting a houseguest.

“So (Louis) stayed with the Dixon family in Africville,” Sealy said.

Sealy has described "Brown Bomber" — it’s a little more than six-and-a-half minutes long — as a funky, percussive number.

Michael Lightstone is a freelance reporter living in Dartmouth

About the Author: Michael Lightstone

During a general-news career lasting close to 30 years, Michael LIghtstone has covered such things as politics, health matters, courts, labour issues and jazz concerts
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