Celebrated saxophonist P.J. Perry feels he owes just about everything he knows, musically, to Sylvan Lake’s old Varsity Dance Hall.
The grand, wooden-floored structure that was around from about 1930 to 1979 was where he started honing his sax skills by playing seven nights a week in his father’s dance band.
Varsity hall is also where the teenage Perry soaked up the sounds of visiting blues musicians from St. Louis or Kansas City, and where he practised jazz improvisation during afternoon jam sessions with Canadian greats, such as trumpeters Arnie Chycoski and Bobby Hales.
“It was an unparalleled opportunity to learn the craft,” recalled the 71-year-old, who was first turned on to jazz by notable musicians playing at the Varsity. “As a 13 or 14 year old, I just went nuts for (jazz). It was an instant love for me.”
For all these reasons, Perry is relishing the prospect of returning to Sylvan Lake with his quartet to headline at the Jazz at the Lake Festival on Friday, Aug. 16, at the Alliance Community Church.
“For me it’s the nostalgia — and a chance to relive my childhood,” said the Edmonton-based saxophonist, who recalled Central Alberta’s lake-side community as “an amazing place to grow up . . . There were horses, and fishing, and waterskiing in the lake and dating . . .”
Perry was born into a family of roving musicians. By the time P.J. turned six in 1947, his father Paul Perry (originally Guloien), had gotten tired of the constant touring and bought Sylvan Lake’s Varsity Dance Hall with his brother and another band member. He saw it as a fantastic opportunity to settle down for a spell.
During summer months, before TV came to the popular resort town, the Paul Perry Dance Band would entertain up to 1,000 people nightly on the Varsity’s railed dance floor.
Whenever fall approached with bitter winds blowing across the lake and tourists drifting back to their regular lives, the family would pack up and relocate to Vancouver where P.J. would attend school and his father would perform in West Coast nightclubs with luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie.
But each May, the family would return to Sylvan Lake. And the young Perry would finish up his academic year before starting another idyllic summer of performing music.
He recalls his years in Central Alberta as productive, happy ones, saying “Where else would you have the opportunity to play for an unprecedented seven nights a week?”
By age 14, he had joined his dad’s Paul Perry Orchestra, performing with many musicians who later became big names on the Canadian scene — including trumpet players Chycoski and Hales. Chycoski, who’s now venerated across North America, is best known for playing the Hockey Night in Canada theme, while Hales was Vancouver’s most in-demand trumpeter, also writing the musical opening for The Beachcombers TV series.
Perry recalled learning from seasoned jazz musicians how to improvise through 16 “unwritten” bars of music during a solo. “I would have to scramble, but it was a tremendous learning experience . . . improvisation is the basis for jazz.”
He also learned to play by listening to others. Besides paying close attention to the musicians he regularly performed with, “my dad and uncle always had fantastic jazz music playing around the house,” he recalled — a departure from the persistent country music on Alberta radio stations.
And Perry would routinely follow around touring black blues musicians who came from the U.S. to play at Varsity hall. “I would stick to them like glue on a fly stick. I would even go on to the hotels where they were staying and they would let me listen to the latest jazz music on vinyl records.” Perry would hear recordings of Art Blakey, a pioneer of bebop drumming, and jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown, who was highly influential, despite dying at age 25 in a car accident.
But with lifestyle changes brought on by television and the popularity of rock and roll, Perry’s magical dance hall days were numbered.
He believes only two of Sylvan Lake’s three original dance halls had remained during his childhood. And one night in 1959, Perry was playing with his dad’s band at the Varsity when someone ran in yelling that the rival music hall, The Prom, was in flames.
“It was the most spectacular fire,” recalled Perry, who noting the old dried wooden structure went up like a torch.
In spite of the Varsity’s illustrious history, that monumental building lasted only 14 years after Perry’s dad sold it in 1965. It was demolished by the new owner to make way for the Raccoon Lodge Motel.
Perry was glad someone from Rocky Mountain House was able to salvage the Varsity’s enormous rustic fireplace, which is now an anchor feature of the Terratima Lodge in Rocky.
“It was this fantastic, wood-burning stone fireplace that was the size of the one at the Jasper Park Lodge. It was lovely on cold spring days,” he recalled.
Perry’s adolescence at the Varsity is now just a memory, but his family ties remain.
When the P. J. Perry Quartet plays contemporary jazz standards at Jazz at the Lake, the band will include Perry’s drummer brother, Nels Guloien, as well as bassist Neil Swainson, pianist Chris Andrew — and possibly also his saxophonist uncle Jim Guloien, who still lives in Sylvan Lake and is now in his 80s.
Perry said he hopes his uncle will be able to share the stage with him again.
Tickets to the 8 p.m. concert at the Alliance Community Church at 4404-47th Ave. in Sylvan Lake are $35. For more event and ticket information about the Aug. 15-18 festival please visit www.jazzatthelake.com.