“New York has William Burroughs, Los Angeles has Charles Bukowski and Vancouver has Al Neil,” — local author John Armstrong
“Al Neil gets more pleasure out of walking down the road than other people get from buying a car or skiing down a mountain.” — Toronto author Brian Fawcett
Upon learning that Vancouver jazz and literary legend Al (Alan Douglas) Neil has died, the longtime Georgia Straight music critic and guitarist Alex Varty wrote: “R.I.P. Al Neil. We were friends, neighbours, occasional sparring partners (I took the punches), and musical collaborators (one time only, alas) on and off for almost 40 years. As much as anyone I know, he shaped my conception of what it is to be an artist. He’ll be very much missed—but rather than mourn, let’s celebrate all that he accomplished in music, visual art, performance, fiction, and life! Still, my very sincere condolences to his partner in art and life, Carole Itter.”
Neil was variously dubbed “one of Vancouver’s bona fide underground warriors, a man with a cult following and a hermit’s mystique,” “keeper of the avant-garde flame” and “a Charlie Parkerish sort of 1960 version of Charles Ives with Schoenberg overtones.”
For decades, Al Neil was Vancouver’s elder of the avant-garde. He was born in Vancouver in 1924 at Vancouver General Hospital and first lived at 4245 Sophia Street, one block east of Main Street. In 1930, his family moved to 1933 Quebec Street, just east of Main and 12th Avenue, near the future site of both The Cellar jazz club and the Western Front. At age nine he began classical piano lessons under Glenn Nelson at Quebec Street and 12th Avenue. He also took some pride in being a self-taught gymnast at the Belvedere Hall, just off Main and 11th.
Al Neil graduated from King Edward High School and took a job on a survey crew for the Department of Transport at age 17 at Hardy Bay, near Fort Rupert, a remote Kwakiutl village near the northern end of Vancouver Island. He was part of an initiative to build the first military runway on the island’s north end.
This work led him to work as surveyor when joining the war effort at age 18. “What’s a guy gonna do? You’re naïve and there are signs all over the place that say you’ve got to fight the Huns.” He served in Canada, England and Normandy. In 1944, at 20, he landed on the Normandy beachhead. While he was overseas, his mother sent him copies of Downbeat, the New York-based jazz publication that apprised him of the growth of a new style of jazz dubbed be-bop.
Returning to Vancouver very much scathed, Al Neil resumed studying music with Glenn Nelson, Jean Coulthard and others but he soon veered into jazz lessons with Wilf Wylie, inspired by the 78s made by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie and others. Around 1947 he helped establish a coterie of musicians who eventually generated the opening of The Cellar at 2514 Watson Street, around the corner from Main & Broadway, in 1956. It quickly became Vancouver’s foremost jazz venue.
Al Neil led the house band at The Cellar, meeting and playing with some of America’s most distinguished progressive jazz artists.
In the early 1950s Al Neil was still working for the post office and living with a wife and two children in Lynn Valley. “But I gave it up,” he told one journalist. A second marriage also disbanded. Addicted to heroin, he read extensively and was impressed by writers Rimbaud, Artaud, Breton and Jarry. He also began making collages influenced by the Dadaists and the surrealists.
Be-bop pianist Al Neil never got over his horrific WW II memories of landing on Normandy Beach at age twenty. In Vancouver, “the ceaseless nagging of invisible ghosts,” led him to drug addiction.
Al Neil’s brilliantly inspired or else sadly drunken concerts at the Western Front would later become semi-legendary but he was not initially a flamboyant performance artist.
In 1972 the Vancouver Art Gallery hosted a one-man exhibit of Neil’s art. His first book, West Coast Lokas, was Neil’s written accompaniment to the show.
In that book is a transcript of an interview with Bill Smith. Al Neil recalls, “There was a point about 1947 when some of us got tired and frustrated with not having a place to play. So we got together and formed a little society. In British Columbia you can get a charter that doesn’t necessitate getting things like expensive yellow urinals and commissaries of various descriptions. You can just set up and go to work. We rented an old piano and for at least ten years I played there. The prime motivating factor in the whole thing was the same for anyone of us who had any kind of experience (Canadian players like P.J. Perry, Glen McDonald, Dale Hillary). There were a lot of Eastern players as well as Westerners. We got people like Herman Green, Richard “Notes” Williams and Freddy Redd, a very good pianist who played a gig with us. I acted mostly as a house rhythm section and did at least two or three gigs with Art Pepper. One of these, which was absolutely astonishing, was for ten days.”
Al Neil never gravitated to the New York jazz scene, as he was advised to do. He built the jazz scene in Vancouver instead. “If you play at the Creator, you don’t need an audience,” he later told Interface magazine. “That’s the way I’ve conducted my life. I’ve never expected anything.” In 1959, with altoist Dale Hillary, he recorded his first lp with the Beat poet Kenneth Patchen. He has also released two other records.
Sometimes glorified in the local print, Al Neil assumed residency in a tumble-down waterfront shack without running water in Dollarton (near where Malcom Lowry lived and drank) and wrestled for several years with a heroin addiction. Music critic and friend Alex Varty has described his long-time home and hangout as “a beached floathouse two hundred tree-draped feet off the Dollarton Highway, wedged between the western boundary of Cates Park and the rusting hulks of an old shipyard, with the deep waters of Burrard Inlet lapping at his front door.” His reputation as a mystic and recluse grew and yet in his performances he was far from withdrawn.
“I don’t mind exposing myself,” Neil told Marke Andrews of the Vancouver Sun. “I’m completely uninhibited in that respect. A lot of people put that down. They write in the third person. I guess they’re afraid to expose themselves.” He continued to give infrequent concerts, infrequent and highly quotable interviews and to sell and exhibit his art. He exhibited at the Coburg Gallery with his longtime partner Carole Itter in 1985 and his photographs and prints appeared in an exhibition called Origins: Celtic Series at the Western Front, accompanied by a book-length catalogue Al Neil: Origins (Vancouver: Western Front, 1989). Al Neil: New and Selected was a show at the Atelier Gallery in 1999.
Al Neil’s second and best book, Changes (1975), recalls four of 15 years spent in Vancouver as a junkie and a be-bop musician, from 1958 to 1962. With its many references to sexual experiences, pill-taking, heroin, cheap wine drinking and a graphic description of a visit to the VD clinic, Changes appeals with its scatter-brained but highly lucid frankness. It celebrates life a la Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, little concerned with literary conventions. Neil approaches writing as a musician improvises a solo. “This book is a farrago of funk and feeling,” he writes, “butterflies rising from the ashes, thus indicating that further alarming adventures of our hero are about to begin as he plans to measure the circumference of God.”
Changes is easily one of the most interesting underground books of fiction from Vancouver. “Suddenly,” he writes, near the outset of the autobiographical work, “I think without transition ‘The Saga of Sunset Beach’ and another memory comes crashing out of the skull and is writ down with glee.” Neil proceeds to recall his drug-crazed ravings and violent, irrational gestures on Sunset Beach before a gathering of fellow musicians. His friends tolerate his excessive behaviour after an all-night party as Neil flails in the surf and flashes back to WW II memories of Normandy beach. The narrator then reflects, “I shall one day be free of the ceaseless nagging of invisible ghosts.”
Pulp Press published a book of Neil’s short stories, Slammer, in 1982. Vancouver filmmaker David Rimmer made an appreciative documentary titled Al Neil: A Portrait. Eventually endowed with a war pension, Neil continued to live without a telephone on the Dollarton waterfront for many years, commuting to the city to visit friends and to perform. The Al Neil Trio, Retrospective 1965-1968, Blue Minor Records 121 2001 (2 CDs) is a musical tribute to his heydays in jazz.
Al Neil lived in the Strathcona neighborhood of Vancouver where he remained close to his longtime companion, artist and author Carole Itter.
LITERARY LOCATION: 222 East Broadway, Vancouver
This was the location of The Cellar, founded in 1956, as Vancouver’s foremost jazz venue, where be-bop legend Al Neil fronted the house band, meeting and playing with some of North America’s top jazz musicians. His best-known book, Changes (1975), recalls four years as a musician, artist and junkie on the mean streets of town from 1958 to 1962. Venerated as “one of Vancouver’s bona fide underground warriors, a man with a following and a hermit’s mystique,” Vancouver-born Al Neil has been the subject of a documentary film by David Rimmer, a book co-written by music critic Alex Varty and a one-man show at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1972.
“Because of Al’s multidisciplinary practice that moved across music, performance, writing and visual art he has left a rich legacy to Vancouver’s artists and audiences that continues even today. Cross-disciplinary and insistently non-commercial his spirit is important to this place reverberating in many different communities and influencing so much of what came after him.” — Glenn Alteen, Grunt Gallery
West Coast Lokas (1972)
Slammer (Pulp Press, 1982)
Origins (Vancouver: Western Front, 1989)
Changes (re-released with a missing last chapter restored, Nightwood Editions, 1989, $12.95) 0-88971-065-1
ABOUT AL NEIL
The Music of Al Neil. by Alex Varty et al (Nightwood 1999)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2017]
AL NEIL’S MUSICAL CAREER: CANADIAN ENCYCLOPEDIA SUMMARY
Al (Alan Douglas) Neil. Pianist, composer, visual artist, author, b Vancouver 26 Mar 1924. He studied with Glenn Nelson and Jean Coulthard but, save for some lessons with Wilf Wylie, was self-taught as a jazz pianist. Drawn to bebop by recordings of Bud Powell, et al, he began playing in Vancouver clubs in the late 1940s with his own groups and as a sideman to other musicians. Neil was a central figure in the 1950s and early 1960s at the Cellar, a musician-operated Vancouver club, where he accompanied such US jazzmen as Carl Fontana, Art Pepper, and Sonny Red. He was seen in performance at the Cellar with the saxophonist Glenn MacDonald and the bassist Don Thompson in the NFB’s In Search of Innocence (1963). The Al Neil quartet from this period (Dale Hillary, alto saxophone; Lionel Chambers, bass; Bill Boyle, drums) was heard with the poet Kenneth Patchen on the LP Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz (1959, Folk FL-9718).
Briefly inactive, Neil returned to music with a trio (Richard Anstey, bass; Gregg Simpson, drums) in 1965, introducing the freer and more personal – if not, eventually, wholly eccentric – performance style that would characterize his music over the next 20 years. In a review of the limited edition LP, The Al Neil Trio Retrospective: 1965-1968 (Lodestone lr-7001), released in 1976, Richard Baker (Coda, Feb 1977) observed that Neil’s music from this period “sounded strange even to ears already accustomed to Ornette [Coleman], Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra. Neil derived as much from John Cage, Alfred Jarry, the I Ching… as from any trends in free jazz or, for that matter, bop… [D]evelopments during the intervening years make it difficult to realize what a departure these performances represented at the time.”
Music has shared Neil’s attention with writing and visual art. His writings, which are often of a semi-autobiographical nature and recount some of his experiences as a musician, include poems, a novel (Changes, Toronto 1975; London, Ont, 1989), and a collection of short stories (Slammer, Vancouver 1980). In the visual arts he organized multimedia performances in the 1970s and turned to mixed-media collage in the early 1980s. Most of his infrequent concerts/readings/installations during the post-Cellar period have been in gallery settings, eg, at the Sound Gallery and the Motion Studio (1966), the Vancouver Art Gallery (1968, 1972 – as part of the one-man show West Coast Lokas – and 1989), the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (1969), Museum of Modern Art, Paris (1973), and the Coburg Gallery, Vancouver (annually, 1984-7). He also gave several concerts in Vancouver during the 1980s at the Western Front, where a show of his collages, Origins: Celtic Series, was mounted on the occasion of his 65th birthday.
Neil’s collaborators in the 1970s and 1980s included the percussionists Simpson and Howard Broomfield (the latter for the LP Boot and Fog, 1979, Music Gallery Editions MGE 33) and the bassists David Lee, Lisle Ellis, and Clyde Reed. A second Neil retrospective, Selections: 3 Decades, produced by Lee, John Oswald, and Alex Varty, was issued on cassette by Lee’s Nightwood Editions in 1991.
For further in-depth information, see: