Chapter 1 / Living the Jazz Life: John Dawe

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter I wrote on trumpeter John Dawe for Journeys to the Bandstand:

If you assembled a group of jazz aficionados with deep knowledge about the history of jazz in Vancouver and gave them a specific task—name the city’s greatest jazz trumpeters since the 1950s—the following names could figure prominently in the exercise: Carse Sneddon, Stew Barnett, Arnie Chycoski, Bobby Hales, Blaine Tringham, Donnie Clark, Brad Turner, Bill Clark, Alan Matheson, Vince Mai, Chris Davis, and JP Carter. Add one more to the list: John Dawe.

It’s an audacious inclusion. Here’s why: There’s hardly any surviving documentation of his musicality; the only audio evidence of his trumpet playing that I know of is a wonky recording of a quintet session; the best available recordings of Dawe captured him on baritone horn and valve trombone, not trumpet; he was a less-than-stellar sight reader, which meant he was not close to being a first-call trumpeter; Dawe rarely led bands; he wasn’t a composer; and Dawe essentially gave up playing music in his thirties. Not exactly bona fides for jazz trumpet immortality.

None of those things matters. Dawe still unequivocally belongs on the list. Great musicians who played with or listened to Dawe wax passionate about his innate quality as a jazz multi-instrumentalist in the late fifties and parts of the sixties. Those few recordings, even with him on other horns, confirm his merit—not in a technical sense, but in his instinct for the music. Dawe had an affecting tone, and he played with emotional soul. Plus, for a period in his life, he fully embodied what it meant to be a round-the-clock jazz musician and raffish character in Vancouver. Dawe has a unique place in the local scene’s colourful past and an underdog story that needs to be told.

In early 2013 I stumbled upon a blog that, at the time, illuminated a previously obscure chapter in Vancouver’s jazz history. The Original Cellar Jazz Club blog tells an extraordinary story, in words and photos, about a musician-run jazz club that existed in Vancouver from 1956 to early 1964. The Cellar was both incubator and showcase for the city’s bebop scene. The more I read, the more my fascination with the club grew. Written in a loose, hipster-casual style with liberal use of ellipses, the blog tells of a great jazz club unique to Vancouver and perhaps all of Canada. A club that played host to Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Art Pepper, Barney Kessel, and many other visiting and local jazz musicians. About trumpeter Don Cherry and his Jazz Messiahs, the blog had this to say: “……. this group knocked us all on our asses…!!” About vibraphonist and quintet leader Bob Frogge: “He was the funniest, grooviest and most laid-back cat you’d ever meet……. and he was totally insane (in a very groovy way)…. I don’t know what planet he was from, but it wasn’t in this galaxy, or the next ….” The cool daddy-o writing and reminiscing on the blog? One John Dawe.

July 17, 2013. I’m in Richmond, the city immediately south of Vancouver and the Fraser River. I’ve arrived at the hulking, seventies era apartment building with brutalist design where Dawe lives. I pass through several sets of doors in a long hallway before I reach his door. Dawe greets me warmly, and as I enter his apartment my eyes struggle to take in all the bric-a-brac accumulated by an octogenarian. We sit, and as he lights the first of many cigarettes, I ask if I can start the interview. He smiles and says enthusiastically with his gravelly voice, “Shoot, man!” [End of excerpt.]


John Dawe was a pivotal figure in my journey to research and write Journeys to the Bandstand. When I started getting interested in writing about the history of the original Cellar jazz club that operated in Vancouver from 1956 to 1964, he was one of the first people I talked to.

John was instrumental in efforts to document that history. He and Gregg Simpson put together the Original Cellar Jazz Club blog. Then Marian Jago completed research on the original Cellar and other musician-run Canadian jazz clubs, which included interviewing John, and she published her book: Live at the Cellar: Vancouver’s iconic jazz club and the Canadian co-operative jazz scene in the 1950s and ’60s. Reading the book, which thoroughly covered the original Cellar’s history, and getting to know John, convinced me of a different approach to take: focusing on individual musicians and their journeys in music and life. Those personal stories resonated with me the most, and ultimately led to the creation of this book.

I enjoyed spending time with John in his Richmond apartment and on the phone. It was amazing to find out that he worked alongside my father George at Vancouver General Hospital in food services. One day I invited John to go with me to Cory Weeds’ Cellar to hear trumpeter Chris Davis. He turned me down. John wasn’t interested in hearing live music. His much younger version who lived for going out to play or listen to great jazz until the wee hours was long gone. I understood, because as I wrote in the chapter, John excelled at letting go.

John passed away in an East Van care home in 2018. I think about him often. He was a very likeable character who exemplified something that’s important to Journeys to the Bandstand. In addition to writing about prominent jazz musicians from Vancouver and the US, it was a priority to include stories about far lesser-known players who never received acclaim, but expressed so much soul in their music. John Dawe exemplified that spirit, which is why Chapter 1 of the book is his life story.

Photo of John Dawe (trumpet) and Harold Krause (piano) at the original Cellar, circa 1959, by Bill Boyle, courtesy James Carney and Marian Jago. Photo of John at his Richmond apartment, January 25, 2014, by Chris Wong.

  • Gerry Deagle
    Posted at 14:37h, 09 March Reply

    John was a great friend of mine. You have captured his essence. He lived for be-bop. Never aspired to become one of its stars. But loved hanging with them. His roll, really, was story teller. He had an indelible memory for the bizarre ways of be-boppers he observed over the years. Trombonist Ray Sikora was a friend who played in the Kenton band. John had a rich mine of hilarious tales of days and nights spent with drug-addled Ray, and others, in a life mostly filled with solitude and inner turmoil.

    • Chris Wong
      Posted at 15:21h, 09 March Reply

      Thanks so much Gerry for your very kind comment. It was a major highlight of my many years working on this book to get to know John. He was so warm and helpful, and I learned so much from him. I miss him a great deal. Another highlight was receiving a recording of the Ray Sikora Big Band performing at the original Cellar. Such an exciting performance. I hope to be able to write about Ray in my next book, if there is a next book. Thanks again for taking the time to share your perspective.

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