by Michael Grey.
June, 2022.

The writer, Ami McKay, has a great string of words about life in a small town, and that is, “no matter what you do, someone always knew you would.” Cue the local curtain rustler’s chat with the TV reporter, “oh, they was ruthless with the trees and bushes; I knew they loved the axes. Poor Pat didn’t stand a chance…”  And when it comes to small towns it’s a funny thing, it seems to me: big places can have a small town vibe – a small town familiarity.  I think Glasgow might be that kind of place – I’ve talked of it before – one that falls into the class of a sort of small-town city.

A couple of weeks ago, on the day I (again) arrived in Glasgow, I found my way to walking around the streets and places I know. You know: just to stretch the economy airline legs and breathe in a bit of sweet diesel, the scent of a chip shop’s healthful palm oil and everything in between. In my toddle to the upper level of Buchanan Galleries [a multi-level shopping mall in the heart of the city] I heard some guy yelling, “Mike! Mike!”.  I turned and there was Chris Norton, a piper from the band [Police Scotland & Federation Pipe Band] having a Sunday outing – as you do. What are the chances of that sort of collision of people in a city of any size?

About a half hour later, walking down Queen Street towards Argyle I glanced to my left to see a feller leaning against the wall at Primark [a chain of clothing stores]. I thought to myself – honest truth – “there’s some guy waiting for someone to finish their shopping.” Well. Wouldn’t you know it. It was none other than a bearded Ross Walker, former Pipe Major of that fine bunch, the Boghall & Bathgate Pipe Band. Yes. He was patiently waiting for his procuring clan. We had a good, long chin-wag … again, as you do.

And, finally. Waiting (ok, more like loitering) outside The National Piping Centre for a lunch meet-up with Duncan Nicholson I happened upon that dynamo piper and music educator, Margaret Dunn (followed minutes later by her other half, piping maestro, Alistair). Anyway, it was this mid-day chat with Margaret that got me to thinking.

In a fairly brief period of time (I think I’ve heard a few pipers tune-up for competitions in more time than we chatted) we talked of Covid – as is the way of things these days – and – teaching. We talked of the Suzuki method of teaching (Margaret is very well-versed in Suzuki techniques), ear learning and how to get music students inspired. I know there are places that hold two-day conferences on that kind of subject matter. Some good, fast talking, this time, I guess.

All this put me to mind of my old friend, Jim Blackley.

•Jimmy Blackley at the 1988 World Pipe Band Championships, Glasgow

Jim Blackley was a great drummer and music educator. He immigrated to Canada in the 1950s having honed his drumming chops in the world of top flight pipe bands. He was a student of both James Catherwood and George Pryde [see: Edcath Book 1 where scores from both Jim and his teachers can be found in this excellent collection] and a top-line competitor in the non-corps drumming contests (known generally, today, as, “solo drumming”). In fact, in 1948, as leading drummer for Edinburgh Special Constabulary, he was runner-up at the World Solo Championships to none other than Alex Duthart, then the leading drummer for Dalziel Highland Pipe Band; today, of course, Duthart is considered one of the greatest drummers ever.

My intention here is not to provide a potted biography of Jim. You can find much of the salient facts and figures online. Jim may have sprang from the world of pipe bands, but through the 1950s he evolved to become a jazz man. He spent time in Montreal, Vancouver, New York and Toronto. He spoke in a mid-Atlantic Edinburgh accent tinged with what I imagine, on reflection, was “Beatnik”. He was – thinking of a word he might use – a “heavy”.  Man (as he might say), he travelled in the very coolest and grooviest jazz circles. Tony Bennett would call Jim up to chat when he had a gig in Toronto. You get the idea. And to think its Jim’s score to the reel, “Willie Roy’s Loom House” in that first Edcath book. Pipe band drumming really can swing.

Jim Blackley has left a big musical legacy in his seminal books, Syncopated Rolls for the Modern Drummer and The Essence of Jazz Drumming as well as an army of brilliant students; many travelled from all points of the globe for sessions with Jim. To use the word “army” to describe his students would, I imagine, not please Jim all that much. But I draw on that word in a benign sort of way as a segue to describe an integral part of his character – and being: Jim’s pacifism, devotion to Islam and elevated spiritual nature. I always felt better for having spent time with him, or for that matter, his wife, Nan, or, Aishah, as I knew her. They were imbued with the best energy. I have yet to meet people anywhere like them. Jim and his wife were ardent followers of Sufi mystic, Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. This side of Jim always interested me but we didn’t talk directly about religion all that much.

It was through Jim Blackley that the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band connected with Don Thompson, another jazz heavy, he, among other many great things, the composer of the now-classic pipe band piece, Journey to Skye. Jim was part of the swirling orbit of influences of the 78th of the mid-late 1980s. He was the first person I heard talk of “forward motion” in a musical context. He had a gift for using language to inventively describe musical ideas and feelings. On that, he once described, Bill Livingstone, as a “note texturiser”, as, indeed, he is.

Jim travelled with the band to the World Pipe Band Championships in 1988 and proved a savvy, calming coach. I recall walking with Jim, along with a few fellow band members. We were staying in Rosyth (so convenient, don’t you know) in what I think was the set for the John Cleese TV series, Fawlty Towers. As we passed a lay-by outside the town and a vigorously bouncing parked red Ford Cortina (funny the things you remember) we came to an old cemetery. Now, I’m one for old cemeteries. They often double both as the dead-centres of town and hugely interesting places. But Jim would have none of it, “Man, you have no idea what you’re exposing yourself to in these places. Don’t even think about going in … “. So we didn’t. I loved Jim’s outlook and carefully thought-out firm ideas. He was indescribably intuitive. He was the best company.

I was never taught by Jim. At least, not drumming. But he was an influence. He was a believer in learning slow with the idea that if you can’t play slow you can’t play anything. He was a master teacher yet, paradoxically, it was clear to me he was deeply devoted to his students.  As Margaret Dunn might tell you, core elements of the Suzuki method include close attention to listening, repetition and mastery of musical elements and, perhaps of most importance: encouragement. While I was never guided with a set of sticks by, Jim, I know these, too, are elements of his pedagogy.

I made a strathspey for Jim, Blackley of Hillsdale.  (Hillsdale was the street in Toronto where he and Aishah lived for a time). The tune may not swing and offer shuffle rhythms with a triplet feel but – baby – its got snap, the Scotch kind!

It’s extraordinary how an accidental chat in Glasgow about teaching invoked memories of Jim Blackley. But then, that was Jim. He was one of a kind. He is missed.