A musical exploration of Montreal’s hidden past

As a McGill student, Elizabeth Shepherd, BMus’04, lived in Little Burgundy “way before it was for hipsters.” Her links to the neighbourhood inform the four-time Juno nominee’s new album about overlooked parts of Montreal’s rich history.

Story by Erik Leijon

March 2019

Fate keeps bringing jazz singer and pianist Elizabeth Shepherd, BMus’04, back to Montreal, so it’s no surprise the city fuelled the inspiration for her sixth album, MONtréal.

Shepherd, a four-time Juno Award nominee, delves into the city’s nooks and crannies on her 11-song release, offering a bilingual history lesson that isn’t in the textbooks. The album begins in Tio’tia:ke, the original Kanien’keha name for the land. Listeners then get to ride along with the predominantly black porters of CN Rail, walk through Atwater Market when it served as a showcase for boxing matches, and relive protests against mass arrests at Montreal gay bars during the seventies.

She interviewed dozens of Montrealers over four years for the release, receiving their blessings to tell these stories as faithfully as she could.

“At the very inception, I wanted to know if people like me felt that Montreal is their home, but also felt a little on the outside, like you’re not enough of a Montrealer, and have this complex about the city and how you fit in,” Shepherd says.

“But then the more people I spoke to, the more I felt I was uncovering bits of history that I knew nothing about. And as I researched more, there’s very little told about a lot of these scenes and these rich pockets of culture, and that’s more the direction the project went in.”

A lot of the rich Montreal history that has been lost to time was situated in Little Burgundy, where Shepherd lived when she was studying music at McGill. “Making MONtréal was more of an interpersonal experience. I was talking to people, getting to know them a bit and their stories,” she says. “But in a way it did take me back a little bit to my school days because I used to live in Little Burgundy way before it was for hipsters.”

A fateful encounter there birthed her passion for Montreal’s jazz history.

“It was me [living in a neighbourhood with] a bunch of artists and people who became friends of ours. It was a community of people who were living on the outside. I started going to McGill and getting into jazz at that time, and one my neighbours in the building was also a student and his father was legendary jazz drummer Wilkie Wilkinson. He knew I was just switching from classical over to jazz and recommended I check out the book Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montréal by John Gilmore. That’s when I realized this jazz history I was reading about was happening all around me where I was living.”

Unfortunately, there’s little evidence today Little Burgundy was once a jazz hotbed.

“Rufus Rockhead Street [named for the proprietor of a prominent jazz club that brought the likes of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday to town] is a block and a half. The NCC [Negro Community Centre] was a huge institution for Montreal’s anglophone black community here and it basically fell into disrepair. All that remains of it is a little plaque and a mound of rubble. It speaks volumes,” she says.

That didn’t dissuade Shepherd from exploring, and what was once just an album has ballooned into video clips for each song and a corresponding book set for release in April.

“We went in guerilla style,” Shepherd says about the video shoots. “We went into this one spot that’s now a construction site for a condo, and after we asked politely they let us shoot there quickly. I don’t think I would’ve gotten permission like that in any other city.”

Shepherd found a lot of musical inspiration not only in talking to people, like a former CN porter with an entertaining past, or the former owner of gay club Le Mystique – who provides the spoken word passage on the song “Suits and Ties” – but also in simply walking around the neighbourhood and observing the buildings. She encountered a mix of new and old at every corner.

She originally came to the city from Kingston to study at McGill, then left for Toronto where she began her career. She now lives in the Laurentians, but frequently drives into Montreal, even to give walking musical tours of her old neighbourhood.

Given her strong connection to the city, it’s shocking to think the album almost didn’t come to fruition. During the making of MONtréal, there were thoughts of abandoning the project.

“I originally wanted to get in touch with [legendary Montreal jazz pianist] Oliver Jones, but for whatever reason it couldn’t come together,” she recalls. “Finally, at one point I was about ready to quit, and had made that decision feeling like if I couldn’t talk to Jones, there’s a reason for it.”

The precise moment Shepherd had reached her breaking point, she had a flight to catch. By sheer coincidence, Jones was sitting in the seat next to hers.

“I was ready to pack it in,” Shepherd admits. “But he was so kind and generous with his time. It was inspiring. It gave me the energy to keep going.”

Buoyed by Jones’ encouragement, Shepherd completed the album. But the story may not end there.

“I feel like I just scratched the surface,” Shepherd says. “I feel like I could walk in any neighbourhood in the city and uncover all kinds of history.”

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