Mark Miller: Claude Ranger —
Canadian Jazz Legend
Toronto, 2017; ISBN 978-1-77302-559-9
Canadian jazz lore has its fair share of exceptional figures. Drummer Claude Ranger is one of them, albeit for none of the usual reasons. If not mistaken, he is the only musician whose career was equally divided between the country’s three main centres, Montreal for his formative years, Toronto in mid-life and Vancouver for the final chapter, one that remains open-ended with his disappearance in November 2000, age 59. Seventeen years later, his whereabouts are still unknown, and a missing person’s file remains open at an RCMP detachment. But this is not the main issue at stake in a recently published biography of this singular musician. Arguably the most original drummer ever produced in the country, the native Montrealer left a lasting impression on everyone who encountered him. Were it not for this book, however, Ranger’s legacy might well have been swept under the carpet of history. Penned by Mark Miller, the one-time Globe and Mail jazz writer, this tome is a remarkable addition to the literature of Canadian music, all the more so given the obscurity of the subject.
A tireless champion of the forgotten, Miller has made his mark (no pun intended) as Canada’s de facto jazz historian. Since 1983, he has churned out eleven books, ranging from a dictionary of native musicians, two collections of portraits, an early history of jazz in Canada, and a monograph on Charlie Parker’s appearances in Toronto and Montreal. On occasion he has expanded his scope by retracing the early dissemination of jazz on the planet while publishing biographies of obscure figures like Valaida Snow and Herbie Nichols.
This newest work, issued last spring, is consistent with the author’s output. For one, he had interviewed Claude Ranger several times in his journalist days and had taken pictures of him, like the one gracing the cover. Next, and more importantly, he weighed the evidence with much circumspection, corroborating it with first-hand accounts from a host of eye-witnesses. The narrative moves at a steady pace, clearly written and balanced in terms of judgements, both favourable and critical, and nary any hyperbole.
If Ranger’s disappearance casts a long shadow, there are other sad facts as well. For starters, Ranger never recorded under his own name, and no traces survive of his Jade Orchestra in Vancouver. Conversely, the appended discography lists his sideman credits, yet none of these albums are in print now. In 1998 he stopped playing, not long after being diagnosed as bi-polar. A composer, Ranger nevertheless destroyed all of his charts, according to an acquaintance, save for an odd part preserved by one of his protégés. He then sold his drums to a young player, Ivan Bamford, apparently the last person to see him alive.
The most disturbing fact, however, is that the author found no publisher, forcing him to publish the biography at his own expense — more damning proof of a typically Canadian trait to write off our own.
(Available in paperback vo Indigo or Amazon Canada.)