Vernon Isaac Memorial Scholarship
Memorial Celebration Jan.22,2000
Profile by Arthur Katona
Photo Gallery (coming soon)
UPDATED - January, 23, 2000, 8:45pm
Vernon marked the end of an era in his
passing tonight. He passed peacefully at 9:00pm, Thursday, December 16th, and the orderly
who was with him told me he said "Take care" just before heading out. The
hospital phoned me only about 10 minutes before he left, so I was too late to be there
with him. He did say his good-byes the last time I saw him. Those of us who knew him know
how his quick wit and determination could sway the most staunch of us, and his
contribution to music in Ottawa as well as Montreal will be his Canadian legacy.
Loved, Missed, Remembered.
- Susan Galvin
Vern gave the musicians of Ottawa an opportunity that could never have been made possible
without him. Many musicians would anticipate a call to play the Montreal Jazz Festival
with The Vernon Isaac Big Band. We knew Vern was having a good time when he began
'steppin' while the band was groovin'. Then there was his wit! Between songs, Vern would
always say the right things. Never missed a beat! "Ah hope"......all those that
had the good fortune to perform with Vern will remember him as deeply as I will. Susan,
Keith and Joyce, Doug, Rob, and all the other angels, you are all wonderful people!!
- Carmelo Scaffidi
Vernon lives in the music of the many fine younger musicians that he inspired to devote
themselves to the creative fire of jazz. During my posting in Havana from 1963 to 1965, I
became a cigar smoker. The one place that I could always light up without offending anyone
was in smoke-filled jazz clubs. I was shocked, therefore, when in the mid-1980s in a
Greenwich Village jazz club, bass player Larry Ridley asked me if I wouldn't mind putting
out my cigar as the smoke was bothering the musicians. I complied and, since then, have
not smoked a cigar in a jazz club. Vernon was the only person I knew that no one would
ever dare ask to put out his cigar! Whenever I was visiting a country that produced fine
cigars, I would buy some for Vernon. I knew that I was probably not contributing to his
good health, but figured that no one was ever going to wean Vernon from his omnipresent
cigars. I'm sure that, in the celestial jazz band above, Vernon will be permitted to smoke
his cigars - I refuse to even entertain the thought that Vernon is any place other than in
Heaven above! Vernon's legacy is in good hands in this region.
- Gaby Warren
About 15 years ago 4 horn players including Vern were playing 18 holes of golf on some
hilly course outside Ottawa. It was a hot summer day and we were climbing a steep incline
near the end of the back 9. I was part way up the hill dragging my golf cart behind my
sweating derriere and getting more winded with each step. I was about to whine to all
about the steepness of said incline until it occured to me that ten feet ahead of me was a
man 30 years my senior carrying a full set of clubs and chatting a blue streak between
hard draws on the last half of his cigar and his brow was just beginning to moisten. That
brow belonged to Vernon. What a costitution.The man was his own declaration of
independance. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.
I remember when Vernon first came to Ottawa. I guess it was almost thirty years ago -
Vernon was probably in his late fifties - early sixties! He started playing at Keith's
"La Paloma Restaurant" on Rideau Street every Monday night. Doug Johnston, a
young me, and an even younger Scott Alexander were lucky enough to be in the band. It was
the only real "jazz" gig in Ottawa at the time and Vernon made it happen! I have
a lot of fond memories of this, my first real jazz gig! What a learning experience -
Vernon would call tunes that not only had I never heard, but I had never even heard OF! A
lot of them were tunes of the thirties - yikes! Scott or I would ask him what key and
Vernon would say "WHISkey ... one, two, one, two, three, four ..." and we would
have to play an intro! Somehow the band swung - you couldn't play with Vernon without that
happening - especially when his friend Sonny Stitt sat in - but that's another story! The
last time I saw Vernon was in Montréal a few years ago at an all-day benefit jam session
for the genius Nelson Symonds. It took place at the Upstairs club. I was playing a few
tunes with Dave Turner. I looked of the bandstand for a moment and who was right there in
the front row in his eighties, still smoking that cigar - Vernon Isaac! I left after a
while but I heard that later that night Vernon got up and played a few tunes for his old
buddy Nelson. God bless you Vernon.
- Roddy Ellias
Sue, you know that I considered him as a Grandfather to me. I would have enjoyed my next
Jam Session with him. I'm glad that he went peacefully, and that you have been around to
take care of him all of these years. You're a great person. I, for one, will continue to
be inspired by his youthful spirit and by my memories of the nutty times I had learning
how to play with him. I wish you all of the best and will keep in touch on occasion to say
hello. I will most certainly be unable to attend any services, but will continue to pay my
last respects in spirit. As Vernon might say, take care.
- Steve Watson
Sue, got the sad news from Jacques Emond. Share your sadness and your thoughts. You've
been so good for him. I guess the best way to remember him will be to play some of his
music this weekend and remember the good old days with Jazz Ottawa and all the gang.
- Jacques Piché
May he rest in peaceful but swingful music. Abrazos to you
- JF Delannoy, Ph.D.
I used to love singing with Vern's Band!
I worked with him between '82 & '85 while living in Ottawa...the Penguin Club, the
Montreal Jazz Festival, various places and I will never forget those times. He gave me my
early opportunities to sing jazz which is still my first musical love. The great musicians
he would assemble, the awesome big band charts... I had to learn 2 new songs which I
especially loved: "Make Me Rainbows" which I still carry in my book today, and
one that I truly cherish called "That's All" which would be Vern's last song of
the night. Even today, every time I sing either of those I think of him. It's always a sad
thing to lose an important piece of Canadiana. His contagious positive energy, his
playing, his sense of humour & his laughter will be missed to be sure. But it is also
a wonderful thing to keep his memory and music alive. I am sure he left his legacy to all
those he touched: Music's The Thing! The 'Maestro' may be gone but he will never be
With Loving Thoughts & Thanks.
- Kathy Thompson.
Although I didn't play with Vernon on a
regular basis, he always made me feel like a member of the band when I subbed in. You
couldn't help but get caught up in his enthusiasm. He was someone who not only loved music
but lived it.
- Jim Gayfer
Like so many others in Ottawa and
elsewhere, I learned how to REALLY play jazz and other kinds of improvised music by
listening to and playing with Vernon Isaac; I remember Steve Watson telling me about a
summer he spent in Montreal playing with Vernon and his friends and saying it was one of
the most crucial parts of his musical development. While I was not fortunate enough to be
able to play THAT constantly with Vernon, I had the good fortune to be able to play
numerous Montreal festivals etc with the big band and of course many, many small gigs. I
particularly enjoyed these small events....nothing to prove but just to play and swing the
hardest one could...and at the front of it all, Vernon...showing me how and where to
swing, making every note count and mean it; when I did occasionally "get it
right" and play with real swing, groove, changes and especially INTENT, Vernon would
look over at me, say something unintelligible or (to my everlasting satisfaction) just
emit a happy smile with a grunt of contentment. I was of course fortunate to be sharing
the stage with many other fine musicians and it felt great when JP, Steve Fisk, Tom
Denison and I could lock in to the groove set by Vern. Steve and I spent a lot of time
playing and learning together and we spent a great deal of time talking about Vern and his
influence. The last time I saw him was this past summer when Bob Cross brought him to the
jam sessions I was leading at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. I made an announcement that night
before we started playing, letting people know just who was in the audience (and I wasn't
referring to the fine musicians who had played on the festival and who were going to play
at the session....). To my happiness, the audience responded with a long and sincere
ovation for Vernon. Though frail, he still exhibited a wonderful sense of
Vern-ness...those who knew him and played with him will of course remember any one of a
number of Vern-ness traits. May he rest in peace
- John Geggie
The scene: Jazz Ottawa at the Downstairs
Club +/- 1983
I was in the middle of a hot Jam Session and didn't find out all the details until later.
Apparently, Vernon and Danny Leavitt (about 13 years' old!) were tending the door. Danny
said, "Tim's such a hot player, I guess that you're afraid to get on stage with
him!" All I could see from the stage was Vernon under a full head of steam, cigar
blazing, horn under his arm, charging the stage. He stood there, blew sixty choruses, each
more intense and swingin' than the last, and never repeated an idea. When he was done, he
turned to me and said, "So what are YOU gonna do? Sing?"
The remarkable life of Vernon Isaac ended on December 16, 1999. He was loved by Ottawa
jazz musicians and fans for being a mentor to many younger musicians and for founding Jazz
Ottawa. Before his so-called "retirement" in the 1970's, Vernon spent decades
traveling the world as a professional bandleader and saxophonist. A native of Texas, he
performed for the American troops overseas during World War ll. Vernon was a member of the
famed Count Basie Orchestra for a number of years and has also performed with the great
I joined Vernon's band when I was 17. At the time I was also playing a lot with my buddies
Jordan O'Connor and Nick Fraser in a trio that played I guess what you would call
"outside" music or "free jazz". Vernon came out to more than one of
these gigs which always impressed, cheered and scared us all at the same time. He wasn't
always into what we were doing but always kept an open mind - more than most people half
his age! I was sitting with Vernon after one of those trio gigs , in fact, the eve of my
first day of university, and we got to talking. After some gentle ribbing about our
performance he told me he was going to be driving to California the next day, (San
Francisco I think), to "see his people", and asked me to join him. I couldn't
believe it! I was thrilled! But how, with my career of higher learning ostensibly
beginning the following day, could I take off for three weeks to California with Vernon?!
Unsure about going back to school in the first place, I remember feeling like I'd reached
a fork in the road: a choice between the road less travelled and the road most other
people my age were taking. I slept on it and early the next day I called Vernon,
graciously declined, and headed off to school with my tail between my legs. Well, I hated
school and have since found the path less travelled. And although one tries to live
without regrets, it is hard not to kick myself when I conjure up the image of cruising
down the west coast with Vern, in his big old boat, getting a real education. He was
one of the most kind and generous people I've ever met.
1) One Thursday night at the Town Inn,
the trombone section was Art Katona, Steve Emberson and myself. Vern introduced the band
and when he came to the trombones, he introduced Art but couldn't remember Steve
Emberson's last name or mine. So he introduced Steve E as "On trombone Steve "
and when he came to me he said "and on trombone Steve" then he paused and said
"it's the Steve brothers. He would continue to get us mixed up for some time after
2) We used to play at the Town Inn every Thursday night. Of course we played for the door
and free drinks. Vern would come around at the end of the night and give us an envelope
with the cash from the door. One night, had not been a very good night, he handed me the
money and when I looked inside I saw that it was only 35 cents. I had a little laugh (as
this was not the first nor would it be the last time that the pay was small) and I told
Vern that he could keep the door this week. He just smiled and said "that's why I
3) We had a big gig in Rouyn-Noranda. We got on the bus very early in the morning and rode
(in the winter) all the way up north. It seemed to take forever. The snow had blown over
the road and had created a sort of corduroy road and our backs and kidneys felt every mile
of that route. We got there and were treated like kings. We had great food and were shown
to our accommodations. Steve Emberson and I grabbed what we thought was one of the best
rooms, only to find out that we ended up with a king-size bed just for the two of us. As
usual for me, at that time, I slept on top of the covers and woke up in my tux. The gig
was great. The combo and Vern played for hours, while we were fed case after case of
quarts of beer. We watched the hockey game and then we watched most of the late hockey
game. At one point someone came to get us, and we were so drunk we could hardly stand up.
This was Verns big band and nobody ever let him down and we went out and played the shit
out of one set and went back to partying after. Every gig with Vern was an experience,
even if there were no stories or outrageous antics. It was the people, the charts, the
gigs and most of all it was Vern.
- Steve Guerin
Vernon Isaac was a fine musician, typical of the well-trained players who populated the
stands of the big bands in the 'thirties and 'forties. He played on tours with the bands
of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and was well known in that musical
fraternity . I remember Jay McShann recognizing Vernon immediately when he appeared at a
Jay McShann gig at the Beacon Arms.
Vernon brought that musicianship and invaluable big band experience to Canada, first to
Montreal and then to Ottawa. Dozens of local musicians improved their skills and learned
something of the big band tradition at his hands, especially those privileged to be
accepted into the Vernon Isaac Big Band. I first met Vernon during his 1975 gig at the
Butler Motel on Montreal Road. As soon as I evidenced any interest in the music, Vernon
was on my case, explaining why Ottawa needed a jazz support organization. He convinced
Jacques Emond, Lois Moody, Tanya Sawchuk, Peter Shaw, Keith Sherriff, a couple of others
and myself, and we were soon meeting to plan Jazz Ottawa, which came to life on March 23,
1976. It is not difficult to trace the increase in jazz appreciation in the National
Capital Region from this humble beginning to the large and successful Ottawa International
Jazz Festival that we enjoy each year today.
Some musicians of Vernon's generation tended to use alcohol, marijuana and tobacco in
large quantities. Vernon never touched alcohol or dope; his vice of choice was cigars, and
their beneficial effect kept him going till the age of 86. Vernon had a quick wit and a
direct approach; my favourite quote from Vernon relates to this subject: "In the
Basie band they called me a sissy because I didn't drink or use dope, but I've lived to
piss on all their graves". It was good knowing you, Vernon.
- Ron Sweetman.
Ottawa Jazz with Vernon Issac was a
wonderful 20 years of good times and terrific associations all drawn together by Vern's
magnetism, conviction and persuasion towards that great place, his great Love JAZZ, the
likes and times of which are sorely missed and will probably never be repeated in our
- Bill and Janet Matthews
That's a real loss to the jazz community. I remember being at a jazz festival jam where
they had announced a party for Vernon Isaac to celebrate his birthday. He was smoking a
huge cigar as he sat outside the hotel waiting for a lift. As I walked out I said
goodnight to him. He asked me if I was coming to his party. I told him I'd try. I then
asked him how he could smoke those cigars and he replied quite frankly that he had smoked
cigars for 70 years and the cigars would see him through the next seventy. What a guy.
- Susan Wellisch
My initiation to the world of jazz (from a legit player's point of view) took place at the
Downstairs Club on Rideau St. in the early 80's. 10am, Sunday morning rehearsals that
would begin at 11:00am, cigarette and cigar smoke on a tiny dark stage, trombone parts
that were smudged (beer stains I think!!), tables that weren't cleared yet from the night
before, overflowing ashtrays and one pot of cold coffee at the bar. What a great time that
was! Great charts, great players and Vern up front with his sax and vibes. When Steve and
I came back from 4 years in Germany, we were glad to get calls to "sub in" for
rehearsals. We then got the chance to play at the Montreal Jazz Festival with Vern's band
several times. Different venue, one decade later, but same great charts, great players and
there was Vern, up front with his sax and vibes. "A good time was had by all"
Me and Vernon first started working
together at Rockhead's Paradise with Allan Wellman's band. From there, Vernon had his own
band at a place called The Chanteclerc Club. I worked with him there until he decided to
leave and turned the band to me. After that I made a recording with Vernon's band, a
matter of fact, it was my first recording. After that, Vernon moved to Ottawa, so we
didn't see each other for a while but we kept in touch. We would call one another once in
a while. In 1985, Allan Wellman got a band together to play in Montreal at the Jazz
Festival, and we had Vernon to come down to join us for the whole 10 days. We called
ourselves The St-Michel All-Stars and it was a "blass". We really enjoyed
playing together again. Next time I seen Vernon he was with his big band playing at the
Montreal Jazz Festival. He really had something going with very good musicians and very
good arrangements. He would play sax, vibes and he would sing too. It was something to
hear. I would go and see him every year and listen to him. I will miss him a lot. He was a
very good friend, and a very good musician.
- Walter Bacon
Since my friend Vernon Isaac passed away,
I've taken some time to recollect the many aspects of my experiences with him. He was at
once a Grandfather figure and a big kid, keeping youthful enthusiasm for music, women and
crazy stories. Anyone who has been around Vernon will remember his soulful, swinging
style, that grumbling mumble of a speaking voice, his contagious laughter and, of course,
the trademark cigar. But even more than all that, I will remember him as a consistent
supporter of young musicians, no matter what level we were at. As the bassist in his big
band, Vernon pushed me to catch up to the more experienced members of the group. In his
Quartet, he would regularly call tunes that I didn't know, usually at a tempo that was
just a little faster than I could play, and then look across the bandstand, grin, and
point to me for a bass solo. He also set me loose by introducing me to the Montreal
musicians of his day when I joined him to play a six-week run at the Grand Cafe in 1985.
Through it all, if there was a jazz event going on anywhere in Ottawa, you could count on
seeing Vernon Isaac in the audience. From 1995-98, while hosting the late night sessions
at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, I would frequently see Vernon Isaac sitting in the front row.
Some nights he would just be there to listen or hang out, other nights he would come up
and sing. I remember that it was standing room only the last time he sat in. He walked
slowly now, and the crowd was absolutely silent as he took his time to get to the
Bandstand. He picked up the mike, looked around, and said "It sure got quiet in
here", then he brought the house down with his rendition of "Almost Like Being
In Love". There's a little bit of Vernon Isaac in every one of us that ever had the
chance to work with him. That makes us, and everyone else, extremely fortunate.
- Steve Watson
I am glad everyone liked him and his music. He started under an excellent elementary and
high school music teacher. She supervised both schools. Her name was Mrs. Zelia N. Breaux,
pronounced Bro. She really made a name for herself in Oklahoma City. Vernon's birthdate
was October 21, 1912. Vernon was the oldest of 10 children, six boys and four girls. He
bossed us around when our parents were not at home, because he was put in control. However
there were maybe only five of us at home at any one time due to some not being born, and
some off in school or married. He always ruled with a heavy fist or a thump on the head.
We couldn't report him. We were afraid he would get us the next time the parents left. I
was the only girl with six brothers, so my parents usually took me with them, so I did not
get too many hits, but was hollered at for not changing the baby's diapers. The three
girls are the babies of the family. Vernon worked in his father's community grocery store
and ice docks while a teenager. He drove a big truck, and Homer drove a smaller truck.
They both kept Papa's trucks in the shop, because they were fast drivers, delivering, and
purchasing ice at the dock. So if he was bossy that is why. In the meantime we loved him
so much after he did so well with his music. We followed him like the Pied Piper of
Hamlin. We were all so glad that he never became a drinker of alcohol beverages. He said
that was why he lived so much longer than oither musicians who started out along with him.
- Clarice Isaac
WE ARE SADDENED AT THE LOSS OF OUR DEAR
VERNON. WE CHERISH THE FOND MEMORIES OF THIS VIVACIOUS, CIGAR SMOKING, TALENTED, MUSICIAN.
A DONATION HAS BEEN SENT TO THE HODGKIN'S DISEASE RESEARCH FOUNDATION IN HIS HONOR.
BROTHERS HOMER AND EUGENE AND THEIR FAMILIES
If you have an anecdote you want to share, please forward it to carmelo.
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