When news of Ed Bickert’s passing started circulating on social media last weekend with an unattributed photo of the short death notice, there was an outpouring of condolences about the legendary jazz guitarist named to the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honor awarded to a citizen.
The obituary, which officially appeared in the Toronto Star on March 3, stated that Bickert, “a unique and celebrated force in Canadian music,” died Feb. 28 at Toronto’s Bridgepoint Health. He was 86.
People from a range of musical genres — from rock producer David Bendeth and Triumph icon and solo guitarist Rik Emmett to local fans who used to see him perform at jazz club George’s Spaghetti House — shared memories about the unique talent, who had played with Chet Baker, Rosemary Clooney, Peter Appleyard, Paul Desmond, Frank Rosolino, Milt Jackson, Mel Tormé and Canadian jazz greats like Moe Koffman and Rob McConnell. He also recorded with Oscar Peterson, and was requested to play a Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth II.
Based on social media posts following his passing, arts critic Peter Hum wrote a lengthy tribute in the Ottawa Sun, which was picked up by other Post Media outlets. The obit stated he is survived by his daughter Lindsey and sons Jeffrey and Timothy. Bickert’s wife Madeline passed away in 2000, and the guitarist retired that year.
Billboard reached Jeffrey overseas, who confirmed the sad news, and kindly answered some questions via email this week about life with Ed.
“Naturally I, we, are gratified to see the many very thoughtful comments, comments that touched on a number of similar themes and traits — his warm, intelligent, imaginative yet understated playing, his warm and respectful demeanor, the way he would indulge people and situations, and accord all playing contexts and situations with the same gravity and effort,” he wrote.
“As you see from all of the postings, his influence, his unique reach, the way he touched people, run through most of what people felt and feel about him. By the same token, we had long heard much of what we’re hearing and reading now; and later, once we were older and seasoned enough to truly know it for ourselves, I think we discovered that such sentiments served to articulate what we largely knew and thought of Ed — the father, the elusive private person, the musician, the musical force.”
Born Edward Isaac Bickert on Nov. 29, in Hochfield, Manitoba, his family relocated to Vernon, British Columbia, where he often joined his parents onstage. His mother played piano and his dad fiddle. He moved to Toronto after high school, where he began playing and recording with Koffman, among others. From the mid-’70s through to the 2000s, he played with jazz trombonist Rob McConnell, releasing some 20 recordings.
He also released albums as band leader, for such labels as Concord Jazz and Sackville, and played on 1969’s North of the Border in Canada, a Decca album of Canadian compositions by the Ron Collier Orchestra featuring Duke Ellington.
As a kid, Jeffrey told Billboard, “We always wanted him to play for us, but our music — Pete Seger, Christmas carols, Batman and the like; and to play it on acoustic, electric, on banjo, on ukulele. We would laugh and sing hysterically. And he really enjoyed it. Best was if he made a mistake. We have a cassette of him playing ‘Deck the Halls’ on banjo, 3, 4, 5 takes — wonderful chaos, he was determined to get it right.
“And his sense of humor,” he continued. “We all liked to laugh, and all have a good sense of humor, all from Ed. He loved words, to know and play with them; and often laughed before he could get a punchline out — which by that point was entirely beside the point. Just to laugh, together.”
In 2012, Bickert told the Globe & Mail, “I haven’t played for 12 years, and I don’t know if I could even remember how to hold the instrument right now. No, I just packed it up completely. Maybe I’d had enough… My wife passed away, and at the time, I was having some problems with arthritis, and I was starting to drink quite heavily, and those things combined sort of finished me off. I just never tried to get back to it. I envy or admire people who keep going until they drop. But it just wasn’t for me.”
When his dad retired, Jeffrey told Billboard that “Unfortunately because his work, his playing was such an enormous and integral part of his life and who he was. But he always felt a sense of anxiety about performing, producing, doing something relevant and meaningful, for himself, his fellow musicians and the listening public.”
He added that his mother played a crucial role in alleviating that.
“Madeline kept him focused, on track, and without her it was very different and difficult for him,” he wrote. “So he let that go, ended up working in the garden, caring for the pool he never swam in, perfecting his knowledge of bird songs, spending time with his grandchildren [Ryan, Irinja and Alec] and listening to performers he didn’t know, many of them younger, and discovering a love for certain musical styles in the classical genre, as well as returning to early 20th century composers, whom he had always found compelling. And getting out, with the help of my/our sister Lindsey, to hear pianists — Ed liked listening to pianists more than anyone else.”
According to the obit, a private service will be held in the near future. Those wishing to express their condolences can do so by way of a donation to the Bridgepoint Foundation.