The Grid’s David Dacks pays tribute to the late Parachute Club co-founder/DJ/producer/promoter, and the profound effect he had on music in Toronto and beyond.
Billy Bryans—one of the people who brought true meaning to Toronto’s much-ballyhooed multiculturalism—died yesterday morning after a long fight against cancer with a smile on his face, surrounded by friends and family. Though this was perhaps too soon after last week’s heartfelt benefit concert for him at Lula Lounge, it was an entirely appropriate way to go for someone whose incredulous son once asked him long ago, “Do you know everyone?”
Several obituaries have already been written. Billy (there’s no use in third-personing him; he was a friend) began his career in the drum chair for Montreal garage-rockers MG & the Escorts in the ’60s, then relocated to Toronto, where he produced the likes of the Downchild Blues Band and worked alongside a baby-faced Daniel Lanois. He hit big with the Parachute Club in the early ’80s and became part of Queen West v1.0. He helped define the category now known as “world music” through his efforts; his album productions pretty much had a rack to themselves in campus-radio stations across the country during the 1990s. But that’s when things got even more interesting.
In music, where most careers end quickly with broken dreams, Billy seemed to grow more important with each passing year. He was more vital to this country’s music at 63 than at 23 because of his greater ability to help peoples’ careers with four decades of contacts in music under his belt.
At every stage of his life, he was able to encourage different kinds of musical interaction. When you live your life that way, you’ll only get better at it, so long as you keep believing in what you’re doing. He could have been ground down by personal demons. He could have let his first round with cancer take him in 2006. At any given point, he could have thrown up his hands as one métier after another—artist, producer, record-pool operator—wound down. But people stayed with him through each life change and he—and by extension, Toronto’s music—became stronger for it.
Nicholas Jennings, Billy’s comrade-in-arms for world music, was right on when he said, “[Billy] really saw that music in Canada should reflect the diversity of the Canadian population.”
However, as the music business has become more fragmented over the past decade or so, Billy recognized the changes afoot and sought to paint a bigger picture. He may have been at his most influential in blog form, where he was able to link musical developments around the block and around the world. Billy’s blog contained no shortage of information about the latest and greatest timba records, but also vital information about how musicians and DJs could and should be monetizing their efforts. Considering he dealt primarily with Cubans—so many of whom were extremely recent arrivals in Canada ill-equipped to deal with the vagaries of Toronto’s music scene and media—he managed to link outstanding musicians and shows to a wider audience while, more importantly, helping people to organize from within more effectively. And so it was right up until he died with his enthusiastic embrace of the Digital Dollars initiative.
Billy’s rare combination of professionalism, passion and both historical and contemporary insight into music was profound. When I did my radio show at CIUT 89.5 FM, Billy never tried to sell me on something I wasn’t into, but when there was common ground he’d do everything possible to help the music grow, supplying me with CDs, generous ticket giveaways and literally holding artists’ hands in order to get them to the studio on time. His enthusiasm didn’t preclude sarcasm and a lacerating wit about music and politics; this only made him a better guest on the radio, and more than once he became a de facto co-host as he finessed Spanglish interchanges between me and unpolished artists.
Too often, “musical community” is a falsehood that describes less committed individuals who lean on more talented artists in search of success. This seldom succeeds in the long run. Billy had a very long run indeed, during which those who weren’t prepared to work hard didn’t stay in his orbit for long. Billy showed us a way to roll with life’s many changes with great commitment to things that ultimately matter in music: making art in order to reflect and uplift the lives of people who give a damn.