Karl “Cannonball” Bryan: the joy of sax

When Garry Steckles encounters a sublime saxophone musician in a Toronto market, little does he realise he’s stumbled upon a piece of Jamaican musical history

  • Karl “Cannonball” Bryan. Photograph by Jim Baine

The last thing I expected to hear when I was wondering around the weekly farmers’ market in downtown Toronto on a recent Saturday was superb Caribbean music.

At first, listening to a lilting ska melody apparently coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the cavernous market’s north-east entrance, I thought my ears were playing tricks — particularly as I couldn’t see exactly where the music was coming from. I scuttled up and down the market aisles for a few minutes, and finally came across a diminutive man, perched on a tiny stool with his back to the wall and doing magical things with a saxophone. I found a handy leaning post a few yards away, and settled in to listen. And the more I heard, the more I was amazed.

Eventually, it was time to move on, and I strolled up to drop a few dollars into his instrument case. Just as I did, he finished a tune, and I told him, thank you, that was wonderful, adding, “I thought for a minute I was listening to one of the Skatalites there.”

His reply? “You were.”

After my jaw had returned to its more or less normal place of residence, I discovered that the man whose music had been entrancing me for the better part of an hour was Karl “Cannonball” Bryan, one of the finest horn players ever to emerge from an island famous for some of the best saxophonists, trumpeters, and trombonists in the history of popular music.

Before telling you more about Bryan’s musical odyssey — which goes back more than sixty years — I should perhaps explain the significance of playing with the Skatalites, for the benefit of readers who aren’t familiar with the wonderful music of the Caribbean. The band, still going strong, are revered as one of the foundation stones of Jamaican music, and as well as performing and recording under their own name, their members have played on thousands of Jamaican albums and singles, among them some of the biggest hits in the history of ska, rock steady, and reggae. One quick example: members of the Skatalites were the backing musicians for the recording debut, in 1964, of a talented young Jamaican group called the Wailers, and a single from that historic session at Clement Dodd’s Studio One, a ska scorcher called “Simmer Down” with Bob Marley on lead vocals, was their first number-one hit in the Jamaica charts.

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Bryan wasn’t among the founding members of the Skatalites, but he was a fixture at Studio One and other legendary Jamaican studios, where he played alongside other instrumental greats from an era unmatched for its musical creativity — names like Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, Jackie Mittoo, Roland Alphonso, Ernest Ranglin, Cecil “Im” Brooks, Carlos Malcolm, and Richard Ace. “There’s just so much,” Bryan told me a couple of weeks after our first meeting, when we got together for a few hours and hung out at the trendy St Lawrence Market, just over the road from the farmers’ market where his sax first caught my attention.

It was an intriguing meeting. Bryan has been a fixture at both Toronto markets for seventeen years, and has acquired a legion of music-savvy fans and friends, many of whom greeted him with delight as we chatted about the Jamaican music scene and listened to a couple of would-be country and western musicians performing a few yards away. “They’re clowns. Don’t have anything to offer,” Bryan snorted dismissively. He’s in his late-ish seventies, and has been around long enough not to mince his words.

Those words count for something when they’re coming from the mouth of a man whose CV includes touring the Caribbean with the Mighty Sparrow, playing with Patti Labelle, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jackie Wilson, Ben E. King, and Johnny Nash when they performed in Jamaica, and who learned his trade at one of the world’s great music academies, Jamaica’s Alpha Boys’ School, which he attended from 1949 to 1953, and where he learned the nuts and bolts of his craft.

“I can play any music in the world,” he told me proudly during our meeting at the market. “I learned music properly.” At which he pulled out his sax and proceeded to make my jaw drop again as he casually zipped — sublimely — through about a dozen snatches of ska and jazz classics.

Which brings us back to the Skatalites. Bryan played with them comparatively recently, from 2004 to 2007, and toured extensively — their gigs took them to France, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Russia, Belgium, and Sweden. Previous engagements included Kingston’s legendary Sombrero Club, jamming in the Wareika Hills with Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, performing alongside Bob Marley at Montego Bay’s Reggae Sunsplash in 1979, playing with quadrille and mento bands, entertaining Prince Charles during a royal visit to Jamaica, and appearing “at a whorehouse called Sugar Belly.”

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If you happen to be in Toronto, you can catch him at the farmers’ market on Saturdays from morning to early afternoon, and various subway stations during the week.

Trust me, he’s worth listening to.