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Jazz piano legend Oliver Jones, renowned for ‘velvet’ hands, says goodbye

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WATCH: A jazz legend says goodbye – Feb 24, 2018

At just five years old, Oliver Jones began his career as a jazz musician, with his first public performance at the Union United Church in Montreal.

From that point on, he mesmerized audiences with his talent on the piano — for decades. Now 83, and after traveling thousands of kilometres every year, he has decided to retire – for real this time.

His legacy has been captured on film in a documentary titled “Oliver Jones: Mind, Hands & Heart”. The film takes the audience into Jones’ world, his love for and influence on jazz music in Montreal and around the world.

Director and producer Rosey Ugo Edeh met with Jones several times while filming the documentary. Edeh describes him as a powerful force on the piano, but very gentle and humble once the music stops.

“And he in his own shy kind of way revealed how much of his body and soul he has given to the art form of jazz music,” Edeh told Global News. “And I realized he has beautiful hands, they are very powerful, and he plays — he has really big hands — loudly and forcefully and beautifully, and in genius.

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“But when he steps away, he is just ‘oh, ok’… so he really does let his hands and the piano do the talking for him.”

Edeh followed Jones from Montreal to Brazil to his hometown in Barbados. She says it was important to do this film to not only celebrate jazz music but to also honour the legacy of a man who took the sound of jazz on the piano to a  new level.

“When I was doing my research on Oliver Jones, I realized there were few films that involved him in the past, but never one film solely dedicated to him,” Edeh said. “But what I noticed in those few films that I saw is he so softspoken, so quiet, he is not going to toot his own horn, he is not going to complain, everything is okay, and I said ‘I need to bring [that] out more, I need to bring out the genius that he is, I need to bring out the hardship.’

“Because you can’t tell me touring the world for almost 70 years is easy… I know it’s hard. It’s hard on the body, the mind, and of course the hands.”

Jones is known for his big hands, that have been described by other musicians as being “like velvet”.

But those velvet hands are aging and often get tired — Jones suffers from arthritis and his health has been deteriorating.

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In 2015, he underwent triple-bypass surgery and then in 2017, he suffered a minor stroke which affected his speech and eventually left him blind in one eye.

In the documentary, Edeh does not shy away from his health problems but rather highlights Jones’ talent on the piano and how much he has given to the music industry.

“I stepped behind the camera and put on a director’s hat and directed a film about somebody I admired so much growing up in Montreal. He is a giant in the black community, in the greater Montreal community, in the music industry and in Canada… he is  just a giant,” she said.

“He is revered and I said I need to honour his legacy. He is here, he is a living legend, I want to do it now. I want to showcase to the world what a genius he is and I wanted to do… I am part of that black community, I am part of the Canadian community and instead of leaving it to someone else, instead of sitting by and saying ‘wow there aren’t many films about great Canadian, black Canadian artists,’ instead of sitting back and saying that, I said ‘why don’t I do it?’”

The documentary has been featured at the Montreal International Black Film Festival and the Toronto Black Film Festival.

Jones’ last performance will take place in Montreal at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 7th.

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