Toronto’s Shuffle Demons just say “yes” to everything, be it jamming with Dr. John, busking for university tuition or just for kicks in Paris and getting crazy outfits from a passing fan on the street.
The Toronto band including Richard Underhill — alto sax/vocals; Perry White — tenor sax/bari sax; Kelly Jefferson — tenor sax; George Koller — bass/vocals and drummer Stich Wynston wind up this year’s Lethbridge Jazz and Blues Festival, June 15 at the Sterndale Bennett Theatre. The core of the band met whole students at York University.
“I started busking on the streets to make some extra money and my roommate noticed I was making money and decided to busk too,” said alto saxophonist Richard Underhill, who considers himself lucky to be bale to make a living making music with the Shuffle Demons or other musicians like Galen Weston, with whom he just finished a long tour .
“I just finished a 20-date-in-24-day tour of Europe. I’ve got a couple days off and I’m getting ready to shuffle with the Shuffle Demons again. But right now, I’m just reminiscing with (guitarist) Paul James about playing with Dr. John four times in Toronto,” related alto saxophonist/vocalist Richard Underhill.
The Shuffle Demons formed in 1984 while they were in university.
They had a minor hit from their first album in 1986 with “Spadina Bus,” and found an audience with their quirky brand of New Orleans style jazz and songs about cockroaches, cheese on bread and the Spadina Bus.
“Which is now a street car,” Underhill observed.
“We took a break in 1997 and got back together for our 20th anniversary and have been playing ever since,” he said.
Among other things, it meant getting to play with the inimitable New Orleans piano god Dr. John, who passed away June 6 of a heart attack.
“That all goes back to the Shuffle Demons. I knew a concert promoter, Elliot Lefko, and he was looking for saxophone players. Maybe he heard of the Shuffle Demons, maybe he didn’t but he knew me. Maybe I was the only one he knew,” he said adding that led to playing with Dr. John.
“So I got to play with the great Dr. John. And it was great. Sometimes we’d play with him and other times he’d play by himself and we’d stand there with our jaws dropped,” he recalled.
“I remember we were all trying to learn his song on the way over to the concert in the cab. Though I can’t remember which one. He had such a great feel on the piano. He makes it look so effortless. After he came up and mumbled at me. I think that meant he liked us,” Underhill chuckled.
He just completed a tour with Toronto jazz musician Galen Weston and is getting ready for a busy festival season.
“We’re playing every jazz festival in Canada this year and a few folk festivals as well,” he said.
He isn”t surprised the band has been playing together for so long.
“Not really. We‘re coming up on 35 years. I noticed things were clicking when we started and out everything I had behind it,” he said noting their African outfits came courtesy of a fan they met the first time they were busking in Paris.
“We were busking and we kind of looked like the blues brothers with trench-coats and hats and sunglasses.
“An African guy from Ghana, Africa met us and said, you guys need outfits, come with me, i havre a tailor.So we went with him and his tailor made us these outfits and they were really inexpensive,” he said.
“We’ve always had the attitude of say yes to everything, it’s great to be in a band of friends where everybody has your back. It’s kind of like being in a gang. If you get into a situation, it’s easy to get out of when there‘s so many of you,” he said.
“When those outfits wore out, we got others,” he continued.
“We just went back there. In 1985, there were all of these French street performer s— real French characters, fire eaters, sword swallowers. They aren’t there anymore,” he observed.
They have a new CD coming out later in the year.
“There’s 10 songs on it. A lot goes into it — the songwriting, artwork. We‘re just putting the finishing touches on it. But it won’t be ready for Lethbridge. We’ll be playing a lot of the songs from it so you’ll be able to order it, he said, adding the band combines a lot of different influences including rap and jazz.
“We always liked guys like Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk who were always on the edge. Rap was coming out in 1985 when we started so we started adding a bit of that, too. We always like to put on a show. So we have our foot in both camps, even if you don’t like jazz music,” he said, adding they are excited about the new music.
“We were always a little too weird for a record label to take us under their wing. And we never made a lot of our money from record sales anyway. We always made our money by playing live.
“Other than our drummer, we all moved to Toronto from small towns to go to school or make it big. And we were so excited to be in the middle of this multi-cultural melting pot,” said, Underhill, who is originally from Salmon Arm.
Being part of such a diverse culture helped inspire ed “Spadina Bus.”
“I had this groove and (former member) Dave Parker lived in the Spadina neighbourhood and rode that bus with all of these different people and wrote about the experience of living in such a multi-cultural neighbourhood,” he said.
The Shuffle Demons tour all over the world.
“Our drummer Stich Wynston took over the booking. Because of him, we’ve played Japan three times, Korea, South America, Cuba,” pretty much everywhere,” he said, noting the current tour will take them all over Canada.
“We‘re doing it in spurts, Calgary, Lethbridge and Regina on one weekend, then Edmonton, Saskatoon and Medicine Hat on the next weekend. It isn’t the most ecologically-friendly way to tour but jazz festivals all want us on different days and it isn’t always in a row. You play where you can. I just feel lucky to be able to make a living playing music,” he said.
“We put a lot into our live show. We’ll play ‘Spadina Bus’ ‘And Cheese on Bread,’ and everything and we’ll wander through the crowd like we usually do, he said, adding he can’t recall every playing Lethbridge.
“I don’t think we have. I’d like to say I can remember every gig, but I can’t. I remember getting a speeding ticket there though,” he said.
“But we‘re looking forward to playing there and meeting a lot of people,” he said.
“I’m from Salmon Arm where there’s lots of lakes. So I’m always excited to be back out west. People ask why I live in the Big Smoke. But that’s where you have to be to make it as a musician. And I’ve put down roots here now.”
The Shuffle Demons close off the Lethbridge Jazz and Blues Festival, Saturday, June 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.