Richard Underhill

Left Wing Jazz
for CODA

Jazz and electoral politics don’t often mix, but that truism was turned on its head during the Canadian election campaign in late January when Toronto saxophonist Richard Underhill was front-and-centre during a couple of major New Democratic Party (NDP) rallies in downtown Toronto.

Although the country’s governing Liberal Party was turfed out after 13 years in power by the right-wing Conservative Party, the left-leaning NDP, Canada’s only other national political entity, increased its standing in Parliament from 17 to 29 seats. Two of the ridings in which the NDP was victorious were ones already represented by NDP Leader Jack Layton and another captured for the first time by popular candidate Olivia Chow, who just happens to be Layton’s spouse.

Underhill, best known as the leader of the funky Shuffle Demons combo, who lives in Chow’s riding, also worked as a volunteer during her campaign, doing what he terms “grunt work”, canvassing door-to-to get out the vote. He has known both candidates for years, he explains. They met when the politicians, who are fervent bicyclists, would often stop to watch his street corner jazz performances or occasionally attend Underhill club gigs. When Layton won the NDP leadership a few years ago in fact, Underhill helped write the politician’s campaign song. “I’m not afraid to show my allegiance, says the saxophonist. “Politics is too important to our life as artists not to get involved.”

In this election while canvassing one evening, he unexpectedly discovered that Layton was to be at Chow’s headquarters for a rally the next day. “Should I bring my sax?” Underhill asked. He ended up serenading the two candidates with Horace Silver’s “The Preacher” as Layton disembarked from his bus. A picture of the three of them subsequently appeared on the front pages of many Canadian newspapers. He played the same tune as he welcomed Chow on stage during her and Layton’s victory party at a Toronto club the next evening. But this time the riff was drowned by the enthusiastic crowd’s welcome for the winner.

One unforeseen promotional benefit resulted earlier because Underhill gave Layton a copy of his new Stubby Records CD, Moment in Time. When the politician was later interviewed about what was loaded on his ipod, Layton cited the CD as one of his favorites.

—Ken Waxman