Charles Burke at the Afromusée

Continuing the partnership between l’Afromusée and ARCMTL, we had the pleasure of presenting Charles Burke for the Montréal History Festival. As the former owner of the jazz nightclub Black Bottom, an important landmark of Afro-Canadian culture in the 1960s and 1970s, Burke serves as a singular witness to what black life used to be in an ever-evolving Montréal in the second half of the 20th century.

There was no better way to celebrate the 90th birthday of legendary nightclub owner Charles Burke than to bring him back to Montreal for a special visit. Thanks to a collaboration between the Afromusée and ARCMTL funded by the Soutien aux projets en patrimoine programme of the City of Montreal, Mr. Burke told stories of his time from growing up in the Great Depression through the Golden Age of Jazz and his front-row seat from the 1950s to the 1970s at the Afromusée on May 13, 2023 as part of the Festival d’histoire de Montréal. What follows is an edited transcript of the event.

This interview/conversation took place on Saturday, May 13, 2023, at the Afromusée and was hosted by Louis Rastelli, director of ARCMTL.

From left to right, Guy Mushagalusa Chigoho (fonder of the Afromusée), Charles Burke (fonder of the Black Bottom), Louis Rastelli, (director of ARCMT)
From left to right, Guy Mushagalusa Chigoho (fonder of the Afromusée), Charles Burke (fonder of the Black Bottom), Louis Rastelli, (director of ARCMTL)

Louis Rastelli: Welcome everybody to the Montreal History Festival. We’re really happy to be here at the Afro Museum. A relatively new place for all of those who have not been down here yet. Um, it’s really exciting and especially exciting to be here with the man of the Hour run all the way from Vancouver, Canada. Charles Burke, everybody!

Charles Burke: Please. No applause. I have a headache!

L.R.: This is a co-production with the Afromusée and ARCMTL. We do a lot of research and archiving of Montreal arts and culture. And the past three years we were focusing a little bit on an ignored chapter of this history, which is what we call Afro-descendant communities and their cultures, particularly after the golden Age of Jazz, the sixties, the seventies.

There’s a bit of a lack of awareness of what happened after, you know, Oscar Peterson moved away and all of that. There was a lot that did happen. Charles is a witness to those changes from the fifties and the golden age of Jazz and all the clubs. And of course, his was an important one during the later years of that era.

The Black Bottom, however, did continue on after moving to a new location in the late sixties all through the seventies. It was a very well-loved place where musicians could go after their gigs jam and of course, where the soul food was!

Charles Burke outside the Black Bottom in Old Montreal, Perspectives 1971, Charles Burke Collection

But I want to start a little bit by asking you for people who don’t know, you were born and raised in Montreal, right?. 

C.B.: Yes. Yeah. 22 Coursol Street. I was born. My mother was a beautician, she had a beauty shop and we lived in a large house upstairs and downstairs, and she ran the business downstairs. I was the only child, so I was spoiled rotten!

L.R.: So you grew up in that same area too?

C.B.: I went to a school called Royal Arthur, which I believe they tore down, but I went to a public school called Royal Arthur. And after graduation I went to a school called Montreal High, which was across from McGill, I believe.

L.R.: It was the late forties, early fifties. Um, you, do you remember about when you first started discovering the nightclubs or the, the jazz music? 

C.B.: Every second door was a nightclub. I mean, you practically grew up in them. We used to get newspapers at the Montreal Star and going to club to sell ’em, you know, so like I said, clubs were part of your life more or less, and then eventually we ended up hanging out in them. 

L.R.: What were some of the first ones you remember going to?

C.B.: There was a club – I was living, like I said, downtown – there was a club called the Pago, but they did, they didn’t have jazz or anything. They brought in acts from Paris and, um, Stan Getz, so there was some famous acts who came in from Paris. And then we had the normal clubs, just clubs like that. I believe there was a club called The Little Club. And then there was the Chez Parée, which was up by, I believe it was on Stanley. I saw Frank Sinatra there. I was too young to get in clubs, so I saw Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett. 

L.R.: This would’ve been, I guess the early, the late forties.

C.B.: Yeah. But we were all little sort of trying to be gangsters, you know, hard headed and shoplifters and whatever. You could, I mean, I, I didn’t break and enter or anything like that… all we saw was the movies that we saw were all about gangsters.

So we were, our desire was, you know, Edward G. (Robinson) and all those guys. Some guys got into breaking and enter and. A lot of guys would rob people, you know, they called it strong arm. You’d go up and hit the person and ask for money… Like I said, there was very little encouragement for us to like, continue on and go to college or do the right things, you know. 

L.R.: But you finished high school, and all left with your–

C.B.: Uh, yeah, I did. I eventually did, but I didn’t have many smarts. I was in the same grade for I think two or three years. And finally, I got on how to study.

L.R.: Did your family move around a lot or did you stay mostly on Coursol?

C.B.: No. Well, my father and mother… [there] wasn’t a good relationship. And then my father…my father finally left us and my mother… she gave up the business. We left there and we moved to Griffintown. Yeah. And that’s where I learned about life. As soon I stepped outta the house, I got an ass kicking from the guys in the hood!

I joined the Boys and Girls Club then I got into boxing a bit. You know, nothing big. I did the golden glove, but I didn’t break no records. 

How I got into the music was we used to go just outside of Montreal for fights and they’d give you 50 bucks or something. So they said, “come on, maybe you make some money, blah, blah.” So I get some guy, I was 118 pounds. He looked like he was 218 pounds! Anyway, we jump in the ring and then he hit me. I still feel the punch, man! So I said, take me to the music class. So I started studying music. I got into the music, and then eventually…

Later on, I became a flute player. I studied in New York at the Manhattan School of Music, and I played [for] a good few years, and then … I was also – you know, like I said, I was a bad boy – I did a lot of drinking, drugs, blah, blah, blah.

Eventually my lung, my left lung got affected. So they went through all the lung tests and the doctor said, well, you know, your left lung is not good and if you continue playing, eventually you’ll lose it for flute playing.

Charles Burke outside the building where the Black Bottom used to be in Old Montreal, 2023, Arcmtl Collection

L.R.: but um, I guess, you had mentioned too, and a good friend of yours that you grew up with and listening to jazz with, Alfie Wade. 

C.B.: Yeah, we, well actually we grew up together. We were always trying to conquer the world. Alfie had all these big ideas, he started a jazz club called the Emanon Jazz Society, which we’d meet once a week. The location was on Sherbrooke, I believe. And we used to go on the weekends. Late forties. 

L.R.: He mentioned to me that both of you were among the first fans of Oscar Peterson before he recorded any records. 

C.B.: Oh, well, I grew up with Oscar. And his father was very strict. I mean, after school we’d run over to the park and after school, Mr. Peterson would be standing out at the school and Oscar would go from school to the piano. 

His sister actually was, a lot better player than Oscar. But the father, because he, I guess you have your son, the son comes first. So he cultivated [him], he pushed his son. He made her push him. She taught a few players around town, I think Oliver Jones studied there behind Daisy. 

L.R.: I think she taught almost everybody in that part of town in those decades. Did you see him play any gigs in the early, early years in some of his first shows? 

C.B.: Oh yeah. He used to come on and, and play, do a little show and um, Norman Grantz was in Montreal, I don’t know, on some kind of business or something. And he was heading up I think it was Mountain Street to go to the CPR. Yeah, to go to the train station. And he was taking the trains to go to New York, but he was early for his train and he, um, he said to the taxi driver, he said, “now, kind of early, is there a place I could grab a drink?” And he said yeah, there’s a place right here. It was called the Alberta Lounge. And he said, You could go in there and—

L.R.: —Was that in Windsor Station or next to Wind Street? Right, right across the street. From the station on Saint Antoine?

C.B.: Yeah. No, this was on, uh ….

L.R.: Gauchetière? 

C.B.: No. Dorchester. It was, no—it was going what was that was Mountain…Yeah. So up there, there was a little club in there.

It was called the Alberta Lounge, and he—so he got out and got in there, and then he started here. He was, Oscar was playing with a trio. And he got in there and heard Oscar man, and he, he, he said, man, Take my card and gimme a call. And then he called Norman Grantz. And Norman Grantz hired him right away.

And if you notice all the— he started, um, jazz at the Philharmonic. If you notice every jazz group that came to play at the Philharmonic, Oscar was the pianist.

L.R.: So that was around 1949 if I know my history.

C.B.: Yeah. Oscar did you know, he did end up moving to Toronto and they—I guess they weren’t happy with him cause they, they did a Ku Klux like clan thing. They burned a across on his lawn, after he moved to Toronto. Yeah. Oscar Peterson. Yeah. They burned it, they did that. And I always felt, um, Montreal or Canada never did, gave him the kind of dues he should have gotten. Yeah. If he was an American. I mean, they give you some, like the true recognition. There’s a bit of a long tradition of Canadians going elsewhere first to get famous.

Charles Burke in conversation with Louis Rastelli, 2023, Arcmtl

L.R.: Yeah. Then, then they come back.

C.B.: Yeah. That’s true. 

L.R.: So this is early fifties then you and Alfie, and I guess you have other friends who were into the jazz. 

C.B.: Well, Alfie started out, Alfie was studying jazz. He was studying to be a piano player. 

L.R.: It was with Alfie and yourself at the, the first Charlie Parker concert. 

C.B.: Yeah. Costs… He came in for $700 and as soon as he got in, he said, I want my money. So they gave me $700 to give him. And I think he played, he played a couple tunes and then I think he went over to the CBC and played a tune. 

L.R.: Do you remember the club that Charlie Charlie Parker played at in Montreal?

Audience member : Chez Parée!

L.R.: Yeah. And you picked him up at the airport you were mentioning? 

C.B.: Yeah. He never said one word. He got in the back seat and that was it. 

L.R.: Did he say anything after the show [like] thank you guys? No?  Just a real professional, I guess.

C.B.: It was very professional. 

L.R.: But you were, you were a fan of that music. How did you feel watching? 

C.B.: Oh, I was definitely a jazz fan. 

L.R.: Well, did you sit right in front to watch Charlie do his thing?

C.B.: Well, yeah. I practically sat on his lap! I mean, when I was—see my mother when she had the beauty parlour, she used to play, it was called jazz, but it was like the syncopation was just like that, like almost waltz. Yeah. You know, and I can’t go for Bix Beiderbecke and those guys, they’re way old!

And then when Parker came on, he started to syncopate in the music and all the other musicians first thought he was crazy, but he kept on playing. And then I think Dizzy Gillespie was another founder and a couple other guys started what they call be-bop.

You know, and then everybody, all the musicians started playing that, the syncopations. He was definitely a genius. Unfortunately. I mean, he had his little personalities, but he was a genius. 

L.R.: Yeah. So, after 1956, I mean, you got this Charlie Parker show your knee-deep in jazz. I just wanted to ask you a bit though, you mentioned that a lot of your other friends growing up and, and in that neighborhood, amongst the other career choice, well, there were only a few career choices. You’d ended up being a porter for a while, right?

C.B.: Well… that was all you could get. I mean, unless you got a job in one of the factories, working in the shipping room or the clothing factories. On Saint-Lawrence Street, they would hire, they weren’t racist. They would hire you, but it wasn’t any, I mean, you couldn’t get jobs like futuristic jobs where you could work your way up and become something.

You know, so the only job that you could really support your family on was the railroad. But the railroad was very racist. I mean, the white employees, when we got out of town, they went to the hotel, we went to a room in the house, and we couldn’t eat with the white folks. They put us behind a green curtain to have our meals.

And then our meals were [a] special made up of, from the leftovers, from the main menu. And, I mean, you know, if you got 60 demerit marks, you got fired. And you’d get a demerit mark if you didn’t shine somebody’s shoes. Right. Not just [for not] shining them but if they didn’t have enough of a shine.

And if the passenger complained, they would – the conductor in charge would report you – and they’d give you a demerit mark for not making an effort to do the job right. And your job was you had to shine shoes, make beds, clean the toilets, and catered to the passenger’s whim as the passenger.

I remember once we were coming through the passenger car and uh, one guy said, “Hey, Porter, sing us a song.” And so I said, “man, come on.” Because I didn’t want to look stupid. But he went in and started singing, and guess what? He was singing Old Black Joe. I said, “man, what’s wrong with you?” Because I was always considered a rebel because I didn’t like the— I didn’t put up until something happened that, all that bullshit. So, I said, no.

L.R.: But did you ever get any demerits just like that from some racist?

C.B.: I had 50. I think I had 50. I got as high as 50. Cause they knew I was a rebel, you know, cause all these stupid things they’d ask you [in] passing, you know. The passenger used to call you from the American railway, where George Pullman, they used to call the porters George.

Yeah. George Pullman was the guy that, he was in the rail business and he came up with the idea, well, if I put another, an extra car on the, the train, people could sit in it and I could start carrying passengers. Well, because he said the best person to work these things were the, the slavery concept. So we used you know, ex-slaves, but more or less, oh God. You know, there was no whites working at that.

L.R.: That would’ve been the beginning of passenger rail in the late 1800s. So the nickname stuck for calling you guys…

C.B.: Sometimes you’d get, some person would come up and call you George, you know? Well, like I said, I would say, “Sir, my name is Charles. It’s not George.” I mean, I was always on top of, on top of any foolishness, you know, they had asked you to do same, you know, but —

L.R.: You ended up being able to adjust your schedule so that you’d work.

C.B.: Well yeah […] I started so young and I, and I had acquired enough time that I could pick my own run. And I had a run, which was Monday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday or Wednesday. And then Thursday, Friday and Saturday I was off. And that’s when I started the Black Bottom.

So, like I said, I always wanted to play, but I didn’t want travel. Cause you know, I had a family, and I said my father was never around, so I wanted to be a father to them [my children]. 

L.R.: You had two sons, right? 

C.B.: Yeah, I had two sons. So I said, I wanted to play, open up the club and play in it, but I think if I remember correctly, the Nelson Symonds trio came to Montreal and he started playing. So, I said, man, guy can play! Maybe I’ll get a gig playing with him. Yeah. I’ll bring him into the club, and I’ll be the drummer. So, we’re playing, and Nelson says, “man, you know, you should get, some people like to have a drink, get some [food].” So I said, okay. So I said, I get some Cokes and Coca-Cola. So then they said, “man, you know, you should get a little, little sandwich or something.”

So then I started making some. So I keep coming, running back and running. I said, man, so Nelson said, “well, maybe you, you gotta keep up the kitchen and maybe we’ll get a drummer.” So I started the soul food. Like I said, my mother used to cook these wings when I was a kid.

So I started cooking the wings and then they took off and Nelson said, “man, we better get another drummer till you get the thing together.” So, So anyway, as I was coming, the wings are getting more popular than my drumming….

Advertisement for the opening of the Black Bottom, The Gazette, 1964, Charles Burke Collection
Private Collection Charles Burke.
First advertisement made for the Black Bottom, c. 1965, Charles Burke Collection

L.R.: So when you found the place, going back to the beginning of the, um, the actual first Black Bottom on St. Antoine, it was a pretty small place, right? 

C.B.: Yeah. And then I had a landlord who liked me, he wanted to sell to me. It was a three-story building and I used—I had to drop floor. I used to fix it up like a big living room, and the musicians would come down to here, Nelson, and then I’d take ’em upstairs and we would have drinks and I’d serve them drinks but I never did buy the building, then it got expropriated. 

L.R.: Probably for the best you didn’t buy.

C.B.: Well, what I always say is that, I should have never— I should have opened up someplace else in the hood because when I got to St. Paul Street, it was a jazz club, but it was too sophisticated. It didn’t have the kind of funky atmosphere that I had on St-Antoine. 

L.R.: Okay. Yeah but when you first picked there on Saint Antoine, I know it was quite small.

C.B.: Yeah. I, I had to knock down, I knocked down a bit of a wall. I had, I ended up having 60 people there.

L.R.: But did you know about the “Boîte à chanson”, like, you called it a Boite a Jazz, is that right? Was that modeled at all in these small places where people would you know, folk singers or what was that notion of “Boîte à jazz”? 

C.B.: I just, I think I did it because I was in a French area. I called then. Then they ended up calling it “le Black.” Instead of Black Bottom, they said the, you know, “le Black”, it used to, that was like the short word for it. 

What had happened when I got expropriated… Alfie’s the guy, he says there’s a place, it looks like the village, you know, and back then the village of New York…Greenwich Village in New York. 

It was like the, that was the paradise for the paradise of the world, man, if you were in the village. So I said, oh man, you know, so I–he took me down to St. Paul’s and showed me this building And I said, okay. But, you know, in the back of the mind, I should have stayed in the hood. 

Charles Burke at work at the Black Bottom with Romeo the bartender, c. 1968  Charles Burke Collection
CB: This guy was the best bartender in the world. By the time he gave your drink, your problem was solved. You told him all your problems. There was no drink he couldn't make. Customers would come in, they're ready to fight. Next thing you know, they're walking out of the place smiling. Romeo was a great bartender. I think he got he might have got sick and I think he got cancer and passed away.

L.R.: [Another] other thing about, um, your location on St. Antoine. So before long, you’ve got the Nelson Symonds Trio playing pretty much every night that you’re open. You got roped into doing the soul food, which people loved. Tell me a bit about your chicken wing recipe.

C.B.:  Like I said, my mother cooked them and, you know, she turned [to the] Afro people who came to Canada [and] brought their cuisine you see.

And my—the chicken wings back then, if you went to the butcher, he’d give you your order and a couple pounds of chicken wings. Nobody bought ’em. But my mother took ’em home and she decked them out, you know. So, I said, okay, this is an idea. Let me try these wings. So then, they took off and then the next thing you know, I used to put ads in the paper. 12,087 wings sold this weekend. Every month, every week in the Star

The cooking out of the Caribbean was black-eyed peas and rice and chicken. The people went for it, but they didn’t, they didn’t go so much for the black-eyed peas and rice.

But the wings took off, like I said, and I cooked the whole wing. You know, nowadays they’re going, they say chicken wings, they just give you the meaty part. So, I cooked them and as I said it became successful. 

L.R.: And the other success of that is that that helped attract all these jazz guys. So John Coltrane would be in town playing at the Esquire maybe? The end of the set, somebody says, “Hey, you gotta go down, check out these chicken wings!”

C.B.: Well, they actually was, it was the wings. They said, they said Nelson was the talk of the town because Nelson, if he wasn’t playing, he was practicing. But that’s all he did. And he, his playing was phenomenal. To this day, if you listen to him carefully, cuz he would play a block chord like it was a note. Oh yeah. He would solo with chords like crazy, huh.

 And I mean, everybody would come down and say, “man, where’s, where’s this guitar player? Want to hear him; want to hear him.” And you know, you’d see guys coming down. We want to hear this guitar player. And I remember, like I said, “Trane came down and Nelson said, do you want to get up and play with us?” And Trane said, “no way, man. I’m here to sit, to listen.” So, he sat down and listened. Miles [Davis] came down. he was in the kitchen eating the wings and firing them all over the floor. And I said, “oh, well, that’s what Miles does.” 

The media was nice too, but when I first went to the Montreal Star, I said I want to put this ad in: The Black Bottom. So the guy said, just a minute. So, I wait a few. He says, I’m sorry, we can’t put the [name] in. I said, “what do you mean?” He said, “we can’t put no racial [terms].” Uh, I said, “it’s not racial. It’s a dance that was popular back in the twenties, right. In the 1800s or so. It was called a Black Bottom […]”. 

“There was a dance.” I said, “that’s where I’m bringing it from.” So, they finally let me put the a in the newspaper.

Band playing at the Black Bottom on St. Antoine, c. 1965, Charles Burke Collection

L.R.: Yeah. Yeah. So you, um, one of the famous stories, I guess on the, the Black Bottom, both Miles and John Coltrane, after checking out Nelson Symonds were interested in having him join the bands. Right?

C.B.: He and Nelson would always say, “I’m not ready yet. I’m not ready.” Nobody could hire Nelson. They would come, Duke Ellington wanted him. Um, a lot of people wanted him to move to America, but he said, no, I’m not ready yet. Not ready yet.”

L.R.: Do you think maybe he didn’t, would rather not travel or was happy in this place?

C.B.: I think he had a lack of self-confidence maybe because he never, you know, he never realized his skills. He–I mean, like the guitar was like his, his friend. I mean, if he, like I said, if he wasn’t playing it, he would be practicing and he’d be, he’d practice like, four or five hours, you know, and then you get up on the stage and play.

Black Bottom advertisement, Montreal Star 1965, Charles Burke Collection

L.R.: A lot of people sat in with Nelson, right. 

C.B.: Yeah, they would come down to sit in with ’em, but a lot of them sat in once and never came back. Cause it was, I mean, after Nelson took his solo, you don’t even dare think you’re taking a solo after him. You took your solo before him, you had a chance, but after he took his solo, forget it.

L.R.: I guess the way it went is Thursday, Friday, Saturdays you’d open pretty late, but after the other events up, the other shows…

C.B.: Well, we, I’d open up at 10. Because I knew all the, after the, the clubs closed, everybody ran down to the Black Bottom. 

L.R.: So when would it get more crowded? three o’clock?

C.B.: Yeah, two, three o’clock. Everybody’s waiting to sit in and jam or come and listen to Nelson because he had — I had Bernard Primeau who was one of the drummers.

He had a couple bass players that were really good, they were out of New York or someplace they were studying. And then we had Freddy McHugh was a bass player, he’s from Montreal. And then Biddle came to town. But he wasn’t really that active with the music. He was the car salesman. That’s right. He sold cars, and if you bought a car from Biddle, forget it, man. As soon as you drove off the lot… Not that I’m insulting him, but the car, the car forgot to run. But I became friends with him and we, him and his wife and my wife and everything, we became friends.

L.R.: Yeah, he lived up in Sainte-Adèle.

C.B.: Yeah. We went up there. He had a place he tried to, was trying to run a place up there for a bit, but I mean, he was always jazz orientated, you know? And then he got ahold of Nelson and they became a trio, I believe in. They played at the expo for a bit.

L.R.: Yeah, yeah. So in those days, in the old place, on St. Antoine, I noticed one thing going through the ads is at one point you’ve got a second spot on Peel.

C.B.: yeah, Harry Lee who owned, um, had a club and he came down and said he came down for the food too. And he said why don’t you open up some jazz in my place. So I said, okay. And then I put Black Bottom at the…what was the name of his place? Was Penthouse something House. Yeah, that’s right. So I brought that up there for a while and tried with the cooking, but we never took off.

Advertisement for the Black Bottom secondary location at the “Penthouse” on Peel street, c. 1966, Charles Burke Collection

L.R.: So that was just for a little while.

C.B.: Yeah. It was a short period

L.R.: What about the fact that your address is really close to Rockhead’s Paradise.

C.B.: Well, Rockhead’s was my Inspiration. In fact, we used to sneak as kids.

L.R.: So you, you would’ve seen some of the shows there.

C.B.: Oh yeah. Showgirls Man! We… a lot of us ended up falling in love with the showgirls.

A couple of guys ended up in New York, but I fell in love with one and I was getting[…] I think I was, I was even married. Anyway, she sort of convinced me to leave and go to New York with her. So I remember walking down, we’re heading to get to the, to the train station, and I’m walking out, leaving my family and kids. And so finally we got to the street. I said, I said, listen, I can’t go, I can’t leave my family.

L.R.: But your typical routine… Thursday, Friday, Saturday. So after the other bars would close and the other shows would end musicians would come down at two or three.

C.B.: Yeah. They come down and jam and eat the food.

L.R.: And you were able to serve food and booze until what, 2:30? When?

C.B.: Well, the booze, I was sneaking into the coffee cups.

L.R.: Yeah. So that’s, that’s how people were able to stay til what, 10, 11 the morning?

C.B.: Yeah. We run till 10, 12 o’clock in the next day. Man, we’re still jamming.

L.R.: So the musicians, there wouldn’t be just Nelson going for seven hours. […]

C.B.: Nelson stayed right till the end

L.R.: Really?

C.B.: Well, because we used to drink. Biddle used to drink “alcool” and I used to drink white wine. Me and Nelson, we’d get a gallon each of white wine. And by the end, by 10 o’clock, I mean, by the next morning we were bad. But we’d play the music. I should have taped a lot of that music. I never did.

L.R.: And then well a big chapter was that you had to move because I guess it was the Bonaventure Expressway.

Newsclipping announcing The Black Bottom reopening in Old Montreal location, February 1968, Charles Burke Collection

C.B.: Well, the property got expropriated. See, most cities in the America and Canada, when they built these freeways, the rich people said, don’t come near my property with no outlet. So they went down to the ghetto,  and all the outlets ended up in the ghetto.

L.R.: Well, you already told us about how you ended up, well how Alfie encouraged you to go and end up in, in Old Montreal, and that you had some pretty amazing shows, those amazing stretch of years.

C.B.: Well, when I moved to St. Paul, I got a call from Plattsburgh where the universities were, and they asked me, would you like to have Woody Herman? I said, man, I’m just, I can’t afford Woody — 18 pieces. The guy said, no, no, one of the universities had to cancel a concert and Woody needs to make some money to get the gas to get back to New York.

So I said, what? Well bring them in. Yeah. They said we take the door and you take the bar. I said, go bring them in. So here come 18 pieces, man. I said, wow.

L.R.: 18 piece band, wow, how big was the club again? Maybe it could fit about 120 people ?.

Advertisement for the Roland Kirk Quartet, September 1968, Charles Burke Collection

C.B.: No, St. Paul was 220. 220.

L.R.: Wow. That’s not bad.

C.B.: So I said, okay. And because he did two shows, well he really killed the place man, I made a ton of money. The same guy called me back later on and he said, um, would you like to have Miles Davis? I said, man, what’s wrong with you? I said, Miles is getting $30,000 a night. He said, no, no, I got a deal. I said, what? He said, you can get ’em for 10,000. I said, Miles Davis? he said, 10 days. I said, what? Miles Davis? So I brought Miles in and that was it.

L.R.: So, so you were able to make well over a thousand a day,

C.B.: man.

L.R.: we saw the poster is about 2.50 [CAD] to get in, right?

C.B.: Yeah.

L.R.: So that’s what, maybe 600 bucks in tickets?

C.B.: Yeah.

L.R.: But you have two shows a night.

C.B.: Yeah.

L.R.: So I guess right there you got 1200 bucks. And but your bar, your drinks are what, 40 cents, 80 cents?

C.B.: Yeah. I made a good amount of money and what happened is the band loved the food, you know, and they, they would, they would specifically come eat, they wouldn’t go to no restaurant. So, the last evening Miles had a lawyer that took care of his personal business, he said Miles, you know, said to take out the food for the band and give him the rest of his money. So I just put 10 grand in an envelope and I said, give it to Miles. So when this guy came back and said, Miles said, take out the food. I said, you tell Miles he’s my idol and it was a pleasure. So Miles said, man, here’s my number. When you get to New York, you call me. So I said, I can’t believe Miles is telling you to call him, you know, The greatest.

L.R.: But I remember you’re also mentioning, and this is what kind of happened by 68, 69, jazz had a bit of a fall.

Flyer for Miles Davis show at Black Bottom, c. 1968, Charles Burke Collection

C.B.: Well, jazz died! Something happened, it just died. And then, um, I guess Miles is such an intellectual person. He heard these guys playing, you know, rocking

L.R.: He got into the rock fusion on Bitch’s Brew,

C.B.: So that was the new jazz. But there was still some heavy cats. … [Thelonious] Monk was an unusual jazz player, he stuck [with] his stuff. But eventually you know, there was no gigs for them.

L.R.: So you had a little bit of the jazz rock fusion, I guess you mentioned that Tony Williams Lifetime, which was an offshoot.

C.B.: Well, yeah. Tony was a young drummer who Miles hired then Tony left and opened up his own groups. 

L.R.: Could it be that the first ever concert by the Tony Williams Lifetime was at the Black Bottom?

C.B.: I gave them their first gig. When Tony left Miles, he opened up this group with Larry Young and John McLaughlin. They opened this group called Lifetime, I gave him the first gig. And they opened up at the Black Bottom on St. Paul.

Flyer for Tony William’s Lifetime show at the Black Bottom, c. 1970, Charles Burke Collection

L.R.: And if I could go back in time and see that, but you mentioned that there wasn’t a big turnout for that.

C.B.: No, I was shocked, man! I thought people would, I thought that you’d be seeing people out in the streets. A couple guys came and they bought tickets and they put, they brought their chair right up to the drums. But in fact I had to take money outta my pocket to pay Tony.  

L.R.: When you were on St. Paul though, did the late-night sessions going to 10 in the morning continue? Or did it calm down?

C.B.: No, we —on St. Paul?

L.R.: Yeah. So you still would play till late and Nelson would…

C.B.: Nelson never came. I told Nelson, I said, I’m not going to bring you into the new club because… my impression of you, you should have been in America playing with some heavy band or something. You know what I mean?

L.R.: You wanted to try to push him off, do something.

C.B.: I said, you know, you should go, you know, you shouldn’t be here in the first place.I mean, you should be up there with George Benson.

L.R.: Well, that’s, that’s how George Benson got his first gig.

C.B.: Yeah. A lot of guys would come, where’s Nelson? And he’d say, well, I’m not quite ready yet. Sending him messages from the States — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, all these guys wanted him. So like I said, I don’t know whether it was his ego or he didn’t believe in himself…

L.R.: You know, I mean, I, I’ve, I’ve not known, but I’ve known of musicians who were super, super talented and they didn’t believe they were, and they ended up just going nowhere. That club. The, I wanna switch topics just a little bit to some of the people. It was such a well-loved club in on St. Paul especially cause it went on through the seventies. But did you mention Maggie Trudeau and to the Black Bottom?

C.B.: His wife would come. She would come and listen to jazz.

L.R.: Now there’s only one other thing– you’d mentioned that, that, that you accommodated some of the gangsters in town.

C.B.: …you’re running a bar – you had to have some relationships with [gangsters.]  Well, they’d come for the wings and like I said, there was nobody in the building.

So I turned the top floor like into a lounge. So they would all go up and eat their wings there. And if they did any drugs, they did their thing. … they didn’t bring ladies up and start with sexual things. Ladies came up, but it was nothing about nothing physical.

L.R.: So you weren’t, you weren’t like Rockheads’ Paradise with all the pimps doing their work there.

C.B.: Well, the pimps would be downstairs at Rockheads’ because if Rockhead caught you upstairs, he had a saying and he said: “This is my place, not your place. So you can’t be here.” He’d tell them to go, you know? But downstairs, the pimps would hang out there. Well, I was down the street and the girls — I wasn’t into pimping. I could have, but the girls would come and they’d eat or something and they’d end up giving me some money at the bar.

L.R.: At the bar. Why? Because they would get clients at your bar?

C.B.: So they come and gimme money and one of the girls start talking to the other girl. She said, man, Charlie’s the greatest, he gives you back money, man. So the pimps heard about this, you know, so they said, Charlie, we’re having a special meeting up here on somewhere, some lot around Sherbrooke. So he said, we want you to come up here and be part of the meeting. So I said, okay. So I get up there and as soon as I get out of my car, they beat me. They beat me and beat me and beat me. They said, man, don’t get into our business man.

L.R.: Did they ask you for money back or something like that?

C.B.: No, they just said, get out of our business. Like I said, the girls were having conversations. They said, oh, Charlie’s a great pimp man. He gives you back money.

L.R.: That’s pretty brutal. I mean, it’s, I think that’s how it’s still supposed to go. Is that, yeah. The pimp keeps all the money.

C.B.: Nah, the pimp keeps all the money, man.

L.R.: But they knew you well enough that you had mentioned that there was a player’s ball in Montreal they invited you to.

C.B.: Well, I just went because I was a nightclub owner.

L.R.: So was there a player’s ball every year

C.B.: Yeah, every year. They, they, they’d hire some big hall, Sheraton Hotel, and everybody would come out with their outfits.

L.R.: … you had friends that you grew up with that …

C.B.: Yeah, I mean, like I said, getting a high paying job was impossible. … And a lot of guys didn’t want to be porters cause it was too humiliating. Yeah. Very humiliating job. You’re like a professional servant.

L.R.: Well, I’m glad that you chose a different calling– a nightclub owner is much more noble.

C.B.: Well, I said I wanted to play, but I would have to travel. So I ended up opening that club.

Menu from the Black Bottom on St. Paul, Old Montreal, c. 1970, Charles Burke Collection

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