Cul­tural event in Canada can be traced to 1926.


Cy McLean is prob­a­bly the best Cape Bre­ton mu­si­cian whose name you have never heard.

A child prodigy who stud­ied un­der Rus­sian clas­si­cal mu­si­cians and who toured across Canada as part of a jazz or­ches­tra, as well as be­ing the first African Cana­dian man to join the Cana­dian Mu­si­cians Union, McLean has some­how dis­ap­peared from Cana­dian mu­sic his­tory, African-Cana­dian his­tory as well as this is­land’s his­tory.

And that’s a shame be­cause McLean was orig­i­nally from Whit­ney Pier.

He was born in 1916 in Whit­ney Pier, in the area known as Cokeville, to par­ents who orig­i­nated from Bar­ba­dos (his fa­ther) and Brazil (his mother).

His older brother Reg­gie, who went on to be­come a lawyer and a suc­cess­ful mu­si­cian in his own right, taught him how to play pi­ano, ig­nit­ing a life­long pas­sion for the in­stru­ment.

When he was 16 or 17, McLean joined an all-black band that was tour­ing through the area and it took him even­tu­ally to On­tario where he stud­ied at the Ham­burg Con­ser­va­tory, a mu­sic school es­tab­lished by Rus­sian clas­si­cal mu­si­cians, known to be some of the top per­form­ers in that world.

McLean died in 1986 but not be­fore mak­ing more his­tory as the leader of the Rhythm Rom­pers, the first all-black band to play in main­stream clubs in On­tario in 1947 to au­di­ences that could num­ber in the thou­sands.

McLean’s life was marked by ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances.

“How many black peo­ple in 1933 would have been ac­cepted to a Rus­sian clas­si­cal con­ser­va­tory in mu­sic?” asks re­searcher Wade Pfaff, who is on a mu­si­cal mis­sion to put McLean in his right­ful place in this coun­try’s his­tory.

The St. Catharines, Ont. na­tive may not be from Cape Bre­ton but that isn’t stop­ping him from re­search­ing the con­tri­bu­tions McLean had on the Cana­dian jazz scene as well as to African-Cana­dian his­tory.

Dr. Gra­ham Reynolds at Cape Bre­ton Univer­sity is Pfaff’s men­tor and he is also well-known for chron­i­cling another well­known fig­ure in Cana­dian his­tory, Vi­ola Des­mond.

“He in­spired me to find my own Cana­dian black hero so I ended up dis­cov­er­ing the first Cana­dian black per­son to be in­vited into the Cana­dian Mu­si­cians Union — that was in 1944 — and he is also the first per­son to con­duct a whole Cana­dian black jazz or­ches­tra in an all-white venue in 1947,” said Pfaff, whose own roots are in Capetown, South Africa.

“He was born in Syd­ney, he was from a fam­ily from the West Indies so his story comes along with a lot of other parts of black his­tory that in­cludes Mar­cus Garvey.”

Garvey es­tab­lished the United Ne­gro Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion and McLean’s fa­ther was the pres­i­dent of the Syd­ney branch in 1929. The land where McLean was raised was even­tu­ally do­nated to the African Ortho­dox Church, which re­mains in place to this very day.

“That’s where the Caribbean re­union is held an­nu­ally,” said Pfaff. “That’s where Cy McLean grew up.”

Pfaff says he has plenty of more re­search to do, in­clud­ing find­ing if the pi­anist did any record­ings.

Although McLean died in 1986 and his only son died in 1974 at the age of 31, his brother Reg­gie’s grand­son, Mark McLean, con­tin­ues the fam­ily legacy and is one of this coun­try top jazz mu­si­cians, now based in New York.

Pfaff’s area of re­search is on Cana­dian black his­tory, specif­i­cally black mu­sic of the early 20th cen­tury in the Mar­itimes and cen­tral Canada. He’s a grad­u­ate of CBU’s com­mu­nity stud­ies pro­gram and is work­ing on an hon­ours BA in an­thro­pol­ogy as well as a mas­ters de­gree from Dal­housie Univer­sity in Hal­i­fax, which he will com­plete next year.

A mu­si­cian him­self who’s played in bands in On­tario, Pfaff says it should come as no sur­prise that he chose to study in this prov­ince.

“Nova Sco­tia has al­ways been one of these places where peo­ple were con­cerned about labour move­ments, black ed­u­ca­tion and re­li­gion and mu­sic.”


Re­searcher Wade Pfaff de­liv­ers a talk about ground­break­ing jazz pi­anist Cy McLean of Whit­ney Pier at the James McCon­nell Memo­rial Library in Syd­ney last week. McLean, who was the first black man to join the Cana­dian Mu­si­cians Union, has some­how dis­ap­peared from Cana­dian mu­sic his­tory, some­thing Pfaff hopes to cor­rect.


Cy McLean was the leader of the leg­endary Rhythm Rom­pers, shown here.


Cy McLean was the first black man to join the Cana­dian Mu­si­cians Union.

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