AFRICAN HERITAGE MONTH
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.