By michelle-lee The Afro News Ontario
Jackie Washington, a Hamilton, Ontario cultural institution, died peacefully June 27th at Hamilton’s St. Joseph’s Healthcare facility, from complications resulting from a heart attack. He was 89.
He was born in Hamilton November 12, 1919 to Rose and John Washington, the third of 15 children (11 boys, 4 girls). He was the last surviving sibling.
Washington’s grandfather George escaped slavery in Virginia via the Underground Railroad and settled near Welland, Ontario where he started his family in a two-room sharecropper’s shack. His father John moved to Hamilton where he met and married Rose in 1916. His father worked at hauling trash for the city and his mother, who was born in an orphanage, worked as a domestic.
Music was always a part of Jackie’s growing up. He made his first public appearance at the age of five, singing at Bennetto School and received his first guitar at the age of 13. During the depression years Jackie and three of his brothers helped the family by performing as the Washington Quartet. They played in nearly every church in the city. Sometimes they were paid in food supplies when money was unavailable. Tragedy struck the family in 1938. While the brothers were rehearsing for a summer gig with a band at the Ontario resort of Waubaushene, Ormsby, the eldest of the four, drowned in a swimming accident. Without their bass singer and arranger (by that time they were harmonizing songs popularized by the Mills Brothers), the Washington Quartet stopped performing.
Washington worked for the CPR from 1938 to 1941 when he left to join the army. He was given a medical discharge in 1943 and resumed his musical career. He met many of the Black stars of the day (Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Clark Terry, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Earl Hines among them). His career skyrocketed in the 1960s as he became a fixture on the Ontario coffee house circuit and played in the popular venues of the day and at festivals across the country. By the 80s he was a regular guest on CBC Radio. To supplement his income he also worked as a factory worker, washroom attendant at Duffy’s Tavern in Toronto, and shoeshine operator at three racetracks. He has the distinction of being one of Canada’s first black broadcasters, working as a disc jockey playing jazz during the ’40s and ’50s for two Hamilton radio stations.
Washington, a self-taught guitarist, had an uncanny feel for melody and a raspy voice just meant for the blues. He recorded three solo albums and four more with his friends and collaborators Mose Scarlett and Ken Whiteley. He was a member of the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame (inducted in 2002) and held an honorary doctorate from McMaster University, a tremendous achievement for a man who never attended high school.
He listed 1,300 songs in his repertoire and knew most of them by heart. He received a Juno Award in 1993. He was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ontario Arts Council in 1995 and another one at the Maple Blues Awards in 1998. Author James Strecker helped him write his biography “More Than a Blues Singer” published in 1996.
In recent years, arthritis prevented him from playing his beloved guitar. Diabetes had left him blind in one eye and forced the amputation of his right leg 20 years ago, but despite his poor health Washington continued singing wherever there was an audience. His last public performance was in June during a reception at McMaster’s Convocation Hall, held to thank him for the donation of his music, personal papers, photos and artwork to the university archives. Suffering from shortness of breath due to a chronic heart condition, he still managed to sing three songs including the Mills Brothers hit “I Ain’t Got Nobody”.
He is survived by his wife, Eleanor; their son, Michael; grandson Michael; and five-month-old great grandson, Miles. A tribute was paid July 6th at the Jackie Washington Rotary Park in Hamilton. A memorial service was held July 8th and another tribute was held July 17-19 at the Home Country Folk Festival.