May 22, 2014
By Adam Martin-Robbins
Allan Kowall has been drumming for more than 70 years, but he’s unable to pinpoint exactly what drives his passion for playing music, especially jazz.
“I don’t know. I like it, I can’t tell you anything other than that,” said Kowall, 92, sitting in his bright, airy apartment an hour before his monthly gig at the Vaughan seniors’ residence where he lives
He can, however, tell you the very moment he fell in love with the drums.
Kowall was born and raised in Winnipeg. His mother and father were Jewish immigrants hailing from Poland and Russia respectively.
When he was about 14, Kowall headed down to the local movie theatre to watch a film starring Benny Goodman and his orchestra, which at the time featured legendary drummer Gene Krupa.
He walked out of there determined to become a jazz drummer.
“I said, ‘That’s what I want to do’,” said Kowall, a short, slight man with wispy white hair and glasses. “I (went home and) told my dad and he said, ‘You’re crazy. What do you want to play the drums for’?”
Kowall’s dad worked on the railroads and, one day, shared his son’s dream with his co-workers.
“They said you’ve got to give him a break, maybe he’ll do something,” Kowall recalled. “So he bought me a set. He came home (with it) and everything had holes in it.”
Kowall didn’t play for a couple of years after that, however, his cousin who lived down the street was obsessed with music and continued to fuel his dream.
They would get together on Saturday nights to listen to the hockey game on the radio.
Beforehand, his cousin would always tune into a station that played the great African-American jazz musicians.
“When I listened to it, I forgot about hockey,” Kowall said. “I used to visit him all the time and he gave me a cigar box with two little sticks that I used to practice with.”
Kowall honed his drumming skills by himself, taking only one lesson when he was about 16.
He met with a music teacher who wanted him to start out learning to count basic beats.
“I walked out,” Kowall said. “I said, ‘That’s the kind of music I’ve got to learn? I want jazz.’”
And that’s exactly what he played, at every opportunity.
When he got married, Kowall and his wife, Mary, headed to New York City for their honeymoon and he got to see the man who triggered his musical journey.
Gene Krupa, who’d recently been released from jail, happened to be performing with Benny Goodman at the New Yorker Hotel.
The newlyweds dropped by the hotel and Kowall saw his idol in the flesh.
“I wanted to get an autograph, but (Krupa) was talking to a gentleman and I didn’t want to interrupt him so I didn’t get it,” he said. “I couldn’t interrupt him.”
Kowall and his wife lived in Montreal, where he trained and worked as an electrician.
They raised two children together, Earl and Heather.
And he kept on playing.
Kowall would even take his drumsticks along when they went on vacation, so he could practice.
Eventually, Kowall said, he and his wife settled down in a two-bedroom apartment in North York.
Kowall performed in the basement of the apartment building, alongside a pianist, every Wednesday afternoon, for their friends and neighbours.
And he practiced, every day.
“She didn’t ever stop me,” Kowall said. “She never said, ‘You’re too noisy, quit it.’ Nothing like that.”
Shortly after his wife died, Kowall moved to the Chartwell Valley Vista Retirement Residence, where he lives today.
When he told the administrators that he plays the drums, they arranged for him to put on hour-long shows once a month with other musicians and singers.
They mostly play jazz numbers by artists such as Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson and Buddy Rich, Kowall said.
The shows often attract a couple of dozen people and many of them clap, sway or dance along in their seats.
For the past nine months, Kowall’s been performing with jazz pianist Andre Soares and singer Sheila McCann.
“It’s fun,” Soares said. “He really appreciates jazz tunes and that’s what I like. We spend a lot of time talking about who he’s seen play. … It’s just great because he’s actually lived during a time when jazz was popular music.”