Remember: Gwendolyn Johnston & Washington Savage

Washington Savage / photograph by Jim Allen

This definitely wasn't the post I was planning, but with the announcement of the passing of Gwendolyn Johnston, co-founder of Third World Books & Crafts, and musician Washington Savage, I felt it important to share some information about the lives of two people who were prominent members of the Black and greater Toronto community. Both impacted my life in remarkable ways and, upon reflection, I couldn't imagine my experience of this life without ever having known them. And I'm thankful.

Following is a press release, passed onto me by Kwame Younge, on Washington Savage's life, so I won't expand on it much more. What I will say is that it's a great summation of the type of person he was. My first introduction to him occurred when I was a DJ at CKLN, back in the early '90s, with my last and brief conversation with him taking place in the Annex on Bloor back in the late summer/early fall of 2008. He was one of the many warm, creative and witty musicians that I met during my eleven years in radio. His relentless community-centred way of navigating through projects was something, along with his obvious talent, that I admired — talking with him, was always guaranteed to be somewhat "entertaining."

What I did want to write a bit about was the importance of Gwen Johnston, who also came into my life in the early '90s, as it was a different type of sadness I felt when I learned of her passing early evening yesterday.


What I know of Gwen's personal life, is quite limited, but here are some personal reflections about what was important about her and Third World Books, and by association, her late husband Lenny Johnston.

For those of us of African descent, the period of young adulthood is often spent searching and claiming a balanced and healthier understanding of our heritage: being out of high school tends to do this to you, but that's a whole other post, and I fear I will digress, as it's been known to happen. But Third World Books was pretty much the intellectual version of the Caribbean barbershop in that it was truly a place where people just dropped in to have political discussions, possibly argue with the 5 percenters, meet local writers, media makers, artists and Africanist thinkers, learn about the latest activist gathering and perhaps join a Black-focused study group, and maybe, after all that, buy a few books in between.

For enterprising Black youth in the early '90s (a period I consider a renaissance), it was especially significant: Third World Books was one of the first places that enthusiastically carried At the Crossroads, a Black women's art journal I was publishing, 2 Black Guys (a modest start-up at that time) was selling their shirts out of their basement, countless authors who self-published or were with small presses found an outlet for their publications, as did artisans and those selling crafts.

Many Caribbean youth can attest that the arts isn't something whole-heartedly supported by our parents for a broad number of reasons, so support is often something you have to dig for deep in yourself if you're serious about your path. Living on my own, creating, attending university, starting a business: these were the heart of my life in my very early twenties. And the Johnston's were like the doting grandparents who I had lost at an age too young to bring up memories. They were encouraging, hoping you did well, and valuing all that you tried to do. And, unlike many adults, they took you seriously.

Those who have been or continue to remain in publishing will understand well when I say that the industry is everything tough. The struggles I had with my magazine were ongoing: lack of money, volunteer-run, no grants in the early years, meagre ones later on, and an unbelievable number of hours spent in production, soliciting and publicizing. I still remember with much affection Gwen and Lenny's concern when I came in after a nine-month publishing drought: "Are you bringing in your magazine? Are you still publishing? You haven't stopped?" Almost in unison, looking at me intently — their encouragement heartened me, as I pulled fresh copies out of my bag. They didn't want me, or any other youth, to give up. They understood what was necessary. And they knew that you could do it.

And it's a wonderful sadness I feel now, as I can't imagine these formative years being what they were without having experienced them in my life.

Royson James of the Toronto Star has mentioned Gwen Johnston's passing in an article, which you can check out here along with her obituary that includes funeral details. I hope someone does the same for Washington Savage, whose obituary can be found here; as you will read, his accomplishments were nothing short of remarkable, and it's important for others to know on whose shoulders they stand.

Both Gwen and Washington, I am sure, are being well-received by the ancestors. The party on the other side must be absolutely amazing.


Washington Savage / photograph by Ron Jocsak

Washington Savage, acclaimed as one of Toronto’s most beloved, recognizable and talented pianists passed away early Friday morning. His versatility as an accomplished pianist, producer, arranger, composer, lyricist and musical director, led him to perform and write music for a broad array of artists.

At the young age of 16, and already showing amazing skill, Washington was hand picked by Salome Bey (Canada’s own Ambassador of Blues and honourary Order of Canada recipient) to be her pianist. Savage went on to perform in every type of venue: from church halls to stadiums.

His volunteer work centered around youth choirs, giving the members guidance in a variety of genres, encouraging them to value music, whereby discipline, study, and education helped them make decisions in their lives based on tolerance, freedom of thought and choice.

Raised in the church, he formed his first choir God’s Creation, which helped to harness his love of tones and shapes within the cornucopia of colours that is music — his specialty.

His extraordinary gifts, talent and versatility led him to work with artists such as Deborah Cox, Billy Newton Davis, Margie Evans, Shannon Maracle, Jackie Richardson, and Liberty Silver (for whom he was a co-writer) to name a few. He performed for such dignitaries as Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

His many tours, both here and abroad, included Molly Johnson’s Juno award-winning band The Infidels, Tom Cochrane’s Red Rider, as well as the late Jeff Healey for his Feel This Tour and with whom he recorded this third album.

As an arranger and composer, his theatre productions have included Coming Through Slaughter, the Dora Mavor Moore award-winning play Indigo with Salome Bey, Mamma I Want To Sing (the longest running, Black off-Broadway musical in history), and, most recently, the Berkley Street Theatre production of Steal Away Home by Shauntay Grant. Washington had been Musical Director for the last eight years for the Harry Jerome Awards and, adding to that, in recent years the Crystal Awards for WIFT (Women in Film and Television) and SAWW (South African Women for Women).

He founded two original bands, Age of Reason and BLÄXAM, who signed a publishing deal with Warner Chappell Music, USA (New York). Their CD Kiss my Afro was released independently in 1998 to critical acclaim. BLAXAM achieved great success opening for such performers as Roy Ayers, Corey Glover (Living Color), Maceo Parker and the Reverend Al Green.

Playing regularly for many years in Toronto’s most prestigious restaurants, bars and lounges has solidified his reputation in the hearts of Torontonians as a beloved musician and entertainer: North44, the Windsor Arms Hotel, Sassafraz, Centro, Aqua, Rosewood (for which he was also the talent booker), Opal Jazz Lounge, Cittadini and Sopra Upper Lounge.

2007 saw the debut of his solo piano CD entitled Savage Piano Lounge. An independent release on Sweet 16 Records, it showcases his versatility and includes two original songs: “Tyrant Saint Blues” and “One of Three.”

Savage was anticipating the premiere performance of the first movement from his symphony by the Brampton Symphony Orchestra in November 2008. The “Froadia” symphony first came to light when Savage was to write an opening piece for the Harry Jerome Awards while he was Musical Director. The first movement was inspired by Jerome and is therefore named “Harry Jerome.”

Consisting of five movements, this symphony was Washington’s first foray into the untapped resources of the Black Canadian classical composer. The second movement was inspired by “Uncle” Marcus, Washington’s brother who passed away — a hauntingly unforgettable ode to the tyrant on the hill. The third movement entitled “Ben Johnson,” who the composer thought of as a hero, is a mercurial piece of Canadiana, tracing the twists and turns of Johnson’s being bounced between nationalities like a Tim Horton’s Timbit at a hockey tournament. The honourable Lincoln Alexander is the focus of the fourth movement, a vastly romantic, highly intelligent, wise and observant tone is defined here. The final piece, entitled “Spadina and Dundas” captures the daily lives — the loves, the hardships, struggles and victories — of the many Black families that settled in that section of Toronto between the 1940s through to the 1960s.

Washington Savage was truly an original.

Washington's service will take place Sunday, May 10th at Toronto Perth Avenue Seventh Day Adventist Church, located at 243 Perth Avenue (Bloor Street West and Symington Avenue area). Viewing will take place from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. The funeral service will commence at 11:00 a.m. Directions can be found here.
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