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.