Len Dobbin was a cool jazz voice on the radio when I was a teenager just getting into playing jazz. In fact, my love affair with jazz began in the 1970s when I discovered the album “Headhunters” by Herbie Hancock in 1973. Up to that point I had been playing pop and folk music, like most teenagers coming out of the sixties. But Headhunters started me on a new journey. For the next few years a learned more about crossover jazz music, later to be known as “jazz-funk” and “jazz-rock”. I wrote and recorded music in that genre, performing with musicians such as Graham Chambers, Jimmy Oliver, Steve Hall, Burke Mahoney, and Zeek Gross. Those were the days of the legendary backroom of the Rainbow Bar & Grill in Montreal – kind of like a poor man’s Minton’s for crossover jazz.
Len Dobbin was the presiding jazz deity at CJFM; his Sunday night show drew many devotees. The remarkable feature that I remember about Len from those days was his open-minded support of local Montreal Jazz. Len was a mainstream jazz guy. He didn’t like crossover jazz, and thus he didn’t like my music much. But he never even hinted at that. In fact, he mentioned my name on air just like every other jazz musician, and he even played one of my early unreleased recordings (Night Flight) and had me as a guest on his show. There just wasn’t a prejudicial bone in Len’s body.
In 1976 I began studying bebop with Armas Maiste at McGill University, and my love for bebop jazz was born. From that time on, as a newly-minted mainstream jazz player, I began to have more to share with Len, and he with me. Over the years I saw him at various clubs and gigs, and found myself a guest on his show a few more times. When my first album was released in 1983, once again I was back on Len’s show, this time with saxophonist Bob Mover. It was a moment to remember. In the midst of the show while a record was playing, Len got up to go to the bathroom but didn’t make it back by the time the track was over, and Bob and I suddenly found ourselves co-hosts!
After I moved to Toronto in 1987, I saw Len only occasionally, and then mostly on a social basis. His health had deteriorated due to years of heavy drinking. Len was an alcoholic who found his recovery in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous in the mid 1990s.
In 2009 I emerged from a decade long jazz retirement. I shared my excitement with Len via email, and he showed up to hear me at a jam session in Montreal in June of this year. It was so great to see him again, though he seemed somewhat frail. But he also seemed filled with a sparkle and a genuine joy of life that I had not seen in him before. We had a wonderful reunion that night, but Len got tired and decided to leave the club early before I had yet played. I was planning on being back in Montreal the following week, so Len bid me goodnight and said he would be back to hear me play the following week. A mere few days later, Len suffered a stroke and died. He had been in that same jazz club, “Upstairs”, when he became ill. The jazz deity was felled in a jazz club in his beloved Montreal. How fitting.
Len was a giant, not just because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz recordings and artists, not just because of his love for and understanding of jazz music, and not just because of his unrelenting support of Montreal jazz. Len was a giant because of all of these things, combined with the fact that he was a caring and loving person who would go the distance to help another person. All of us who knew Len are enriched by the experience, just as we are diminished by his absence.