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By Russ Cooper
It wasn’t until Jan. 6 that Health Services Director Melanie Drew and legendary pianist and big band arranger Vic Vogel had a chance to meet in person. Until then, while their relationship had been strictly through email and phone, it had been nothing but personal.
Strolling into Meldrum the Mover’s warehouse on Sherbrooke St. W. with the trailing scent of cigars, Drew greeted Vogel, who was side-by-side with Consul General of the Republic of Cuba Sergio Vélez Camhi, to look at the mountain of donated musical instruments and medical equipment they’re arranging to send to the island nation in May.
Six examination tables, several small metal cabinets, a box of mercury thermometers, and a few stools left over from Health Services’ relocation from the ER Building to the GM Building this December were originally headed for the landfill. Now, they’ll be put to use in the Cuban health care system.
“It’s a symbol of real friendship,” Camhi said. “We have difficulties replacing medical supplies due to poor economic conditions and the U.S. embargo […]. [Donations of health care materials] will always help.”
“I know it’s going to the right place,” says Drew. “From the beginning, I’ve been happy.”
The story began in late 2008 when Vogel, now 75, became distraught hearing about the destruction of conservatories and schools in Cuba due to hurricane Ike. With the help of Montreal’s Meldrum the Mover and Toronto-based natural resource company Sherritt, he and his manager Bob Pover arranged for over 200 musical instruments to be shipped to the Cuban ministry of culture.
The effort was so successful, Vogel decided to organize another shipment this year. Word got out via media this winter, and quickly, the offerings poured in: Tons more instruments (including nine pianos) as well as a school bus and an ambulance. The Cuban government even donated three 40-foot shipping containers.
Among those listening to a CBC report on the second shipment was Drew. She didn’t quite know it yet, but she was about to become a part of Vogel’s continuing effort.
“I didn’t make the connection immediately, but when we couldn’t find a place for the old equipment to be used, I remembered Vic,” she said.
Finding him on Canada411.ca, she called Vogel out of the blue, telling him of the situation. He and Pover agreed instantly the material would be welcome.
“People who’ve worked in health care know how precious equipment is,” said Drew, who spent 15 years as a nurse in the public system before joining Concordia in 2000.
“This is completely usable stuff, it just didn’t meet our needs right now,”
On Dec. 17, the day before Health Services was to move, the equipment was delivered to Meldrum’s by Concordia Distribution Services, where it currently stays until the ship sails in May.
Vogel’s connection to Concordia doesn’t start with this — far from it. While working as a toolmaker in the 50s, he attended SGW, “for about a week when I was 15 for mechanical drafting, but it was too much theory, not enough practice.” He also filled in as a music prof one semester “years ago, I can’t remember when.”
In 1993, Vogel began donating all his musical notes and charts to Concordia Archives; hundreds of intricate original handwritten pages, all of which have never been photocopied or duplicated. Since beginning his donation, he’s contributed more than 26 archival boxes of materials.
Vogel’s generosity has been more than welcomed by archives staff, who have been collecting substantial historical material about Montreal’s jazz past since the 1980s.
“Everybody in the jazz community know there’s substantial information about their past in here,” said Archives Director Nancy Marrelli, explaining the facility is constantly frequented by curious musicians, family of musicians and historians, professional or otherwise. “Vic drops by from time to time to have a look at some of his old charts or thumb through the old memorabilia of other musicians. He’s very much at home in our archives,” she says.
At home, sure, but it’s safe to say that after more than half a century performing music, the stage is his home. And perhaps one of the most significant moments connecting Vogel and Concordia came in 1999 when Vogel’s big band performed on stage along side Montreal jazz legend Oscar Peterson during the ceremony to rename the concert hall the Oscar Peterson Hall.
Off stage and standing in the drafty Meldrum’s warehouse, Vogel speaks passionately in his signature gruff tone as he reminisces of his latest effort. “This is my way of putting back in to the musical soil from which I’ve taken out for the last 75 years,” Vogel said, who extends his thanks to Ken Seymour and the folks at Meldrum’s.
Shortly after the ship arrives, Vogel will perform a musical piece he’s written in honour of the effort with a full big band orchestra at the newly renovated Grand Theatre in Holguin, a venue severely damaged by Ike in 2008.
“When we have nothing to eat, we only have food for the soul, and that’s music,” said Vogel. “This whole thing, it makes me younger.”
Health Services will reopen on the second floor of the GM Building on Jan. 18. In the interim, the Loyola Health Services are operating as usual (9 to 4:30) with expanded services of two physicians and two nurses.