Pop the ’Gator was graduate school for saxophonist Dave Wiffen
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WATERLOO REGION — Dave Wiffen had no contacts in the music scene when he returned to Kitchener in December 1990, so he grabbed his tenor sax and played the jam nights at Pop the ’Gator.
The leader of the ’Gator’s house band, Mel Brown, liked Wiffen a lot and hired him regularly for gigs throughout the 1990s. The master guitarist from Mississippi and Wiffen shared jazz backgrounds.
“I played with Mel and his band pretty regularly for about 10 years,” said Wiffen, who teaches saxophone in the music program at Wilfrid Laurier University.
For a young tenor player, it was the opportunity of a lifetime — to learn from an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who had released six albums on the jazz label Impulse Records from 1968 to 1975.
Wiffen studied tenor sax at Laurier, graduating from the classical music program in the mid-1980s. He did a master’s in jazz performance at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., one of the top music schools in the United States.
After graduating from Eastman in 1988, Wiffen toured with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, travelling by bus all over the States.
For the next two years he played on cruise ships. By December 1990, Wiffen had been away from Waterloo Region for five years and was ready to come home.
And thanks to the weekly jam nights at the ’Gator, the young tenor sax player met the jazz-blues-funk-fusion guitar master. It was the only intro to the local music scene Wiffen would need.
By December 1990, Brown had released seven albums as leader and played on more than a 100 others as a sideman. When Glenn Smith hired Brown to lead the house band at his Queen Street blues club, which ran from 1989 to 1994, very few of Brown’s fans in Kitchener knew about his long career in Austin, Nashville and Los Angeles.
Mel and the Homewreckers hired Wiffen for gigs at the ’Gator, Circus Room, Flying Dog, Ethel’s, Wally’s in Guelph and many other venues. After six years in music schools and three years gigging full time, Wiffen learned a lot from the consummate bluesman who was born and raised in Flowood, Miss., now part of East Jackson.
“He was a really, really accomplished musician,” said Wiffen. “He used to flash his jazz chops once in a while doing the blues gigs. He clearly knew a lot of jazz tunes. He was playing the blues gig thing really, really well, but I have a feeling he could do all kinds of other stuff besides that.”
Brown played guitar, piano, organ, standup bass and sang. He played and recorded with a long list of blues legends, including Buddy Guy and B.B. King.
“We opened for B.B. King at Lulu’s a couple of times,” said Wiffen. “The one time B.B’s bus ended up in front of Mel’s house (on Cameron Street) after the gig. Everybody we opened up for knew Mel and got him up onstage, including Buddy Guy.”
After Wiffen started playing in the pit orchestras for musicals in Stratford and at Drayton Entertainment, his work with Brown and the Homewreckers dried up. Brown died in 2009.
“The Stratford gig was terrific because I ended up getting four shows in five years,” said Wiffen.
Since 2000, he’s taught saxophone at Laurier, played in tribute shows that tour theatres around the U.S., sat in with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony and gigged at The K-W Jazz Room with his quartet.
Wiffen grew up in Toronto and attended elementary school there. After the family moved to Waterloo, Wiffen went to Waterloo Collegiate Institute. He started playing the sax in music class in Grade 9. He played his first instruments — clarinet and bass clarinet — in Grade 7.
“In Grade 12 it was either going to be music or art … I was better than average in art but I knew I wasn’t that great, so that left music. And I was terrible at everything else, so I kind of fell backwards into it, but it was the right decision in the end,” said Wiffen.
By the time he was in Grade 12, Wiffen was taking private sax lessons with Larry Moser, a Kitchener-based woodwinds player and teacher.
“I was a late starter too. I didn’t have my first sax lesson until I was 18,” said Wiffen. “Barely got into Laurier. Lots of the students who come through the auditions are way better than I was.”
At Laurier, Wiffen learned and played classical music.
His first paying gig was with the Wellington Winds. He also played in Laurier’s wedding band. After graduating from Laurier, Wiffen was in the orchestra pit for Stratford’s 1986 season.
In his third year at Laurier Wiffen started getting gigs with jazz groups in Kitchener and Waterloo. They played Duke of Wellington, and the Olde English Parlour, which used to be at King Street North and Bridgeport Road.
Wiffen was tending bar in the Olde English Parlour and brought his saxophone mouthpiece to work. He took a horn off the wall to sit in with a band for a few songs. A few months later, Wiffen was in the band.
“So, I had about three or four house gigs on and off, from sort of midway through my third year at Laurier all the way through my fourth year,” said Wiffen.
“I learned a lot of standards, I had plenty of experience playing jazz with other musicians, live,” said Wiffen. “That was my training to get into my master’s.”
Getting accepted into Eastman, ranked among the top 10 music schools in the U.S., is an achievement.
“I was very fortunate to get in there,” said Wiffen. “At both Eastman and Laurier, I had the opportunity to grow a lot as a player, but I was kind of behind the curve all along for quite a while.”
After leaving Laurier, he did not play classical music for about 13 years. There is not a lot of demand for a tenor sax in the classical world anyway, and Wiffen was learning other music.
The two years he spent playing on cruise ships was a continual learning experience. He played jazz, rock and musical theatre, was band leader for a time and learned how to be a master of ceremonies.
“That set me up for other stuff later,” said Wiffen. “The more versatile you are as a player, the more gigs you get.”
Until the pandemic, Wiffen was playing a lot of theatre gigs.
He’s also become a multi-instrumentalist, playing flute, guitar, sax, keys and singing in the Billy Joel tribute show, “Piano Man,” put on by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in May 2019.
Jim Witter is the piano player, arranger and singer with a series of tribute shows that cater to Boomer tastes — Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles and Elton John-Billy Joel. Wiffen’s been playing on the “Piano Man” show for 19 years. During the past four years he’s also played with a Carole King tribute show.
With a career playing multiple instruments and genres, Wiffen knows what it takes to thrive as a gigging musician and spells it out for any of his university students who ask.
He tells them: Don’t be a musician unless you cannot see yourself doing anything else. You absolutely must do it. If you go for it, practise six hours a day.