Last Toke in the Big Pink

MacEwan University GigCity EdmontonWith weed about to become legal in Canada, I’m comfortable with a full disclosure: I smoked a lot of dope inside MacEwan University’s Jasper Place building when I was a music student there in the early 1980s.

After a farewell party on April 28, the campus will be abandoned, the arts programs moved downtown.

A few students toked there almost every day. We’d have a code: “Meet me in the Magic Stairwell” – a little-used basement space in the Southeast corner of the building. There was never any fear of getting caught, and we never did. We bought weed from the janitor.

Some of us felt these little breaks were necessary to recharge the brain in a schedule that could run up to 18 hours a day. For a lot of second year students (music was a two year diploma program in those days; it’s a four year degree now), actual classes took little time compared to rehearsals for students prepping their final performance juries. To graduate, you had to put a band together, pick an hour of songs, make charts, produce and perform a full concert in front of friends, family, fellow students, and teachers who would be marking everything you did. I played on about 11 of these things, not including my own – which I don’t include because I never got around to it. I didn’t care. Playing so much builds your chops quickly, so by then professional opportunities beckoned – to play in cover bands around rural Alberta. Another story.

This entire building was magic. You could hear music in every room, from every corner, students spending hours drilling Scrapple from the Apple into their heads inside soundproof little cubicles they called “Wangers.” No smoking in the Wangers. There were rehearsals and concerts of various sorts on a daily basis, lots of strumming, tooting and noodling in the hallways, and monthly cafeteria beer halls where bands of students would jam, also drink too much and make trips to the Magic Stairwell. Living the dream.

Keyboards guru Charlie Austin: 'I smelt it occasionally'

Keyboards guru Charlie Austin: ‘I smelt it occasionally’

The day started early with the grueling Ear Training class taught by the late Rick Garn (he was the horn teacher who later became program head). He came off to some noobs like a fearsome grump, with deadpan frown heaping Don Rickles scorn upon anyone couldn’t tell an E flat wet seventh from an augmented demented chord. But you soon learned it was all an act. He went for comedy in his tough instruction. At heart, Garn valued students who worked hard, and he nurtured new talent with a passion. He said if you want to make a living as a musician, you must be willing to accept any style of music. Even country. Garn died in 2004.

Keyboards guru Charlie Austin, since retired and now playing around Edmonton more than ever, loved funk so much he devoted an entire semester to teaching the music of the Yellowjackets.

“I smelt it occasionally,” says Charlie on dope smokers in the building, and remembers good musical times in his “Piano Lab.” “I lived there,” he says, “But it wasn’t in a good location. Right in the middle of the offices. When we’d have ensembles, with bass and drums, we disturbed everybody. Then they moved us upstairs. But my best times were in Room 149.”

Every MacEwan music student got to know and love Charlie because every student who wasn’t a keyboard player had to take his “Functional Keyboards” course. People called it “Funky Keyboards.”

We did our own thing – which eventually got a group of us banned from rehearsing a Blues Brothers cover band on college property, loudly at late hours. The singer was the future Harpdog Brown, who wasn’t enrolled as a student, though that didn’t stop him from partaking.

There were lots of other good teachers at MacEwan – and still are; and lots of memories of the building people wanted to call “Big Pink” even though it’s more of a dirty orange.

Many alumni wound up with successful careers in music, or at least learned to play an instrument. Some became famous, so good they couldn’t be ignored. Ruth B is one example. So is Corb Lund. So is New York jazz star John Stetch. It might be easier to name a famous musician from Edmonton who didn’t go to MacEwan.

Sure, it’s just a building – so ultra modern in its time – but it’s still sad to see it go (and annoying no one seems to have a plan for what to do with it now).

Happily, the fun will resume at MacEwan University’s brand new Centre for Arts and Culture in the fall.

The Magic Stairwell, of course, is gone forever.