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Character Toronto: Patrick Tevlin's life-affirming jazz journey with The Happy Pals

Last Updated Jun 29, 2016 at 4:55 pm EDT

“What do you really want to do with your life?”

It’s a straightforward question, but one that thrusts many of us into anxious storms of existential crisis. Some of us dodge it indefinitely, aided by the convenient distractions of modern life: booze, drugs, incessant selfies and status updates, mindless consumerism, celebrity sleuthing. They’re all wisps of the same smokescreen.

But some, like Patrick Tevlin, summon the courage to face it head-on. With a PhD in physics under his belt and a successful 20-year career at the Ontario Science Centre in full swing, Tevlin asked himself that very question one day.

Then he made a bold decision, the kind most of us contemplate from time to time, but few have the temerity to follow through with.

He dropped it all to live his dream.

“I just thought about it and decided, ‘We’re all going to be dead soon enough. What do you wanna do?'”

“It was one of those moments,” he recalled. “And what I wanted to do, really, was play music. So I quit.”

In the end, the intellectual went with his gut. And while the passing of a tip jar may have replaced the security of a regular paycheque, Tevlin unabashedly declares his rebirth as a New Orleans jazz musician, “the best decision ever.”

“I don’t have any money any more,” he adds with a widening smile, “but really great decision.”

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It’s Saturday afternoon and a bespectacled Tevlin has hopped onto a wobbly table at Grossman’s Tavern. The veins in his neck bulge as he blasts his trumpet while pints of beer precariously teeter at his feet.

He alternates between frenzied staccato lines and long drawn out growls, playing to the packed crowd like a snake charmer on speed. But there’s no serpents being summoned, just smiles.

“There’s a guy that goes to Grossman’s — Before I knew his name I used to call him the medicine guy, because at the end of the day he would come up to me and say, ‘Thanks for the medicine, man. I feel better now.’

“I thought that was really moving.”

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“I think we need more joy in the world,” he continues. “And I’d like to try and contribute some.”

He’s been fulfilling that noble calling since 1983, when he joined The Happy Pals. He began on saxophone before switching back to trumpet — the instrument his persistent mother forced him to learn at the age of 13.

“I said, ‘I’m not taking music.’ And she said, ‘You are.’ And she won, and she was right.”

Camelia Band out front

Clifford “Kid” Bastien founded The Happy Pals, originally named Kid Bastien’s Camellia Jazz band, in 1970.

When Bastien died suddenly in 2003, Tevlin became the band’s de facto leader.

“Kid Bastien was kind of the guru of New Orleans jazz in Toronto,” Tevlin says of his old friend. “When he died, there was a lot of worry about what would happen to jazz at Grossman’s. My approach to it was we have to keep playing because if we don’t, he’ll come out of the grave and he’ll kill us all. So we carried on.

“We’ve been playing every single Saturday. There are people who went there as babies, who are in the band now.”

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“There’s something special about Grossman’s,” Tevlin declares, cradling his trumpet. The tavern on Spadina Avenue opened its doors in 1943, and hasn’t changed much since. It smells of stale beer, and the decor is charmingly frozen in some distant decade.

But for Tevlin, it’s the ideal home for The Happy Pals. In many ways the bar and the band are perfectly suited for each other. They’re both scrappy survivors, soldiering on, oblivious to fickle fashions.

When Tevlin describes his band’s brand of New Orleans jazz, he could very well be describing the bar. “Scruffy,” he says, “but it’s really, really got soul.”

“You can just come in and do whatever you like,” he says of the long-standing tavern. “You don’t need to be polite. You don’t need to be quiet. If you want to sing along, you should sing along. People bring their young kids and we get people that are pushing 100.”

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Tevlin chose to quit his job and follow his dream because he realized life is short.

He’s reminded of it every time he steps foot inside Grossman’s and eyes the dozens of yellowed portraits of patrons that are plastered behind the bandstand.

Some are regulars, others caught a few shows then faded from the scene. Many have passed on. But in that split second when their photos were snapped in the midst of some ephemeral afternoon jam, they all had something in common, and it’s what reminds Tevlin that he indeed made the right decision.

They’re all smiling.

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You can catch The Happy Pals live at Grossman’s Tavern every Saturday from 4:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.