Music to his ears

By Toby Bartlett

Almost everything Peter Dawson does revolves around one thing. It has been his passion since he was a young boy and central throughout his life. For Dawson, the violin is the key to happiness.

He grew up in Kelowna, B.C., where he first picked up the violin at age five. His father, John Zadorozny, bought him a small violin to teach him how to play.

“My father was an old-time fiddler and used to play country dances,” he says. “Fiddlers then weren’t trained, but they knew a lot of tunes and could play at dances all night long.”

Dawson’s father showed him where to place his fingers on the strings and taught him a few tunes by ear. Dawson also learned the value of tempo.

“He taught me how to make the music play in tempo and make it dance,” says Dawson. “Because you have to make it dance. Fiddle music is basically all dance music.”

That early training sparked a passion in Dawson that is as strong now, at 66, as it was then.

Today he owns Peter Dawson Violins, a violin shop on Bronson Avenue. There, he builds, restores and repairs his cherished instrument.

Standing at his workbench, he is surrounded by partially assembled instruments. His carving tools are carefully arranged on the wall above the bench. His hands are nimble, yet show strength from many years of woodworking. His grey hair is combed neatly above a friendly face. His eyes look like they’ve seen a lot over the years. And they have.

Dawson went on to take formal lessons after falling in love with the violin. He was still a boy when he learned how to create in other ways.

“In my town there was a professional violin maker, who made beautiful violins, but couldn’t play very well,” he says.

“When I was about 11 years old, he heard I played and asked me ‘Would you come up and play some of my violins, so I can hear what they sound like?’ ”

Dawson’s father was a carpenter and Dawson immediately showed an interest in the craft.

“I was surrounded by wood, right from birth, and I loved to work with wood,” he says.

The violin maker offered to show Dawson how to make one for himself and by the time he was 12, he had built his first violin. He continued to study violin making throughout high school. At the same time, he played in bands at town dances and on radio shows in Kelowna and Vernon, B.C.

After high school he ventured further.

“I graduated on the 26th of June and I left on the 27th on a cross-Canada tour.”

That tour was with Lucille Starr, for whom Dawson played violin in the original 1950s recording of her international hit, “The French Song.”

“Every turn in the road was an adventure,” he says of his early touring. “I had never been anywhere before and it was very exciting to see all of Canada.”

Dawson went on to tour Canada and the U.S. many more times. In the mid-1950s he settled briefly in Toronto, where he played nightclubs with Starr’s band and did studio work for groups who were recording. From there he left for work in the U.S.

“We opened a show for a group from Wheeling (W.Va) and they heard me and wanted me to come back with them,” says Dawson. “So they arranged for my green card and I got that and away I went.”

At that time, Dawson, born Peter Zadorozny, changed his name.

“Dawson was put on when we went to the States,” he says. “They thought Zadorozny was a little hard to pronounce. ‘Listen boy,’ ” he continues, assuming a southern twang, “ ‘We’re going to have to change your name, make you country. You look like a country boy, you play like a country boy, you’ve got to have a country name.’ ”

Although he never legally changed his name, he became known by the name Dawson, so he kept it.

From 1956 to 1961, he toured the U.S. and worked as a staff fiddler on the famed “Wheeling Jamboree” radio show in West Virginia, as well as the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.

He continued doing studio work, which he still loves.

“And then the fun of the travelling started to wear off,” he says. “I got a little older and realized I was spending 75 per cent of my time in a (Cadillac) Fleetwood. It started to get to me after a while.”

So he packed up and moved back to Kelowna, where he opened a music shop. The town was too small for Dawson to make a living specializing in violins, so he sold records, guitars, banjos and other instruments as well.

“You see a lot of people going down the street with Loblaws bags, but you don’t see a lot of people with violins,” he says.

Regardless, Dawson says owning the shop was fun.

“I could still play and have some roots at the same time – not live like a vagabond.”

In the 1960s he moved to Ontario to be part of the strong music scene.

In 1989, after operating another music shop in Pembroke, he moved to Ottawa and specialized in violins.

“I thought ‘The heck with this,’ ” he says. “ ‘I’m going to do what I like to do, whether I fail or I don’t fail.’ ”

For the last 12 years he has built up his shop to what it is today: a bustling business that keeps him constantly on the go.

“I don’t mind being swamped,” he says. “That’s what I worked for all these years. And I love it.”

Dawson welcomes customers of all ages and skill levels. He says musicians are a special breed.

“They’re nice, they’re kind, they’re warm people,” he says. “They have a heart.”

He adds that when people come to his store, they are buying something that will bring them enjoyment.

“I sell happiness,” he says.

John Gomez, violinist and concertmaster of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, agrees.

“First of all, Peter knows his craft,” says Gomez. “I respect him as a craftsman.”

But he also appreciates Dawson’s acceptance of such a broad range of musicians.

“What makes him so much above the norm is his integrity,” he says. “He takes in anybody with any instrument. His service is tremendous.”

Dawson makes about six of his own violins each year, which sell for $2,000 to $8,000. He is currently working on what may be his last violin. Years of carving and woodworking have taken their toll on his hands. If he keeps making instruments, pain and stiffness would spell the end of his playing.

“I’ll do less making and more playing, because the playing doesn’t bother my hands,” he says. “I don’t want to ruin them. Then I won’t be able to play either, and that would be disastrous.”

Dawson still plays almost every day, with any band that needs a fiddler. He also does his own concerts and plays reunion shows with the bluegrass band Cody, of which he was a member in the mid-1980s. After all these years, he still gets the same feeling from playing.

“A passion is a passion,” he says. “That doesn’t change.”

His two sons, both in their twenties, inherited the passion for music as well. Both are musicians, one in Hollywood and one in Montreal.

Dawson has also recorded numerous albums of his own over the years and continues to compose new tunes, something he hopes to concentrate on in the future.

His playing and recording earned him a spot in the Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999.

“He’s a well known composer and he’s big in fiddle circles,” says Ralph Carlson, a member of the board of directors, regarding Dawson’s induction into the hall.

With all this on his plate, does he have time for anything besides violins?

“No, not really,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t want time for anything else.”

Dawson has come full circle in his career. He mentions an upcoming weekend job playing a country dance in the Gatineau Hills.

“I guess things haven’t changed much,” he says with a knowing smile. “Mind you, I’ve been a lot of places in between.”

ere times when it would have been easier to give it all up. Money trouble, stress and instability remain constant problems. Yet Scott Taylor presses on with his magazine, Esprit de Corps.

Taylor sits on a cream-coloured couch in his living room. The skin on his face is drawn tight, a telltale sign of a long and stressful day.

He wears a denim shirt with the top few buttons undone and gently strokes his aging black and white cat, which is purring beside him.

“I would imagine it’s read by the majority of serving and retired personnel,” says retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis Mackenzie of the magazine. “Scott deserves a lot of credit for keeping the magazine through tough times.”

The monthly magazine, published from an office on Somerset Street West, contains a mix of history and current affairs relating to the Canadian military.

Once a strictly pro-military publication, it shifted in the early ‘90s to a more critical stance. The change earned Taylor and the magazine infamy with the Department of National Defence – the reason for his perennial shoestring budget.

Taylor served a three-year term in the military in the mid-‘80s. He enlisted in his early twenties, after graduating from the Ontario College of Art, looking for adventure.

“I was keen on all the real front-end stuff,” he says. “I didn’t want to join the army and count socks.” Now 41, with brush cut dark hair, a muscular build and a straightforward manner, he could easily pass for a long-term military man.

His wife, Katherine, was his high school sweetheart and has been with him his entire adult life. She now works at the magazine, taking care of advertising and balancing the books.

“He could have become one of the boys,” she says. Instead, the military is now referred to as “they.”

It was while serving in Germany that Taylor first got the idea for the magazine. Together with Katherine, an artist who began doing military paintings while in Germany with him, Taylor got involved in a ski and travel magazine. The experience inspired him to start Esprit de Corps.

“It was just a puff piece,” he says of the magazine’s early days. “Very little text, bilingual, glossy. Now, we could do that much text in an afternoon.”

At first, in the late 1980s, advertising came from Department of National Defence contractors – huge companies like General Motors and Bell Helicopters

Eventually, the military air travel service on which Esprit de Corps had been circulated, stopped. Taylor lost his readership. He decided to take a big step and make the magazine an independent monthly.

But the second edition, published in June of 1991, sparked a controversy.

“We dared to criticize Marcel Masse, as the [defence] minister,” says Taylor. “And they yanked us. That started the first big war.”

The next day, Esprit de Corps was pulled off Air Canada flights.

“I think I was so naïve as to think that if the brass just found out, they would correct it,” says Taylor of his early reports of corruption in the ranks. “But it’s like the movies where you think ‘I’m going to take this to the sheriff.’ Then you find out he’s in on it.”

What’s it like for Katherine working with her husband at a controversial magazine like Esprit de Corps?

“It’s frustrating, lots of times,” she says, pointing to the money shortage as a reason.

But it can also be inspiring. “Scott is an eternal idealist,” she says. “He believes things can change for the better.”

She too likens their situation to a movie, but in her version Scott is the character who reveals the sheriff’s corruption.

“They tolerated us at certain points,” he says, until Esprit de Corps began reporting on scandalous behaviour by members of the Canadian military in Somalia in 1994.

“That’s when they went nuts,” Taylor recalls. “They went to all the contractors and told them to pull out. In three days everybody was sending us faxes. Everybody pulled out, even those with pre-paid ads.”

In the summer of 1994, Taylor laid off five people and often didn’t know when he would be able to afford printing the next issue.But at the same time, Esprit de Corps proved itself as a key player in military affairs.

“We were the lightning rod for all that stuff,” says Taylor of the Somalia inquiry. “They knew we were dangerous, because we knew what was going on.”

“He’s earned some credibility,” says Mackenzie. “I’d hate to see it go, because it would mean people probably ganged up on him.”

Taylor began to write books as a way to make money to support the magazine, but his books, including Tarnished Brass and Tested Mettle, are very good sellers on their own.

Brian Nolan, another Ottawa-based military expert, co-authored the books.

“He’s difficult,” says Nolan of Taylor as a working partner. “He’s very demanding and kind of confrontational.”

Nolan also describes Taylor as “the most informed journalist in the country on the state of the Canadian military.” He says having a demanding partner is worth it for the sake of a better book.

Despite his criticism, Taylor maintains a deep-rooted love of the military.

“The people who work for the magazine love the military a hell of a lot more than the people who defend it,” he says. “They’d be the first ones to think we’re attacking the system. No: trying to carve out a cancer doesn’t make the doctor a criminal.”

Taylor’s point of view changed drastically when he made the transition from the military to the outside.

“Seeing Yugoslavia and what is referred to as ‘collateral damage,’ ” he begins, describing his reporting work with the magazine. “It changed my whole perspective on warfare.”

He goes on to describe a bombed-out shelter he visited in Baghdad.

“We saw video of the bombing. One bomb explodes, then a second goes right inside and blows up. Nobody saw what the impact was.”

He recalls haunting details from that trip.

“Little kids were all kept in a nursery area. Once the fire started to burn, you could see where the kids had climbed out of bed and you could see their hand prints, still. Their hand marks are burned into the concrete.”

Esprit de Corps ran into its worst financial trouble ever in 1996. The Taylors sent the two employees they had left on vacation for two weeks, with the understanding that if they didn’t get things straightened out in that time, it would be the end of the magazine.

Taylor travelled to Toronto to meet with a group representing Conrad Black, hoping to strike a deal. It didn’t happen. But a story in the Globe and Mail attracted enough attention to get the ball rolling again.

“A volunteer came in and ran the office for three days while I was away,” says Taylor. “I didn’t even meet her until I got back.”

During that time, a rally of lifetime subscriptions, donations and forgiven debt from creditors started to change things for the better. Within two weeks, the magazine was back on its feet.

“It was at the height of the Somalia stuff,” says Taylor. “People thought we’d be gloating, but we were dying.”

Now, thanks to book sales and other work, Esprit de Corps is closer to being free from debt than it has been in a decade. But while things seem stable now, Taylor isn’t taking anything for granted.

Advertising revenue, once $30,000 per issue, has dropped to about $4,000. The money covers printing costs for the 10,000 copies distributed, but all other funding comes from Taylor’s book sales, freelance work for newspapers and sales of a Canadian military encyclopedia he and Katherine produced.

Donations kept the magazine afloat at times.

“They kept us going when we most needed it,” he says. “There are some great Canadians out there.”