Al Neil

Photo: Carole Itter, 2008

Al Neil (1924 – 2017) is one of Canada’s great artists. His creative legacy cast its net upon the visual arts, music, and literature from the 1950s onward. He was a trailblazing, prolific artist. In recognition of his outstanding creative achievements, Neil received an Honorary Doctorate Degree (D.Litt) in 2003 from Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design, and the prestigious Mayor’s Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2014.[1]

Neil took up classical piano at age nine, studying under Glenn Nelson until 1940, and later with Jean Coulthard. He took a few jazz lessons with Wilf Wylie, but was mostly self-taught as a jazz pianist.[2] After high school, he briefly worked on northern Vancouver Island for the Department of Transport, and then spent time in Belgium, Holland and France serving Canada in WWII.

Photo: Esther Rausenberg

While overseas, Neil kept up to speed on the American jazz scene by reading Downbeat magazine, sent to him by his mother. He took great inspiration from musicians like Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, and a new style of jazz called be-bop.[3]

In the mid 1950s, Neil, along with several other musicians, founded Vancouver jazz club The Cellar, where he led the house band. The club hosted a number of prominent American players, many of them pushing the boundaries of this musical genre. Around that time, Neil began reading works by French surrealists like Breton and Artaud, and by Rimbaud, and became interested in Dadaist movement. In 1959, he recorded his first LP with the beat poet Kenneth Patchen.

In 1963, he formed the Al Neil Trio with drummer Gregg Simpson and bassist Richard Anstey. They put on concerts at the Sound Gallery, Motion Studio, and Intermedia, and at art galleries across Canada. Their performances were layered with text, experimental vocals, the use of unconventional percussion, and with Neil often in costume. They appeared on CBC television, and in 1966, the Al Neil Trio played the Trips Festival in Vancouver, opening for the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin who had just joined Big Brother and the Holding Company.[4] That same year, Neil moved to the Dollarton foreshore, where he wrote poetry and prose, made artworks, performed, wrote music, and played his upright Farrand piano.

Neil has published books, magazine articles, poetry, and short stories. His innumerable and largely undocumented readings, improvised poetry performances, and verbal expressions have influenced Vancouver’s literary and multimedia landscape since the 1960s. Exhibitions of his artworks span more than three decades, as does his discography, and he performed his music from the 1950s through the mid-aughts.[5] 

More here:

Al Neil Trip performs on the CBC TV series Enterprise, 1967.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Al Neil at the Cellar (photo) playing “Room 608”, 1957

[1] grunt gallery Blue Cabin archive, Al Neil Curriculum vitae

[2] The Canadian Encyclopedia,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Paragraphs 4, 5 adapted from musician and artist Gregg Simpson, Catalogue and Achive,

[5] Adapted from Al Neil, Curriculum vitae