Cyril G. “Cy” McLean
Section C, Lot 1276
York Cemetery, North York
Cyril G. “Cy” McLean was Toronto’s first black bandleader. He was a hunchbacked jazz pianist who, despite his handicap and the racial prejudices of the era, became a hit in the entertainment industry of the 1940s. Cy was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia, the son of an immigrant West Indian steelworker. He took violin lessons until his brother taught him enough piano chords that he was able to land a job with a visiting band. When the band left town, Cy went with them.
Believing that “since somebody hired me when I couldn’t play nothing but a few chords, then maybe I could play piano,” the teenager headed for Toronto to study at the old Hambourg Conservatory. While he studied, McLean took playing jobs, one of which was with Roy Worell’s band. When Worell dropped out in 1937, 20-year-old Cy McLean was voted in as leader by the rest of the band. He soon formed Ontario’s first black jazz band, consisting of 10 men who tried to copy the swing style of the legendary Count Basie. It took months of pressure before the Musicians Union would allow them to join.
During World War II, McLean and seven other musicians toured southern Ontario, promoting Lifebuoy soap. In several towns people would peer through restaurant windows to watch the band eating — they’d never seen black people before. The band was actually refused service in one small town. Following the war, Cy McLean’s musicians held their own in the top dance spots. When the economy took a dip, dictating smaller combos, McLean’s quartet opened the new Colonial Tavern, playing there for a couple of years before moving to the Corsair, and then to the El Mocambo. McLean’s popularity waned with the death of dance bands and, at the age of 70, as is all too often the case in the entertainment industry, he died in relative obscurity on October 29, 1986.