Storytelling school

Storyteller Jake Hiebert combined a punk attitude with a retro swing sound

Jake Hiebert, better known by his character Big Rude Jake.Don Dixon/Handout

When Jake Hiebert took the stage to play the role of Big Rude Jake with his guitar, slicked back hair, retro suit and tie, he captivated his audience right away.

“Watching Jake take over a venue with a new audience in a new city has always been my favorite thing to watch. With just a few songs or a few words, he completely conquered a room,” says saxophonist and friend Alison Young.

Mr. Hiebert caused a stir in the mid-1990s with his swing-punk sound – a fusion of swing, jazz, blues and other styles with a punk sensibility.

“This band will redefine what you consider alternative,” Chart magazine wrote of Big Rude Jake and his Gentleman Players in 1995. Their tight performances and polished retro fashion were the antithesis of grunge, which was widespread at the time. He went on to a long career as a jazz bandleader.

Mr. Hiebert died on June 16 from complications related to bladder cancer. He was 59 years old.

“He could cross bridges. He could play in the darkest place or he could play Koerner Hall,” said musician and radio personality Jaymz Bee. Mr. Hiebert performed in the prestigious 1,135-seat concert hall in 2010. “It was fantastic to see a packed house totally immersed in his music,” recalls Mr. Bee.

Mr. Hiebert had guitar chops and a big growl of singing voice, but was best known for his stage charisma and witty lyrics.

“Jake was a lyricist, first and foremost. The lyrics were very well mannered, very anti-establishment,” said friend and former bandmate Michael Louis Johnson. Mr Johnson intends to create a book of Mr Hiebert’s lyrics , including the epic ballad Seventh Avenuewhich includes the lines: “By one and all, let it be said that in my lifetime I surely lived / And I rest my bones on Seventh Avenue.”

His song Let’s kill all the rock stars has often caused a stir with its catchy, bold sound and cheeky profanity-laden lyrics. (There’s a steamy verse about Elvis.)

Bradley Harder, friend and fellow musician, loves words to The girl in the pink canoe, which are full of sexual innuendo. He believes Mr. Hiebert’s true gift was to tell stories and create worlds with his words. “It felt like being transported to another place, like being in an old speakeasy in New York. That’s Jake’s magic.

The writing stemmed from deep intelligence and curiosity. “Jake was super nice and very funny and very smart. He knew a lot about a lot of different things,” Ms. Young says. “I loved going on long drives with him. He could talk about anything.”

Mr. Hiebert has devoted himself entirely to his life in music. Mr Johnson recalls a busy cross-Canada tour during which the band showed up in Nanaimo, British Columbia, to hear that the club owner had an unexpected plan to promote the show. Mr Johnson and Mr Hiebert found themselves bungee jumping off a bridge into a river below, with local media all around.

“Jake was really scared,” Mr Johnson says. “He left first, as the leader of the group. It was a great moment to see him jump off that bridge so we could get people to the show.

Mr. Hiebert adopted the persona of Big Rude Jake in the 1990s and, indeed, in those early days, he had a brash way of speaking.

Mr. Harder recalls that his friend didn’t like mainstream music. Once, when asked to play a Frankie Valli song, he replied that he would rather let an enraged pit bull chew on some sensitive part of his anatomy than sing a Frankie Valli song.

Over the years, his personality has softened. “He grew constantly, he always wanted to be a better person. He got kinder year after year,” Mr Bee recalled.

Sometimes when Mr. Hiebert was performing live, Mr. Bee’s parents would come to Toronto and Mr. Bee and Mr. Hiebert would visit them in their hotel room before the show. Mr. Hiebert gulped down their whisky, prompting them to say he had earned his nickname. “He’s rude!”

Years later, Mr. Hiebert would greet the family with a gift of a bottle of premium whisky. Mr. Bee’s mother then nicknamed him “Thin Polite Jake”.

Mr. Hiebert was raised as a Mennonite and studied religion in college. He became interested in Zen Buddhism in his later years. He ran ad hoc support groups in his home in Toronto, Friends remember, helping people who were going through a difficult time to talk about their problems.

In 2014, Mr. Hiebert learned that the Red Door Family Shelter, which was near him in west Toronto, was about to be evicted. He approached Lorraine Johnson, a charity event organizer he had worked with for years, to throw a benefit concert.

“He came up with the concept, which was an all-female house band with male vocalists. He wanted to show the wonderful women who hold up the night,” Ms Johnson says of the concert, titled Blues for Red Door. “I jumped at the idea and have been with her ever since.”

The event has taken place almost every year since, generating total revenues of $200,000 and attracting roughly the same value in in-kind donations.

Andrew Jacob Hiebert was born on March 1, 1963. His parents, Jacob Frank and Amelia (née Morhach), lived on a farm outside of Niagara Falls, Ontario, and operated a locally revered fry truck. There were four children: Schelley, Paula and David, as well as Jake.

Mr. Hiebert studied religion at the University of Waterloo and spent his time outside of the classroom playing at local clubs. “He was a force of nature,” recalls Daryl Purdy, who was playing around Waterloo at the same time.

Mr Hiebert was performing as Rockabilly Andy when the pair first met. “It was kind of country-swing-rockabilly,” Mr. Purdy recalls.

One night, out of the blue, Mr. Hiebert showed up at a club wearing a fringed and rhinestone suit and declared himself Chet Valiant. “It was a whole new show, the pattern, everything.”

After a stint in Paris, Mr. Hiebert moved to Toronto and took on the character of Big Rude Jake. In 1993, Big Rude Jake and his Gentleman Players recorded Butane fumes and bad cologne and followed it with 1996′s blue pariahwhich featured the single Swing, baby!, which did well on college radio.

Mr. Hiebert secured a recording contract in the United States with Roadrunner Records, living in Brooklyn for a few years in what Mr. Johnson said was a squatter’s sublease. He then returned to Toronto with an altered sound.

At one point he attempted to revive Chet Valiant, but soon reverted to Big Rude Jake, the character his Toronto fans knew.

Mr. Hiebert has recorded seven albums as Big Rude Jake and three more with side projects Tennessee Voodoo Coupe and Blue Mercury Coupe.

Mr Hiebert later married Anna-Lisa Seeliger and they moved to Hamilton. Their seven-year-old daughter, Hope, “was the light of her life,” Ms Young says.

Friends remember Mr. Hiebert as a witty and intelligent artist with a strong sense of spirituality and generosity. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he called Ms Johnson about Blues for Red Door. “I need you to promise to continue this one,” he said.

Mr. Hiebert was predeceased by his father, who died in April. He is survived by his wife, daughter, mother and three siblings.