“Why did Edmonton forget about Judi Singh?” Researcher uncovers jazz music history and Alberta roots

When Poushali Mitra came across Judi Singh’s work while randomly searching YouTube last year, she quickly discovered the Edmonton jazz singer was a one-of-a-kind artist.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Singh was a popular black and South Asian jazz musician from Edmonton who developed a following in western Canada, but today many are unaware of her work.

Mitra was so drawn to Singh’s music that she was driven to learn more about the singer’s legacy.

“Why did Edmonton forget about Judi Singh?” said Mitra, a heritage researcher.

“And why is there nothing to commemorate such a beautiful, important and unique piece of history?”

Judi Singh’s parents, Sohan Singh Bhullar and Effie Jones in 1928. They are holding Judi’s sister, Helen. Image taken from Edmonton Maps Heritage – Sohan Singh Bhullar Park. (Provided by Poushali Mitra)

An article Mitra wrote about Singh was published by the Edmonton Heritage Council. It covers the Edmonton singer’s journey as a jazz singer, during which she worked with musician-turned-Senator Tommy Banks and supported 1970s soul singer Minnie Riperton.

Judi Singh, who now lives in Victoria, British Columbia, signs a copy of her album, A Time For Love. (Provided by Emily Hughes)

Singh has appeared on television networks, including the CBC. She was one of the best-known faces in the Yardbird suite and even wrote a jingle for a CHED morning radio show that played for years.

But the singer’s music wasn’t the only thing to pique Mitra’s interest.

Mitra has been fascinated by the South Asian history of the Edmonton area since arriving in Canada from India in 2011. She began researching and writing about Sohan Singh Bhullar, who was one of the first Sikh settlers in Alberta in the early 1900s. A park in the Mill Woods neighborhood of Edmonton is named after Bhullar.

He was the father of Judi Singh.

Meanwhile, Singh’s mother, Effie Jones, was among the pioneer black families who settled in Athabasca, Alberta around the same time. Jones and Bhullar were married in 1926 in Edmonton and had seven children.

Singh’s story is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to early Black and South Asian history in Alberta and Mitra says more stories from this period – where communities not white and non-European settled in the Prairies – must be told, she mentioned.

“It’s a fascinating story that Alberta has in the 1920s when marginalized communities came together and had such a harmonious marriage, such a coexistence between South Asian and Black communities,” Mitra said.

Judi Singh at the Lenny Breau Show

Jazz singer Judi Singh performs on CBC’s Lenny Breau Show in 1966. 2:59

Michael Hawley, a professor of religious studies at Mount Royal University with expertise in Sikhism and Sikh settlement in Alberta, worked with Mitra on her research, even putting her in touch with Singh’s daughter, Emily Hughes.

While acknowledging that he is far from an expert on Singh, Hawley said he could see that his importance was not just his skill as an artist, but also what his story teaches about the Alberta history.

“Judi Singh is just a great example of how we can start telling and adding to what we know about Alberta,” Hawley said.

“It’s all black stories and South Asian stories. And the two stories, these two groups, overlap and intersect.”

Edmonton jazz singer Judi Singh pictured here with her daughter Emily Hughes. (Provided by Emily Hughes)

Hughes noted how much other musicians respected his mother. Singh was flown to New York to record one of her songs, she was encouraged and motivated by Banks to work with him on albums with a full orchestra, and she was good at scatting, a difficult improvisation technique. in jazz.

Singh was a musician’s musician, Hughes said. But although she never had a huge following, she developed a cult following and had a solid reputation as one of the best singers in Western Canada at the time.

“She overcame a lot of challenges. I mean, being a woman, and then being a woman of color, being a single mom, being drawn to an art form that’s not mainstream,” Hughes said.

Today, Singh leads a private life in Victoria, British Columbia. Having become a fan of Singh’s work since finding it on YouTube, Mitra hopes the Edmonton musician’s work will be better remembered.

“She had a successful career as a musician,” Mitra said.

“So if we remember Tommy Banks, if we remember Joni Mitchell from the Prairies, then I don’t see why we can’t remember her the same way.”

Active Radio9:48Remembering Jazz Singer Judi Singh

Judi Singh was a successful jazz singer from Edmonton throughout the mid-20th century, but her work is not well known. Local researcher Poushali Mitra has been working for a year to learn more about Singh’s legacy and coming soon she will tell us about her work. 9:48

Ada J. Kenney