A Jazz Hothouse

A Jazz Hothouse McGill University

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A Jazz Hothouse

A Jazz Hothouse by Greg Buium, BA'92

For nearly thirty years, the jazz program at McGill has trained young musicians in the art of bop and swing. It has grown into one of the finest and most influential schools in North America.

Somehow, the old Strathcona Music Building isn't the first place you'd expect to find one of North America's finest jazz programs.

There at the entrance, where you might have pictured a monument to, say, Oscar Peterson or Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk, sits a statue of Queen Victoria, crowned, sceptre in hand, quietly looking out over Sherbrooke Street.

It's an uncommon image, to be sure. But, then again, it's an equally uncommon story: the history of jazz at McGill.

Indeed, over the past 30 years or so, arguably no other university in Canada has produced more prominent jazz musicians than McGill. Among them are Juno Award winners and highly respected teachers, major recording artists and underappreciated innovators. Yet, as a group, their work resonates on every major Canadian scene and, increasingly, around the United States and Europe as well.

That must have been the idea in 1984, when a forward-thinking faculty made McGill the first major Canadian university to grant a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Performance. Now it seems commonplace, slotting jazz studies into a more traditional music curriculum; 25 years ago that just wasn't true.

"All universities that now have good jazz programs had to fight the old established conviction that jazz was street music, that it wasn't very sophisticated," trumpeter and current Jazz Area Chair Joe Sullivan recently explained. "The people who were in charge were classical musicians and they didn't have a lot of respect for jazz."

McGill was no different. According to Sullivan, in the old days aspiring jazz musicians picked up whatever they could from any source they could find. Certainly, this was true of trombonist Butch Watanabe (a former member of Lionel Hampton's band and Rob McConnell's Boss Brass) and pianist and brass player Maury Kaye (who led a showband at Montreal's El Morocco in the 1950s), two important figures in the early history of jazz in Canada. During the day they studied classical music at the McGill Conservatory; at night, they played jazz.

But things changed when Gerry Danovitch arrived. Hired in 1964 as McGill's first saxophone teacher, Danovitch started the school's earliest big band in 1968. They met on Sundays, off-timetable, and anyone (even outsiders) could join. By the 1970s, however, it had become an accredited course and one ensemble had grown into three: Danovitch directed the first two, and reeds player Peter Freeman, BMus'74, LMus'74, MMus'84, a member of these early groups, directed the third.

Kevin Dean, Joe Sullivan and Gordon Foote.

"Danovitch had good musical instincts," Freeman recalls. "He could make a band sound so exciting." As a seasoned studio musician and a veteran of the old dance bands, Danovitch would pull out "all the classic swing stuff," Freeman remembers, tunes like "One O'Clock Jump," "String of Pearls," or "In the Mood."

But then, according to trumpeter Ron DiLauro, BMus'80, a longtime studio musician and the director of McGill's second big band since 1989, Danovitch was also committed to a serious jazz repertoire: Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich. "He initiated the Count Basie tradition here," DiLauro points out, suggesting where the real legacy of these early groups might lie.

Along with Danovitch, a pianist on staff, Armas (Art) Maiste, soon began offering jazz lessons and an improvisation class, which included small-group playing. Even without a full-fledged program, students often put together a patchwork of courses, getting as much jazz training as they could. There was, for instance, arranger and band leader Andrew Homzy, MMus'71, one of the world's foremost experts in the music of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus; or pianist Steve Holt, BMus'81, a Toronto-based Juno Award nominee; or saxophonist Janis Steprans, LMus'79, a mainstay on the Montreal scene and a Juno Award winner.

DiLauro speaks fondly of those days. "Any place that had a jam night was just what we wanted. The jazz bars were open pretty much every night, and you knew after ten you could pull out your horn and play a tune. That was our school."

By the early 1980s, however, the Faculty of Music started wondering why this "school" couldn't be offered in-house. Why couldn't McGill formally offer its own jazz program, as many American universities were now starting to do?

With that in mind, trumpeter Kevin Dean was hired. An American who had been teaching at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Dean's mandate was simple: to establish a degree-granting program with a full jazz curriculum.

"That was the sort of heyday of new jazz programs starting in North America," Dean recalled. "Clearly, it was becoming a very honourable academic pursuit and lots of students were asking for it. I think they (the faculty) were afraid that they were going to miss the boat."

Dean moved slowly at first, but he remembers wanting to "do it right." Which meant one thing: changing the core curriculum. Jazz courses would replace some of the traditional Western music courses: theory would be jazz theory, music history would be jazz history, and so on. A student's lessons would be given by a jazz musician (something which still isn't standard practice in many schools). Small groups, or "combos," would be a central component as well: not just for fun, but for credit.

Indeed, "combo seminar," as it came to be called, would be more like a traditional jazz gig than a classroom recital. Each group would perform one adjudicated 60-minute set every four weeks at a local club. For years these performances took place at The Alley, the student bar in the basement of the University Centre. They've since moved to Upstairs, a club nearby on Mackay Street.

"I wanted some kind of forum where students could play," Dean explains. "A place that was kind of an in-between zone between a real professional job and practice room. I wanted them to get experience in front of the public and their peers. Something to work towards all the time."

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