Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This One's For Phil

Apropos of nothing, here's a piece from 2005 that I wrote about Phil Nimmons. I can't recall where this ended up published, but reading it again reminds me once again of just how much Nimmons has meant to music – and culture writ large – in Canada. What a beautiful guy he is.

A few years ago, during a time when I was briefly employed for a financial services company with enough money to send me winging across the continent to share some knowledge or other with fellow employees, I spent a couple of hours interviewing him in his University of Toronto office. I was on my way to Vancouver for yet another meeting, and I was thankful to spend some time talking about music rather than communications theory. When we finished our time together, Phil passed me a three-CD set that the Canadian Music Centre had just put out to honour his long career as a composer. I thanked him and dropped the CDs into my bag.

I got to Vancouver and, through one of those great flukes that sometimes smile on weary business travelers, wound up being upgraded to a fantastic penthouse room overlooking the city through floor-to-ceiling windows. Off the bedroom was a terrific, little glassed-in balcony. Feeling flush, I ordered some salmon from room service and opened a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from the mini-bar. I discovered that the room had a built-in sound system and remembered Phil's gift. The music wafting out of my bedroom onto my little balcony made the perfect accompaniment to my meal as I watched the lights twinkle up the length of Robson – off toward the neighbourhood where Phil grew up.

Months later, I ran into Phil at some music festival or other and told him the story. He looked at me with a great twinkle in his eye and asked, "Did you pour a glass for me, James?"

Ah, I didn't then, but here's to you, Mr. Nimmons.

© Copyright 2005 by James Hale

Culture critics who opine that Wynton Marsalis has opened new frontiers by bridging classical music and jazz, moving jazz into major institutional settings, pioneering jazz education and generally being an erudite spokesman for all things jazz would do well to consider 82-year-old Phil Nimmons. The Kamloops, B.C. native – who studied clarinet at Julliard, established a ubiquitous presence on CBC radio with his big band Nimmons ‘N’ Nine, and co-founded jazz programs at the Banff School of Fine Arts, the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario – has been at the nexus of jazz activity in Canada for more than 50 years and shows no sign of slowing down.

Still active at U of T, still improvising like an instrumentalist half his age and still writing, Nimmons is the subject of a new three-CD set, featuring live performances of his compositions and an extensive interview, released by the Canadian Music Centre.

Nimmons’ own career is perhaps the best promotion for music education and the rewards of a lifelong interest in learning.

Already an accomplished clarinetist and music copyist by his early teens, he stuck to the books – albeit in pursuit of a career in medicine – and stayed at the University of British Columbia even as his wartime success with dance bands and the quintet of guitarist Ray Norris grew. He was still completely self-taught when he applied to Julliard in 1945 and naively arrived at the New York City institution without a place to stay. Rejected as a composition student because of his lack of formal training, he auditioned on the spot as a clarinet major and won a scholarship. Being a Julliard student from 1945 to ’47 gave him nighttime access to the musical riches of Manhattan’s thriving 52nd Street – then in the sway of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie – and daily experience with clarinet teacher Arthur Christmann.

A broken heart drove Nimmons out of New York before he completed his degree at Julliard, and he landed in Toronto, where he enrolled in composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music. It was a heady time at the school, where Nimmons’ classmates included Glenn Gould, Lois Marshall and Harry Freedman, and John Weinzweig’s composition classes opened young ears to the possibilities of 20th century tonality. But, for Nimmons, the revelation was Bach, as introduced by instructor Richard Johnston.

In 1950, Nimmons co-founded the Canadian League of Composers, and began writing incidental music for CBC. Working in association with radio director J. Frank Willis, he quickly became a frequent presence in Canadian homes, providing music for programs like “Dr. Dogbody’s Leg,” “High Adventures” and “CBC Wednesday Night.”

Writing for radio sustained him, and provided an opportunity to investigate an early interest in the so-called “cool” sound popularized in California, but he needed a full-time outlet. He found it in a tentet, which formed as a rehearsal group in 1953. The band was marked by the leader’s use of clarinet riding atop a four-reed section, as well as his abiding love of long-form composition.

In 1956, the band had its concert debut at the Stratford Festival and made its first recording on jazz impresario Norman Granz’s Clef label – a connection that came courtesy of Nimmons’ friendships with Oscar Peterson and Gunther Schuller. Three years later, as Nimmons ‘N’ Nine, the band was recording for Granz’s higher-profile Verve label and well ensconced as a daily presence on CBC. Film work was forthcoming, too, and Nimmons provided scores for A Dangerous Age and A Cool Sound From Hell. Add a gig as the house band on the popular television program The Barris Beat and you have the ingredients for being the nearest thing to a household name that a jazz musician could hope for.

Many artists with such a busy career would be satisfied, but Nimmons saw an opportunity to develop a new generation of players.

“People were constantly approaching Oscar for lessons, so we knew there was a need there,” he says. “Also, Oscar’s trio wasn’t as busy as it could be, so we saw it as a way to stay busy.”

With Peterson and bassist Ray Brown, Nimmons founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in 1960, which began offering lessons in Peterson’s home. The school soon expanded to its own facility, but the growing popularity of Peterson’s trio brought the institution to an early close in 1963.

A decade later, Peterson and Nimmons tried it again. This time, under the auspices of the Banff Centre, the concept for an international program focusing on jazz studies caught, although Peterson withdrew after the first year. Arguably the most influential springboard for a generation of Canadian jazz performers, the Banff program grew beyond Nimmons’ vision – creating a rift when it shifted its influence to include foreign directors like Dave Holland and Steve Coleman – yet he remains inexorably linked to it. Today, under the direction of trumpeter Dave Douglas, the program continues to stress performance – Nimmons’ signature.

His link to the jazz program at the U of T is equally strong. He began teaching there in 1973, and became director emeritus of its newly organized degree program in jazz studies in 1991.

Today, you can continue to find him on campus, a friendly, hip, presence, encouraging students and professing the joys of performance.

“For me, it’s always been about playing the music. I tell kids, We might not be able to get past the fact that it’s 10 o’clock in the morning and the room is lit by fluorescent lights, but we can imagine.

“This new recording featuring Dave McMurdo’s band playing my music was done at (Toronto’s) The Rex. There are mistakes, you can hear the cash register, but you get past all that because you’re there in the moment. For me, composition has always been like improvising.

“I still love it. It’s like this duo I have with pianist David Braid. We never rehearse; it just happens. My old friend (trumpeter) Guido Basso saw us play and was amazed we didn’t even discuss things beforehand. I said, ‘Guido, you gotta try it.’ It keeps you fresh and alive.”

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