The Golden Age of Canadian Jazz

The music scene in Toronto and around the world was forever changed in 1968 when valve trombonist Rob McConnell formed his flagship ensemble The Boss Brass. McConnell, a London, Ontario native, gathered some of the top studio musicians from around the city to form what would become one of the most swinging, recognizable, and influential big bands among his contemporaries.

The Boss Brass, recording a total of 27 albums, was most active during the 1970s and 80s, and their legacy includes recordings with such musical giants as Mel Tormé, Phil Woods, and Ed Bickert. Their repertoire consisted mostly of modern swing arrangements of songs from both the Great American Songbook and other works from the jazz repertoire. McConnell’s mastery of big band arranging allowed him to write charts with such mastery and creativity that any one of his arrangements could stand alone as a prime example of big band arranging.

McConnell passed away in 2010, and the band has essentially disbanded (occasionally reforming for reunion shows); however, many of the musicians who gave the band their sound have vibrant careers to this day. Saxophonists such as Alex Dean, Pat Labarbera; trumpeters like John Macleod, Bruce Cassidy, and Guido Basso; rhythm section players Don Thompson, Terry Clarke, and Brian Barlow. Most of these jazzers can still easily be found performing around Canada and the world both as band leaders and highly in-demand sidemen.

Although the musicians listed above still constitutes a who’s who of Canadian jazz, the recognizable sound of The Boss Brass, apart from McConnell’s arrangements, was in no small way catalyzed by the expansive trumpet range of Arnie Chycoski and the original playing style of Guido Basso on the trumpet and flugelhorn. Chycoski’s range allowed higher trumpet parts to be written and included more frequently, and Basso’s somewhat quirky style of playing and mastery of melodic improvisation also contributed to the unique sound of the band.

Of course, during the “Golden Age” of Canadian jazz in the 1970s and 1980s, there were many musicians outside of The Boss Brass who were doing their part to advance jazz music in Canada. Master clarinettist Phil Nimmons (now in his ninety-third year) was playing with his original ensemble Nimmons ’N’ Nine Plus Six, Maynard Ferguson (at that time living in the states) and his bands were touring the world, vibraphonist Peter Appleyard was playing with Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie orchestra… the list goes on and on.

Canadian trombonist/arranger/bandleader Ron Collier also was having international success at this time, with Duke Ellington releasing the album “Collages” in 1973 with Collier and his orchestra (am I the only one who finds it almost too coincidental that two of Canada’s best jazz arrangers were both trombonists?).

Predating the 70s and 80s, it is worth noting that saxophonist Moe Koffman, a long time member with The Boss Brass had a hit with this blues piece “Swinging Shepherd Blues” in 1957, hitting #23 in the Billboard pop chart.  This piece propelled Koffman into being recognized as one of the most influential jazz flautists of his generation.

For anyone interested in listening to recordings of The Boss Brass, I recommend starting off with this recording of “Just Friends”. The band ‘shout chorus’ (the part where the drums and rhythm section drop out), is a prime example of McConnell’s unique treatment of his big band arrangements. On top of this, I’m not sure anything quite swings as hard as this!

Next time, I hope to write about some of the more contemporary jazz musicians who have been expanding the art form in more recent years. 

Until then,
Brenden Varty