Big band music lives on with the Grey Jazz Big Band

By Judith van Berkom – 

Kitchissippi music lovers, find your dancing shoes, bring your friends, and come to Dovercourt Community Centre on the last Sunday of the month from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. to hear jazz being played by talented, enthusiastic and committed seniors, many who have been in the music profession all their lives.

Photo by Al Goyette

At 90-years-of-age, Bill Luxton, one of two vocalists with the Grey Jazz Big Band, has been with the band since its inception. Started 30 years ago by a group of 10 musicians who gathered at the Good Companions Centre on Bronson, the Centre remains their home base where they hold weekly practices every Friday morning and have been doing so for the past 37 years.

Big bands play music from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and generally have musicians and vocalists – in this case, Bill Luxton from the Kitchissippi ward and Mary Frances Simpson, both long-time veterans of the music scene. The Grey Jazz Big Band has five saxophone players, four trumpets, four trombones and four rhythm instruments – piano, drums, bass and guitar, two vocalists and a new musical director, John Merritt.

“If it’s not fun, I don’t want to do it,” says John. “That’s what everyone comes out to do.” As one of the newest members, he considers himself the least qualified. The band is made up of many retired professionals and good amateurs. When he applied for the position of director and had his first meeting with the band, he was pleased to see “a keen and eager group of people” in front of him.

Band members have responded positively to the new director who is tightening up the playing. After many years, he explains, you stop looking at the page; everything is familiar. John reminds them that, “we’re missing some of the details. It’s been good. Band members like that they have to step up a bit.”

 

John Merritt continues to teach one-on-one, brass instruments. He’s worked with children, teens, adults, not just at schools. He’s played a lot professionally.

“It’s an interesting way to spend one’s life, blowing into a piece of pipe,” he says.

Band members come from all over the city and the calibre of talent in the Grey Jazz Big Band is high. For example, Malcolm Price, saxophone and clarinet player with the band since 2003, played with the RCMP band for 30 years. He also plays in a concert band, Central Airs, which performs in public at least four times a year. He also runs a band called the Silver Swing at the Good Companion’s Centre on Monday mornings. “Life has been music ever since I was seven. It’s a passion I’ve loved all my life. I couldn’t walk away from it,” he says.

Bill Luxton and Mary Frances Simpson, vocalists, are long-time friends who worked at CJOH-TV once upon a time. Bill sang with the Orpheus Theatre and knew all the Big Band music from his childhood. In the last five years, Bill and Mary have performed almost 300 shows in senior’s residences. They’ve a little group called Side by Side with a piano player.

“That’s what retirement looks like,” Bill says.

“It gives you a motive to get up in the morning, and you have to practice,” adds Mary, whose musical career started at age 16. She sang professionally in Toronto, New York, did TV and radio, and on cruise ships.

The mandate of the band is to keep Big Band music alive. There is still an appeal for that kind of music, certainly for dances. “You don’t hear that kind of music anymore [on the radio],” says Paul Caron who has been with the band for about six years.

Kay Denison, in her 90s, described as the “matriarch of the music scene in Ottawa” has lived in Westboro all her life. She plays the keyboard with the band but has had a career making music. She played the organ at exhibition horse shows, at hockey games; in clubs and restaurants she played mostly solo piano.

Kay initiated the request to play at Dovercourt Community Centre where the Grey Jazz Big Band performs on the last Sunday of the month. The event is free but donations are appreciated and go towards research on Parkinson’s disease.

For more information on the band and to confirm days and times of future performances, go to greyjazzbigband.ca.

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