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Moe Koffman: 1928-2001
Moe Koffman
Alto saxophone, flute, clarinet, arranger

Born: December 28, 1928 in Toronto, Ontario
Died: March 28, 2001 in Orangeville, Ontario

Leading Light in Canadian Jazz

Copyright © 2001 

The Scotsman, 2001


Moe Koffman was one of the best known jazz musicians to emerge in his native Canada, where his standing was second only to Oscar Peterson. He was regarded as something of a national institution in his homeland, where he recorded numerous albums, and worked with a range of major jazz names, including Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Dorsey and Doc Severinsen.

Morris Koffman was born in Toronto in 1928, and began playing violin as a child, before adding his more familiar instruments, alto saxophone, clarinet and flute, by the age of 13. He studied music at the Toronto Conservatory and in the USA in the 1940s, then spent an apprenticeship on the road working in big bands led by the likes of Buddy Morrow, Jimmy Dorsey, Tex Beneke, Don Rodney, Charlie Barnet and Chico O’Farrill.

He returned to settle in Canada in 1955, where he led his own jazz group, and did a great deal of session work for radio and television. He scored a popular success with his jaunty, insistently memorable tune “Swinging Shepherd Blues” in 1958, a rare example of a jazz hit played on flute. It established his international reputation, and became his signature tune.

He was a relentless practicer throughout his musical life, and was regarded as something of a perfectionist in his work. He was a featured soloist on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on several occasions in the 1960s. He worked extensively with band leader and arranger Rob McConnell, both in countless studio sessions and as the principal soloist for a time in McConnell’s internationally acclaimed Boss Brass.

He recorded around 30 albums as a leader across his long career, including jazz versions of music by Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi. His final album, The Moe Koffman Project, was released last year. He was a gifted arranger, and was comfortable playing in a variety of idioms, including jazz, rhythm and blues, pop and classical settings, and made appearances as a flute soloist with the Toronto Symphony and other Canadian orchestras.

As well as playing, he acted as a booking agent and contract manager for many Canadian musicians, notably in a long stint as booker at the well-established jazz venue George’s Spaghetti House (1956-90), where he also played once a week.

He received the Order of Canada in 1993 for his services to Canadian jazz, and was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1997. His death coincided to the day with the announcement that he and Oscar Peterson were to be the first inductees into the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame.

He was diagnosed as suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma last year, and made his final public appearances in Toronto last summer. He is survived by his wife, Gisele; three sons, Herb, Larry and Elie; stepdaughter, Ilya; and several grandchildren.

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