Phil Nimmons: Keeping It Fresh

Phil Nimmons
Keeping It Fresh

by James Hale

copyright © 2006 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, British Columbia native — who studied clarinet at Julliard, established a ubiquitous presence on Canada's public radio network 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, and was feted at the 2006 International Association of Jazz Education conference.

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 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 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 Toronto-based television program The Barris Beat and you have the ingredients 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 young players like 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."

C o m m e n t s

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Dave Blair
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October 06, 07

Many years ago, as a struggling elementary school music teacher with the Sudbury Board of Education, I had acquired "Atlantic Suite" and was loving it. I was shocked and overjoyed to discover that the school board was bringing Phil to town for professional development seminars. Although I couldn't say now in detail what Phil gave me that day, I do know that there were' valuable tips that enriched my student's musical experience in the following years. I was impressed at his friendliness, sense of humour and desire to meet our needs rather than have us adapt to some laid on agenda. A very personable and unprenentious man who inspired and increased my confidence levels as a growing teacher. Thanks Phil. God Bless!

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