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The Dean of Canadian Jazz: Phil Nimmons

For over 50 years clarinetist Phil Nimmons has been a leader in shaping the jazz scene in Canada. As a composer, he has written over 400 original compositions for film, TV and radio, as well as hundreds of jazz orchestrations for the bands he has led. As a player, his style remains strong and vibrant, and he constantly takes on new musical challenges. And as a teacher, he has helped start some of the best programs that this country has to offer. Phil Nimmons truly has become the dean of Canadian Jazz.

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Transcript of the audio documentary

I'm Ross Porter and welcome to the documentary: The Dean of Canadian Jazz, Phil Nimmons.

"I always call him uncle Phil and you know he asked me one time why. And I said: You know anyone who's got anything to do with the music industry is probably related you in some way'. I mean he was one of the first right and he had a huge influence on education in Canada as well as what he did before with his writing and composition and playing. Phil's a pretty amazing guy."

"I'd say Icon. He has been true to his art from day one. I don't think there is anybody in Canada that would say, certainly no musician in Canada that didn't say the same thing, I'm sure."

"It shows everybody thatthat there was this guy around that could write these magnificent pieces of music that would last forever. And they're from this soil and they're of the soil and they're about this country and about Canada's impact as far as jazz."

Performer, composer and educator, Phil Nimmons is widely acknowledged as the elder statesman of jazz in Canada. He's composed more than four hundred compositions. The bands he has led performed for decades on radio, televisions and concert stages all across the country. He's been awarded with nearly every major Canadian honor and never appears anywhere without his order of Canada pin prominently displayed on his lapel.

He's charming, philosophical, opinionated, and playful. He was born on the third of June 1923 in Kamloops, British Columbia. His dad was a violin playing dentist and his mom played amateur ragtime piano. Phil's formal studies began early but not everyone saw the potential that lay inside this future musical legend.

Nimmons: "My first exposure, I guess, to music would have been some piano lessons with a nun, a nunnery sister, which gave up on me right away. That didn't last very long at the convent.I don't know for what reasons, all I know is it didn't last very long."

But Phil's greatest teacher in those early days was the radio, the place he could turn to hear the swooning sound of the big bands drift over the air waves and into his home.

"It was everything, I guess, in a sense because that's how we all learned everything about music generally, but for me specifically at that time, Jazz to start with. And this was all on the radio, which I used to turn on unbeknownst to my Mom and Dad when I was supposed to be asleep, and (instead, was) listening to the radio."

Porter: "Who was important to you?"

"Oh, Benny Goodman evidently. For the longest periods of time, I used to tell this terrible story, that I thought was quite true, that I wanted to play the trumpet and my dad said "well okay, If you save up thirty bucks and I'll match it and I'll go out and get you a trumpet." So I sold Liberty magazines for I-don't-know-how-long for five cents apiece and wound up getting the thirty bucks and brought it and my Dad took it and I said "okay" and went out and came back with a clarinet, and said he couldn't find a trumpet. And I used to tell this story when I've been interviewed and finally my Mother heard it one day and she said "Phil that's not right. You always wanted to play the clarinet", she said. "You heard Benny Goodman on the radio and you just were smitten and said that's what you want to do", and so my Dad went out and got a clarinet."

"My buddy, Irving Galloway, who played trombone, was my good friend. They bought him a drum kit and we had this drum kit set up in his room beside the record player and we used to wear records out just playing along with them, you know. I played with all those cats, you know, with Benny and Artie Shaw and Bassie. I played with them all back in those days. (laughs) One of my first songs to my girlfriend whose name was E-bab spelled backwardsher name was Babe, really her name was Babe, and I wrote a piece for her called E-bab. And she happened to like Melba toast and so I wrote a piece called Melba Toast too. We used to meet at 7:00 am in the morning on our bicycles before we went to school. So girls were very much a part of my life. (laughs) Itto that extent, that we went bicycle riding."

00:04:50 In the early forties Phil was in University on his way to becoming a doctor. During the days he studied pre-med and in the evening played in local dance bands getting his first experience performing on the radio in the Ray Norris quintet.

"I wasI was a big drip in a little pond, you know, I was the hot shot clarinet player who was at the right place at the right time, as the saying goes. Saying the right things to the right people, I guess. A lot of musicians, I guess, were in the service and I was category F and so was not conscriptable in a sense." (Porter)"Why was that?" (Nimmons)"I have bad feet. I have the opposite of low arches: I have high arches. And I have a whole gang of hammertoes, you know, so that made me category F. And plus the fact I was at UBC, studying to be a doctor."

But becoming a doctor wasn't in the cards for Nimmons. His medical problems with his feet acted as a catalyst, moving him towards his destiny once again.

"We had to take Canadian officers training course. We used to give the Staff Sergeants a bad time and whenever we did that they'd say "okay, full packs" and we'd do a route march for several miles, so to speak, to atone for our big mouths, so to speak. And as a result of that, and my feet, I developed a blister on my left foot and I was in the hospital during my third year and at Christmas time I missed all my exams, my finals in April. Some of my subjects, I got agretats in them, others they wouldn't pass me. I went to summer school but I became very disgusted with the system. So I made the decision that I would go into music at that time. And my dad and I had a pretty rough time the last year that I went to UBC because he was sure that I was going to make sure I graduated. And my Dad eventually came around because when he would get in the Medical/Dental building, go up to his office on the 11th floor something in Vancouver, some of his colleagues would come in and they'd say "Hey George, I heard Phil on the air last night!" and they said, my dad, the buttons just popped off his vest, so I think he came around eventually."

Porter: "What kind of person were you back then?"

"What kind of person was I? Just like I am today, I think. I was very philosophical: "I'm going to solve the world", like most University students are. I did someI said some things those days, its quite amazing and I still feel them I guess. I remember being interviewed for the CBC Times in Vancouver and I would have been 20 or something and they asked me a question about "What kind of music do you not like?" and I said "Music that's written for money alone." And I thought in retrospect: "How profound Phil". I still feel that way. I think the music has to have an integrity and a certain honesty and a creativity. And I respect that very much. It doesn't matter whether it's Hip Hop or Dixieland or Avant-Garde or whoever. I feel very fortunate that I feel that way."

In 1946 Nimmon's musical journey took him south of the border to New York City. He was headed to the Julliard School of Music to study composition with some of the best teachers in the world.

"I took the train overnight from my sister's place in Arnprior and arrived in Grand Central Station about 7:00 am, in the morning, after (being) on the train all night and got shaved in the station and cleaned up. And I had this telegram that said "Report to Julliard at 9:30 am", which I did. And I had no place to stay. I was going tobut when I got there they wouldn't take me into the composition program because I had "no formal training in theory or harmony". I wasI was self taught as a composer, and also as a clarinetist and I had been writing dramatic music in Vancouver, orchestrations for stage shows, but I had no formal training so they wouldn't accept me in the composition program at Julliard. And I "had a clarinet there, I see", so they asked me to play a clarinet exam, which I did, so they said "okay you can stay on clarinet". I think they took pity on me because here I am, I'd arrived all the way from Vancouver. I had no place to stay. It was quite an eye opening experience for me."

"Miles Davis was there at the time. The only thing we had in common was that his dad was a dentist and so was mine, but his dad made more money than my dad did." (laughs)

"I went out to Julliard for three years" Porter:"Why did you leave?" "Oh, three years was the term, and I had woman trouble, a young pianist that I had met who was from Halifax and I don't we had a liaison while I was there in New York and her I think her parents didn't want her to have anything to do with a jazz musician and so it was not encouraged. So that fell apart and I was smitten in my third year of so I left so I didn't write my exams. So I have no degree from Julliard."

(00:11:10) Nimmons returned to Canada and settled in Toronto to attend the Royal Conservatory of Music, a school where he learned a few more things about formal composition and a place were he was to meet his best friend and life mate, his late wife, Noreen.

"Noreen came directly from Huntsville to the conservatory and they lied about her age to get her in. She was 8 years younger than I am when I first asked her to marry me her.., and I asked her father. He laughed at me and, of course, she went through great consternations because she said "Phil doesn't know that I'm only 16, you know", which I didn't. And her mother said "Well you have to tell him", which she did. We still went ahead, as you know.

In 1953, Nimmons formed a jazz band of his own. It was a group whose sound would become a counterpart to the Birth of the Cool movement taking place in the States. The band was originally called the Phil Nimmon's Group' but by the time the late 50's were around the name had changed to the Nimmons n' Nine'

"The Nimmons n' Nine' came from Ken Dahlzeal. It went through a few changes. It waswe were Nimmons at Nine' because we were on the air at 9 O'Clock for a season and then somebody twigged to the fact that there was Nimmon's Nine'. I mean we didn't come up with titles like The Guess Who to be or The Rolling Stones or The Grateful Dead or the Morbid Morsels or whatever. You know, it was just happened, and so that's how that all came about and it stuck."

00:12:50 It was a group that would influence countless numbers of Canadian musicians with its sharp and fresh writing and Phil's ability to entertain a crowd. In the early days they would gather and rehearse sister's apartment, where a young Rob McConnell, future leader of the big band of the Boss Brass would accidentally find one of his early influences.

"Unbeknownst to me, evidently, Rob tells the story that he had a place down stairs on the main floor, and he listened, I'm paraphrasing, with respect to what was happening up stairs during the rehearsals. You know, which I didn't know about."

Rob McConnell: "Well I really liked Phil's writing. I still do. But Phil was always a real good natured, good naturedhe put up with a lot, with his band, I would say, more than I did, I thinkbecause his charts were hard, you know hard to play and it was hard getting them together in the afternoon to record that night. But, I don't think that's bad. I think its good. And he really wrote mostly original material, of his own, which I never did. I mean I did but, with disastrous results usually."

One of the saxophonists for Phil Nimmon's group, Rick Wilkins: "Phil's writing was always challenging. I guess that was the main reason for being there: to play his music, and back in those days, in fact I remember back in High School kind of listening to his first records and even stopping the car and pulling overyou got a track on there and "We just gotta listen to this for a while." And to be able to play with him three or four years later was, you know, quite a heady experience for me."

00:14:48 It was a group that was eventually expanded to 16 members and as the band expanded, so did the name Nimmons n' Nine'.

"We used to do a show called Variety showcase. It's a wayI don't know how this came about: we added six brass to the show and Bruce Marsh, the late Bruce Marsh was the host for many years. "What are we going to call this?", this is on air, "We'll call it", Bruce says, "We'll call it Nimmon's n' Nine plus Six'."

From one of their CBC performances, here's Nimmon's n' Nine Plus Six' with Not Soon Enough'.

00:15:25 (Music selection)

00:18:54 You're listening to the Dean of Canadian Jazz: Phil Nimmons, an original documentary. On Canada's premier Jazz Station: Jazz FM 91.

Around this time Phil also had the chance to meet piano legend Oscar Peterson, a man who's influence would help Phil with exposure and career opportunities that, before this meeting, he could never dreamt possible.

"We were at the Colonial and Harry and I and, I guess Noreen was with us at the time, it would have been, because we were married. Porter:"That's Harry Freedman?" "Yeah, Harry Freedman". And I don't remember whether Harry had met Oscar in Montreal, because Harry was originally from Montreal, well he'd gone from Winnipeg to Montreal, and maybe had said something to O.P. at that time. But we sat down and talked and we had a great big argument, in a sense that Oscar and I, cause I was profoundly knocked (over) by O.P. and of course Oscar was talking about Art Tatum, you know, and saying he was the greatest. And I said "No he isn't, you are!" And we use to fight about that because at that time, I felt the Oscar's talents were a little broader that Tatum's. Tatum was awesome technically, like, and the ability to do what he did on the keyboards. Oscar had that, I think, almost to the same extent. That was the basis of our friendship. It was that I said "Nope, you're going to be better than Tatum and Oscar said "No", I'm paraphrasing everything, but that waswe'd sort of had this conversation and Harry's there being umpire, you know.

But that's how we met. We became very good friends and Oscar and Noreen had quite a relationship, they were buddy-buddies, they used to have drinking contests, you know. And when our first was born, Noreen was pregnant with Holly, and we were in The Paddock one night, prior to maybe a week before the birth, I guess, and the waitresses at The Paddock just kept coming up with baby bottles, diapers, anything to do with, any thing to do with a baby that you could find at a drug store. He'd gone and bought and he'd kept bringing these things up to the table, and we could hardly see the table for all the debris that was on, that was going to be for a baby. He was a great practical joker. And Noreen was this perfect, perfect buck for him."

00:21:35 And it was through Oscar's influence that Phil was able to release his first two albums on the record label that has, at different times, been home to Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday: it was producers Norman Grantz's prestigious label, Verve.

"When the Nimmons n' Nine' it was as just something to get together and play. We had no commercial eyes at all with the thing. And Oscar approached Norman and we did one recording with Norman and then we did a second one. Like we did The Canadian Scene and then Nimmons n' Nine', that one with me lying down on the floor, and like "Hell I don't do those kind of things", you know?

00:22:23 From the Nimmons n' Nine debut on Verve: The Canadian Scene, here is Humpy:

00:22:29 (Music Selection)

00:24:40 Apart from recording the commercial albums he released, Nimmons was kept very busy composing hundreds of scores for Television and Radio. As his reputation as a composer grew, so did the size of his family. Phil would eventually father three children, something that would prove, at times, to be a challenge for a family with a work-at-home dad who liked to write to deadline.

It becomes something else, you know, when the muse is flowing, and the intensity is like the rest of the world is not there. And, I'm at home, all the time, writing, and yet I'm not. Noreen brought the kids up. She used to say to them, I'd come upstairs to get some lunch, she'd say: "Hey kids, look at that, that's your dad. Its not the plumber" (you know) "who's come to fix something in the basement."

Phil's Daughter Holly: "Dad would be at the dinner table but not quite there, if he was writing. And when we were growing up he was writing all the time because he did the radio show, you know, every week. So, we would have him there and you could see his face, (he) would have a certain look on his face that we just knew he was writing. And when you grow up in that kind of environment you understand that's what's happening so as children you would modify your behavior or if you didn't then mom would step in! (laughs) That would be the thing. And the other thing I remember is when we would be at the dinner table his fingers were always going, he was always doing finger exercises. I don't think he could stop himself. I was sitting with him the other day in the waiting room and he was doing it then too. He's just done it for decades and decades.

Phil's son, Spencer: "For him it was always quality of time, as opposed to quantity, thus is the business where he would be writing music, you know you're tied to deadlines to get stuff out. So, I think as a family we had a great understanding. It was sort of an accepted thing that "Dad's in the house but he's not really here". Except Mum would stamp on the kitchen floor and he'd know its dinnertime. (laughs)

Holly Nimmons: "I have very fond memories of my dad saying to me when I was younger: "It doesn't matter what it is, honey, if you ever need to talk, no matter what time, you just come get me and a couple of times, you know, in those adolescentI would, you know, open the studio door early morning, late-late night and see him, you know, there's a studio lamp and he's bent over and the light shed out over the desk or there's a certain look, a certain physicality to playing the piano as he was just noodling about before a chart to really come together. He's just a very focused, a very disciplined, intense person when he was in that grove."

00:27:32 Spencer: "My dad is a hundred times the father that he is the jazz musician. And he is, and always has been, my hero. Just his understanding and compassion for the world, and the people that live in it, his ultimate respect for human beings, whether they be male or female. His morals, his values, his principals, are beyond reproach. He's really a gentleman's gentle man. I've always said that he's been my hero because of that, for what he stands for as a human being, more so than as a musician."

Nimmon's influence didn't stop with raising his children. In the back of his mind, he'd felt for a long time there was a real need in Canada for a formal training program for jazz musicians and composers. He found a kindred spirit for his passion with Oscar Peterson, and the two of them, along with the other members of Oscar's trio, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, formed the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto. It was an academy named in encouraging the formal study of an art form that, up until that point in Canada, didn't have a home.

Nimmons: "It wasn't a calculated formula in any way that we should have a school. It first happened in Chrysler Crescent in Scarborough. Yeah, the first year it took place we had about sixteen students, that was in Oscar's basement when we first started the school. It was quite an experience because it was very, it think, hard for the Trio because we only did this when they were playing at the town and they were in town. So it was pretty hard, like we were in the club, you know, till one. And by the time you get out of there maybe it was 2 o'clock then have to be down at the school at 9 o'clock in the morning. In a sense, that was difficult.


One of the students that attended the school was pianist and composer Bill King: "When I arrived there it was just this wonderful building with music going on in it day and night. So I mean, upstairs on the third floor were rehearsal spaces and downstairs they had the classes. I think Phil had some classes that were like ear training classes, things like that, or maybe basic combo arranging classes. You know, we had those, and he was one of the hipper guys there, because Oscar was sort of elusive. He was sort of in and out of there and his classes were less structured."

Composing student at the school, arranger Rick Wilkins: "I'd imagine it didn't last that long because all those people were so busy. I mean to run a school you pretty well have to dedicate yourself to that. You have to be there when the students are there and, I mean Oscar was in the middle of his heyday I'm sure he was out doing night clubs, stuff like that, and I think probably just the practicalities of it all just maybe ended it."

One of the instructors at the school was trumpeter Eric Troget: "We wanted to go on. At least I felt that we wanted to go on but it was impossible with all our other deals that wereall the work we had going for us. We just stopped."

Nimmons: "Maybe this is the Canadian syndrome, I don't know but the support didn't come from Canada or from Toronto, in that regard. We had more students from everywhere else in the world than we did from Canada."

00:31:32 Around this time Nimmons found himself drinking heavily, the deadlines and pressures to write became intense for him. He'd stay up for two or three days at a time drinking rye the whole time, trying to meet his deadlines, until Phil realized there was a problem.

Nimmons: "Oh it (the drink) was winning. When I stop and think back we all drank during the studio days. I have air checks from those periods of time like, not only when we did the variety show, with like the Barris Beat with the Nimmons n' Nine' and writing for that or writing Anne of Green Gables' for Norman Campbell. I'm mentioning those variety shows because they're in addition to writing for Nimmon's Nine' and Nimmons n' Nine Plus Six' all for the CBC but I drank during all those times and, man, it turned out pretty good! You know?"

One of the broadcasters that who worked heavily with Phil during this period was Dave Bird, producer of CBC's flagship jazz program: Jazz Radio Canada: "I mean, I think drinking, it's just one of the hazards of the business. And either you manage it or you don't. And some people manage it well. Other people don't. And it can either become a problem, in terms of your career, but I mean this applies to any career. I mean, if you're in business and you've got a problem with booze it could effect your career and but I think the music business tend to lend itself to that: You're always working in clubs somewhere or, you know, alcohol is sort of part of the social milieu of it all. And so musicians "partake"."

Nimmons: "I still try to put that in its right perspective so that it's not a negative influence on me, today. Icause that's life."

Phil's son, Spencer: "I was too young when he was really drinking. He aI didn't recognize what was going on, to be honest with you. I wasup until I was 5 years old when my mother finally said; "That's it". I did witness a reoccurrence later on in life and he athis man's got the will of iron. He recognized it, and stopped it just like smoking. He smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, quit one day, and hasn't touched one ever since and that's well over twenty years ago. And it's probably been well over eighteen, seventeen-eighteen years since the last time he's touched alcohol."

00:34:33 One of the great creative influences in Phil's life was his friendship with Oscar Peterson. Prior to Oscar's passing in December of 2007, Phil reflected on their friendship. One that at times felt strained was always deeply cherished.

Nimmons: "I often felt that if Oscars not a genius he's close to it. It's hard for people that have genius or close to genius sort of dynamics, it's hard because they expect everybody else to be like that. It makes it difficult when you really got all this passion and so much is so right, and the ability to do all of those things, and others don't have it at this present moment. I think there's a tendency to have short tempers and short fuses about all of that that's: Come on, hurry up!' That's not the reality of the situation."

The next chapter in Phil's professional relationship with Oscar would be in 1970 when Phil was asked to do an arrangement of one of Oscar's seminal works, the Canadiana Suite' for the CBC. The suite had eight compositions, each section inspired by a different region of Canada.

Former CBC Radio Producer, Paul Mills: "I did the Canadiana Suite' with Oscar Peterson and Phil's band. That was a thrill. I mean, I was a rookie producer at the time and to walk into a studio and have Oscar Peterson and Nimmons n' Nine Plus Six' on the other side of the glass just blew me away. I was quite intimidated, actually, but they're really nice men, and the whole band was really nice and it was a joyous experience. You know, every take was perfect. (laughs) It was kind of like, I'm sitting there as a producer thinking "Okay what am I supposed to do here? That sounded fabulous." And it was all done live off the floor at Studio 4S, which is now a Business Depot up on Yonge Street, near the train tracks. So it was quite a thrill. And working with Oscar: what a gentleman, and what a brilliant pianist. And the arrangement of the Canadiana Suite' that Phil did was stunning. There's no other word for it. It was just amazing.

00:36:52 From the Canadiana Suite' featuring Oscar Peterson, with the Nimmons n' Nine Plus Six' here is Place St Henri':

(Music selection)

00:40:38 You're listening to the Dean of Canadian Jazz: Phil Nimmons, an original documentary on Canada's premier Jazz station: Jazz FM 91.

The early 70's were a golden time for jazz musicians in Toronto, there was plenty of work in the Studios, recording themes for Television and Radio that would keep them busy during the days, and work in the clubs was keeping them busy at night. For many years Nimmons n' Nine', and Nimmons n' Nine Plus Six', towered over the Toronto scene as one of the only big bands that the city had to offer. But in the late 60's another band was giving it a run for its money, a group started by Nimmons n' Nine' band member Rob McConnell, a group that shared many of the same members.

Rick Wilkins: "Rob started kind of getting some gigs, Phil was still working occasionally there came to be a choice of "well they both got a gig on the same time. Now which one do you take?" Now, kind of the honorable thing to do in the music business is when you call for something you take that job and you do it. When somebody else calls you, well you say, Well I'm busy'. I guess back at that time Rob was starting the new band and that was kinda the new exciting thing. And we'd always been playing with Phil for a number of years, and that, but Rob came along with his new thing and I guess some of us had gravitated towards that. There might have been a little friction at the time but, you know, some times its like a marriage gone wrong and, you know, when you move on to your second wife you stay friends with your first one again. Well you know, some times it works, some times it doesn't."

Despite indications that many of the members of his band may have had allegiances elsewhere, Phil began planning for a tour that would see the group playing shows all across Eastern Canada.

Nimmons: "I decided, where it came from I don't know, that we should tour. And I went to the Canada Council and got a touring grant from the Canada Council, and as part of the carrot I said Oh I'll write a piece of music for it'."

But when the tour began Phil was surprised to see who turned up to play with him.

Producer Paul Mills: "When we started off on the tour, the first big surprise, for both Phil and I, was that his regular band had sent in subs. You know, the regular band were all the "A" list guys in Toronto and they were all busy and they just couldn't commit two-three weeks out on the road with this tour. So we walk in to the first rehearsal and its all these kids." (laughs)

Phil Nimmons: "So I took ten subs with me on the road, and when I came back I hired them. Because its funny, all these guys that were in the band, you know like, if we get asked to do a gig and they couldn't do it, I wouldn't do it. You know I'm talking back beforeand I never thought anything about because these guys were charter members of Nimmons n' Nine. AndI all of a sudden when I hadwas committed to the tour, so I had to take somebody with me I realized that well Gee you've lovingly not gone and done things because certain members of the group couldn't go because of other commitments.' So I learned something from that as well, which was totally unplanned, that if you, depending on the personnel, you know, you can go and do things."

00:44:23 The result was a three week tour that played to receptive audiences, during which Phil was busy writing a piece of music which would become his defining album. It was a piece inspired by both the new musicians he was working with and much, like Oscar Peterson's Canadiana Suite', inspired by the landscapes around him. It was called The Atlantic Suite'. And when it was released it became a splash heard across the country.

Nimmons: "It's almost like a staple. Some people still come up to me and say, I played the Atlantic Suite'" still and what, that's thirty years ago, over thirty years ago.

Porter: "And it won a Juno."

Nimmons: "It won the first one, yeah. I'm so, old, I get the first of everything. (laughs) Its like the Toronto Arts Awards, I received the first one in music. (They) phoned Rob up and said: "What do you think about the fact that Phil received the Toronto Arts Awards?" And Rob evidently responded to the Toronto Star or the Globe or whatever: "Oh, that's great, he said, but it's too bad he's a Clarinet player." You know, like Rob can't leave it alone."

The suite featured four movements, each presenting a different mood captured beautifully by Phil's arranger's mind. On the cover was a shot of the sun reflecting into the Atlantic Ocean', and the liner notes featured a poetic tribute to the suite written by the long time fan of Phil's work, Canadian writer Farley Mowat.

Mowat: "I have listened to Phil's work many, many times, but I'd never met him, and I was at some sort of affair in Toronto and somebody said "lets go out and have a drink". And I never turn down an opportunity like that. So we went out and Phil and his group were playing some pieces or some little bits from the Symphony. And I was very impressed and I asked whoever I was with if they new Phil, and they did, so they introduced us. And we became kind of chummy and I told him how pleased I was with his stuff. And some time later he called me up and said he'd written this and he'd like me to hear it. He sent me a tape and I was absolutely enthralled by it. It was telling stories in sound, and I'm a great believer in story telling. Not too many musicians, not too many composers manage to pull it off, but with the Atlantic Suite' the stories remain clear. You just shut your eyes and you can hear the stories in the music. It all becomes one. I think its one of the greatest compositions that any Canadian composer has ever produced."

00:47:15 From the Atlantic Suite' here's the first movement inspired by Halifax. Here is Harbours'. (music selection)

00:51:00 For Phil, the pull towards music education is something that's always been strong within him. Perhaps at times even stronger than the pull to be an arranger. He's been active in starting programs not only for the Advanced School for Contemporary Music, and the Banff Center, but the University of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario, the Courtney Youth Music Center, and the Interprovincial Music Camp near Perry Sound, Ontario.

Nimmons: "I have had the good fortune, and I say good fortune because every time you teach something's coming back. I've always felt that teaching's a two-way street. Especially when Ithey don't have to have bright minds. The process of teaching somebody is a wonderful experience, if you keep an open mind, because you learn something from that. I can't tell you what it is until it actually happens with students. And I think "it was not planed" and "its wonderful". I didn't plan to be a teacher, but its been so rewarding, and its been great, it really has. It certainly has the fickleness of the economics of the music business. It certainly has been very helpful."

In his lifetime Phil has literally taught thousands of Canada's brightest musical lights. Included in his list of students is New York City based pianist, Renee Rosnes.

Renee Rosnes: "Phil was another enthusiastic, you know, mentor, somebody who was obviously passionate about the music and was very vocal about: This is what you need to do to get it together.' He was calm and he was he didn't let people slide, but he also had a very loving way of letting one know that you have work to do'."

Former student, pianist David Brave: "Well, I was a student at the University of Toronto and at that time Phil was one of the two heads of the program. He had a very unique method for getting his students to see the big picture in terms of the grand architecture of music. So he would do things like: he would bring in a tape of the Canadian North and we'd listen to loons, and he'd say Look it's a jazz waltz'. So he certainly opened up our ears in a completely new way. He was such a happy granddad figure to all of us that you couldn't help but being influenced by him in some way just by the energy that he brought to the program."

Fellow University of Toronto music teacher and noted saxophonist, Alex Dean: "Phil is the opposite of the way things are being taught now. He's the exact opposite. Phil is, you know, Phil is verysort of, before you play anything, just sit and listen'. And see what's out there first, before you add to it'. You know, that's sort of Phil! (laughs) And he was very esoteric, I don't know, I guess people think of him as being a Zen type guy. He would probably not go along with thatbut it's very much that way!"

00:54:30 David Braid: "Past a certain age, it's difficult not to have been in contact with Phil in some way, just because he's done so much in so many different parts of the country. I would guess that, pretty much every jazz musician say, younger than forty, would have either had a master class by Phil or would have taken a class, or would have played his music in high school in their high school stage band. But his impact is incalculable, really."

David Braid always felt a special musical kinship with his teacher, something he that felt had to be realized. "When I was a student, I had this intuition that if Phil and I ever played together we would have likethere's something there that was kind of calling me. So, he used to get to U of T very early in the morning. To beat the traffic, and I lived close to U of T and I would be the only, pretty much the only student coming in early in the morning to practice, so I would bang on his door, like, all the time: Phil, let play! Lets play some duets!' For whatever reason, we never ended up doing it. So, it was the fall of 2004, and I got an offer to play this concert in Dundas, in this old church. And I said, That's it. I'm going to phone Phil up.' Phil, I have this concert that I want you play with me. It pays this amount of money, and you can't say no.' So he's like: Great, okay'. So he'll do it. So he came down and we hadn't talked about music or anything that we're gonna play. And he came down and I'm like: Phil what are we going to play?' and he's: Lets not play anything, lets just improvise, alright?' And Ithat didn't scare me at all because Phil's such a master composer and I just had a feeling that everything was going to be fine. So we played this concert and providentially he brought a microphone and his little mini-disc recorder, and we recorded this concert. And the concert wasit will stand out, I'm certain, for the rest of my life as one of the best musical experiences that I'll have. I must admit that some audiences are quite surprised that he's taking his turn at this particular time but he doesn't see that as discouraging when people come out and request to hear a standard tune and Can you guys play Tea for Two'?' and he's like: No'. But I think it is consistent with his personality to do something as daring and as gutsy as that at this point."

00:57:14 That unedited concert, recorded on one single microphone with Phil's mini-disc recorder was released. From the Nimmons and Braid' album, here is the first song they performed, called Eh'?

(music selection)

00:58:17 Phil Nimmon's tremendous impact on the musical landscape in Canada is something that is lasting and rich. He's taught directly, or indirectly, almost every major jazz musician to come out of Canada in the last two generations. From his countless compositions and scores, to the many musical incarnations he's taken on stage, Nimmons has composed a soundtrack reflecting the vibrancy of Canada that will be treasured for many generations to come. In the twilight of his career, you'll find Nimmons taking chances with his music and remaining every bit as vital as he once was. His music has inspired those who have heard him, and his grace and compassion have inspired those who know him. Phil Nimmons is, and will continue to truly be, for some time to come, the one and only Dean of Canadian Jazz.

I'm Ross Porter, and you've been listening to an original documentary on Phil Nimmons on Canada's premier Jazz station: Jazz FM91. The documentary was produced by Jeff Siskind. Executive Producer was Ross Porter. We recognize the financial support provided by the Department of Canadian Heritage via the Canadian on line program.

A special thanks to Phil Nimmons.


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