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Canadian Heritage

Butch Watanabe


JIRO 'BUTCH' WATANABE (trombonist) was born June 7, 1923 in Fraser Mills, British Columbia, Canada. He passed away November 5, 2002 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Butch Watanabe was an accomplished trombonist who worked with Oscar Peterson, Lionel Hampton, Rob McConnell, Peter Appleyard, Phil Nimmons, Ron Collier, and Anne Murray.

Watanabe’s family were among thousands of Japanese Canadians classified as enemy aliens and sent to internment camps after Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The family was split up between labour camps in Northern Ontario and British Columbia, and it was only after WWII was over that the teenaged Butch would rejoin his parents in Montreal where he attended high school. It was there he met future piano great Oscar Peterson and began a lifelong friendship and ultimately, an enduring business relationship with him.

After completing his musical studies at the McGill Conservatory of Music in Montreal in the late 1940’s. he began working Café St. Michel with Louis Metcalf's International Band, a gig which most sources say was the first bebop band in Montreal, if not in Canada. Watanabe also worked with pianist Roland Lavallee and many other name players in Montreal, and for a time, led his own band at the St. Michel. After touring Canada with vibraphone virtuoso Lionel Hampton's big band, Watanabe moved to Toronto in 1955. When his high school friend Oscar Peterson opened the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in 1960, Butch Watanabe became one of the first faculty members along with Ray Brown, Ed Thigpen, and Phil Nimmons. Over the years in Toronto he worked with all of the major large ensembles, those led by Rob McConnell, Phil Nimmons, Peter Appleyard, and Ron Collier.

In 1967 he returned to Montreal briefly to play at Expo ‘67 with the bands of Nick Ayoub, Ron Collier and Phil Nimmons. Back in Toronto, he recorded sessions with Collier that featured Duke Ellington as a piano soloist, and in 1973, he was a member of the Nimmons band that joined Oscar Peterson and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen for a CBC recording of Peterson's "Canadiana Suite". In 1979 he was part of a Canadian All-Star Sextet (that included singer Salome Bey, reedman P.J. Perry, bassist Don Thompson, pianist Art Maiste, trumpeter Al Penfold, and drummer Terry Clarke) that toured Europe and recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Other significant record dates in Toronto followed with Watanabe playing in bands assembled by the stellar leaders of the day including Guido Basso, Brian Browne, Johnny Burt, Bob McMullin, Ed Bickert, Ben McPeek, Teddy Roderman, Jerry Toth, and Jimmy Namaro.

Latterly, he traveled with Oscar Peterson extensively, usually as his road manager but occasionally playing trombone. For many years he was featured Anne Murray’s concert, recording, and touring band which was originally directed by bassist Skip Beckwith, and later, saxophonist Don ‘D.T.’ Thompson. Butch Watanabe was a member of the Trombone Workshop Octet (which included trombonists Rob McConnell, Ian McDougall, Bob Livingston, and John Capon) when they performed in the “Sound of Toronto Jazz” Concert Series at the Ontario Science Centre on March 20, 1978.