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Canadian Heritage

Wray Downes


RUPERT ARNOLD (WRAY) DOWNES (pianist, composer, arranger, conductor) was born on January 14, 1931 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. When he was just seven years old, he began 12 years of study with Anne Scott-Mumford in Toronto, and in 1949, became the first Canadian to receive the British Empire (Overseas) Scholarship to London, England’s Trinity College of Music. After studying classical piano there and then at the Paris Conservatory, he turned to jazz in 1973, studying harmony with Dizzy Gillespie and working until 1956 in Europe with leading American musicians including Sacha Distel, Sidney Bechet, Buck Clayton, and Bill Coleman.

Returning to Canada, he attended Oscar Peterson’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto, studied composition with Neil Chotem in Montreal, and was mentored in New York by noted jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, he balanced live performances and touring with such respected musical peers as Sonny Stitt, Clark Terry, and Lester Young, with his many responsibilities to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – Music Director for the Halifax-based ‘Music Hop’, in Ottawa on ‘Segue’, several shows in Newfoundland, and in Toronto, as Music Director for ‘Show of Shows’ and ‘Umbrella’.

For two years from 1956 to 1958, and intermittently during the ‘80s, he played in Montreal clubs. Throughout much of the ‘70s and ‘80s, he performed, recorded, and toured in North America playing the prestigious Montreal jazz festival, performing on numerous NBC shows and more intimate club dates in Los Angeles, and working as a sideman to U.S. jazz musicians at several Toronto clubs, accompanying Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Tate, Clark Terry, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Lester Young, and Ben Webster, Downes' duo with bassist Dave Young, established in 1976, has toured Canada several times, occasionally augmented by other leading musicians including guitarists Ed Bickert and Reg Schwager. He has also worked over the years with the Archie Alleyne-Frank Wright Quartet, Moe Koffman, drummer Pete Magadini, saxophonist Don ‘D.T.’ Thompson, singer Joe Williams, and vibesmaster Peter Appleyard.

He has played in command performance for dignitaries including Nelson Mandela, the President of Finland, and the (then) Prime Minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, and in the ‘90s, Wray Downes assumed a faculty position in the Private Studies Program at Concordia University's Department of Music in Montreal.