Vancouver Jazz Profiles by Gary Barclay
Jill Townsend

Vancouver’s a rich legacy of concert-jazz big bands is ongoing in the Fred Stride Jazz Orchestra and Hugh Fraser’s VEJI band. John Korsrud has the Hard Rubber Orchestra and different variations.

And Jill Townsend leads a 17-piece ensemble under her name, featuring the crème de la crème of our city’s jazz musicians.

It was among these musicians that trombonist-composer-arranger Townsend found her musical home. “I’m from Nova Scotia and I went through a terrific band program in Truro, Nova Scotia. They had jazz band from Grade 7 through 12, and that’s where I started playing trombone. We did a lot of tours and concerts and we were exposed to a lot of different kinds of music. So, after school I went to university down there, as well – St. Francis Xavier – did a jazz-diploma program. I moved to Toronto for three years and did some playing there, as well, and studying. Went to Montreal for six years, finished a degree in Fine Arts, majoring in Jazz at Concordia. That’s where I met my husband, Bill Coon, guitarist-composer-arranger. And we moved out here in 1995, to Vancouver, not with the intention of staying, but it’s been almost 14 years and we’re still here – and loving it!

“I knew that I’d always wanted to have a big band – and a swinging big band. That was really important to me, to have a band that swung hard. As Hugh Fraser said to me one time, ‘Geography can make all the difference.’ And I’ve always remembered that because it really has made a big difference for me, being out here and meeting all these wonderful musicians.

“I started approaching people. ‘If I did this, would you play in my band?’ And everyone I asked said, ‘Yes!’ It’s something I went into without ... I just started doing it. I couldn’t think about it too much because, you know, it’s kind of crazy to start a big band in this day and age ... when you think about it,” she laughs.

“Bill and I do most of the writing for the band, so it’s original compositions, and we do arrangements of standard jazz tunes, as well. So it’s kind of a nice mixture, but the main focus is on Canadian content, really.

“The other focus is to feature all the great musicians that are on our jazz scene and play in the band. I’m very privileged and very honoured to have these people in my band, such as Campbell Ryga and Ross Taggart, Brad Turner on trumpet, Dennis Esson and Rod Murray on trombone, and Jodi Proznick plays bass, Dave Robbins on drums, and Bill, of course, on guitar. We both write music specifically for some of the soloists in the band, to feature them.”

So far, the band has recorded one album, Tales of the Sea (Pagetown Records, 2003). “It’s kind of a dedication to Nova Scotia and where I spent my summers as a kid. We still have a family cottage in Cape John. You can kind of hear the story in some of the songs. I wrote, I think, three originals and Bill wrote three originals and then we put a couple of standards that we arranged on that CD. It was a huge project because the band was fairly new when we did that.” With funding from Canada Council and SOCAN, the whole band flew to New York City in 2007 to perform at the International Association for Jazz Education Conference.

Melodic and accessible, the Jill Townsend Big Band has played concerts and clubs throughout the city. Next year will mark their 10th anniversary. Townsend is excited about a concert in the Jazz Series at Capilano University next March. “It’s going to feature a guest artist, which we’ve never done before. He’s a world-renowned jazz trombone player and his name is Jiggs Whigham – American-born but lives in Europe. This is significant because I actually went to Berlin in ’95 for a couple of months and studied trombone with him. We’ve kept in touch ever since. He’s my favourite trombone player on the planet, and so it was a great thing to be able to go and study with him. And now he’s going to come and play with my big band. He’s got a gorgeous sound – a very melodic player, a pretty straight-ahead player, [and a] swinging guy.”

In the meantime, the Jill Townsend Big Band will perform at The Cellar Jazz Club on Thursday, October 30, 2008 with sets at 8:30 and 10:15 p.m., and at Jazz Vespers at St. Andrews-Wesley United Church on January 18, 2009.

Article originally appeared in VLM: Vancouver's Lifestyle Magazine, October 2008.

Gary Barclay is a Vancouver-based jazz writer and broadcaster. His On The Town column appears monthly in VLM: Vancouver's Lifestyle Magazine. For a free print subscription to VLM log on to vlmag.ca.