Saxophonist Campbell Ryga is among Canada's most highly acclaimed
jazz musicians. Winner of Jazz Report's "Alto Saxophonist of
the Year" award in 2000, he also won 3 Juno Awards, with two
additional nominations, a Grammy nomination and has twice received
the Western Canadian Music Award in the Jazz category. Cam was born
in Edmonton in 1961, grew up in Summerland, BC, traveled extensively
including lengthy stays in Vancouver in the early to late eighties,
then several years in Toronto before moving back to Vancouver in
the mid-nineties, where he still lives.
The following interview was conducted online over a period of several
Brian Nation: I
looked up your birthday. You were six in 1967, the year your father,
George Ryga, shook up Canadian theatre when The Ecstasy of
Rita Joe premiered in Vancouver. It
caused a huge sensation and he came to be considered by many to
be the first important playwright in English Canada. What was your
home environment like growing up? I assume literature was important
around your place. What about music?
Campbell Ryga: That's a question
I've often been asked. What I can
say about growing up in our family home was that I had friends my
age who particularly enjoyed spending time there. From their perspective
it would likely of seemed quite surreal with lots of liberties and
seemingly little in the way of formal family structure – as
such. There were always artists, musicians, actors and various incarnations
of theatre folks at the house most of the time, it seemed.
Also, writers and leftward leaning politicians, friends in media.
Even the occasional hitchhikers. Always lots of evenings of spirited
roundtable discussions – arguments – insightful and
passion-filled interaction with variations of the aforementioned
people, and always well into the night. Endless pots of coffee,
red wine and cigarettes. But understandably, as a child I wouldn't
have possessed a primary point of reference as to what would have been considered a "normal" family upbringing. Children are products
of their environments. We understood things were done a little differently
at our home, true enough, through the perspective of friends, mostly.
My friends – who are still close to me today in part because
they understand where I come from, those friends in themselves,
came from receptive and open minded parents who felt somewhat at
ease through association about having their own involved in the
way we tended to do things. Being exposed to the social/political
value mediums that we Ryga children were raised, it must have been
a bit of a stretch for some parents.
There were kids, sometimes, who weren't allowed to come over because
my dad was the guy who wrote "dirty books". I seem to remember my
brothers having endured that reality a time or two with respect
to a couple of their buddies but, by and large, our home was just
the place where we grew up. I mean there were times as children
when we felt a struggle to garner the attention of our parents,
as their focus was often spoken for. I think that's fairly understandable
in the context of that environment, in retrospect. We made the best
of it as kids. There was always lots of maintenance work to do on
that property, and with the green house we could live off the land
most of the year there.
They did encourage us when we showed an interest in the arts, to
be sure, and I always felt great support from them about my decision
to become a musician. My dad wasn't particularly musical but he
certainly didn't need to be to indicate to me that I had better
bloody well take this art form and its tradition seriously. That
aspect of creative expression was absolutely his area of expertise.
It genuinely affected him when he felt that an artist in any art
form wasn't identifying their respective personal potential, for
whatever reason they may of had.
My mother had a love for early jazz music. Over time and having
lived in the U.K. prior to meeting my dad, she had accumulated a
relatively vast vintage jazz record library, and I became interested
in that. She had some great Sydney Bechet albums which interested
me a great deal. My first instrument was the clarinet and Bechet's
clarinet playing on his recordings was a great inspiration to me.
Bechet naturally stimulated my primary interest in the soprano sax,
which was my first saxophone. My band teacher, Jim Grinder, was
a very good soprano player and he turned my folks on to a horn.
That horn was an old Martin curved soprano that went up to a high
E flat. I had to work for that horn - my mother assigned me the
task of memorizing the clarinet parts from Gershwins' 'Rhapsody
in Blue' before they bought my first soprano.
My mother had some great Bix Biederbeck recordings and also Chris
Barber records. Lots of Billie Holiday and Fats Waller, and especially
Louis Armstrong. There were many more vintage LP's – too much
to list or remember. I felt at that time as though I had really
scored in the untapped resource department.
It sounds like your family home is a place I would have enjoyed
hanging out. Where was this?
You know, Brian – it
was your kinda place! The Ryga
home still exists although it's an Arts Centre now called The George
Ryga Centre, in Summerland B.C. I lived there from the time my family
moved to the community in 1963, until 1979 when I graduated from
high school and moved to the coast to go to college. I was born
in Edmonton in 1961 and my family moved to the Okanagan Valley just
after my brother Sergei was born in 1963.
you heard and were inspired by Bechet, were you already playing?
Were you taking piano lessons or anything like that?
I was in grade 8 when I began
perusing my mother's collection of vintage jazz recordings. I was
looking for anything that had a clarinet player on it – the
instrument I started on. I also want to mention that I was very
much in awe of my high school band teacher, Jim Grinder, prior to
even being involved with his band program. I was really looking
forward to high school, primarily for the opportunity to become
involved in the great music program at Summerland Secondary School
– a program that Jim himself had built – which, incidentally,
involved over 200 of the 600 students in that high school at the
time. So I started playing clarinet in grade 7 while I was still
in intermediate school (self taught, and very incorrectly, I might
add) to get a jump on the grade 8 start at SSS.
My parents really respected Jim, he would occasionally drop by the
Ryga house when I was growing up, usually at parties that would
often transform into "Hootennanies". Jim was a very competent
woodwind player and he had an affinity for early jazz music. A very
kind and patient man. So I believe he was quite thrilled that one
of his grade 8 students was trying to find out all he could about
As for piano lessons, I remember taking them with an older woman
in Trout Creek when I was perhaps a bit too young. I also remember
feeling as though she wasn't at all pleased with my progress, or
lack thereof, so I became discouraged with that. Not continuing
with the piano was something I always regretted because I never
have felt comfortable with my lack of piano ability when compared
to all the time I've put in on the saxophone over these many years.
When I compose, it's always on the horn. This isn't necessarily
a bad thing, it's just not as efficient at times, I find. I have
plans to concentrate more on piano, time permitting. I'd really
like to be able to see more clearly what it is that I'm hearing.
or how were you introduced to more contemporary styles? Who were
your first influences in the bop idiom?
That came a few years later,
around 1976 when I met some of my peers for the first time in the
provincial honour band at the coast. In that band I met Renee Rosnes,
Rudy Petschauer, Perry and Mike White, among others. That's when
I realized the limitations one can face in coming from a small community.
You don't necessarily have access to players with "the sound
of today" for lack of a better term. I had no idea that I was
as immersed as I was in an improvisational style that was so relatively
dated – when compared to the way my new friends were playing.
I hadn't yet had the experience of participating in any larger high
school jazz festivals where I could hear other improvisers my age
who were influenced by jazz contributors of the late 1940's to present
day. Perry White really turned me on to some great tenor players
to listen to. The tenor sax was my primary horn through my high
school and later, my college years.
This was the point that I started studying with Larry Crawford,
which was huge for me. Larry was a saxophone player originally from
Summerland who left some some 30 years prior to pursue a musical
career with NORAD out of Winnipeg until he retired and moved back
to his family home. Larry is a wonderful musician who has a very
refreshing and contemporary/progressive approach about playing and
teaching, and he also has a realistic grasp on the business of music
and the industry, such as it is. I really valued Larry's work with
me, his insight and his tremendous sense of humour. To this day
I value his wisdom.
Larry turned me on to the bebop language and gave me the resources
to study it. Pretty soon I was listening to Lester, Hawkins, Webster,
Bird, Coltrane, Dizzy and Stitt – all the while continuing
to listen to my mother's records – and that's when I started
to really realize that the one jazz idiom had clearly everything
to do with the other – which was enlightening and made me
feel as if I actually ended up with a broader perspective as a result.
there opportunities to play jazz in Summerland, outside of high
In this regard I was quite
fortunate. I was working in the commercial music idiom a couple
times a week in Kaleden for Thievin Brothers Productions. They were
three brothers originally from Estevan who had an 8-track recording
studio that was busy most days and their Thievin Brothers Trio was
busy most nights playing bars, dances and functions. They seemed
to have the corner on the market on jingles for Okanagan businesses
in radio. They hired me in the studio often. They were consistently
meticulous and professional and I gained loads of practical experience
there that would later serve me very well. Plus I was making decent
money. I was 16 when I started working for them – as soon
as I could drive.
These guys turned me on to some great pop groups that used horns.
Tower of Power, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, and Chicago
– all new to me at the time. They also turned me on to good
studio musicians like Singers Unlimited and studio players like
Tom Scott. etc.
As far as jazz went in Summerland, I did have a group with my
brother Sergei, who played piano. It was a quintet that Learch (Dennis
Esson) was often a part of. We'd rehearse regularly at the Ryga
house. There really wasn't anywhere for usto
play in the community. I mean we tried, but we never went over at
the local legion too well! Then I'd work an evening with the Thievins,
which wasn't jazz, and people loved that music. I think that's when
I discovered I was on the right track with my love for jazz!
I will just mention that there actually was a "jazz club"
in Kelowna in the mid seventies. It operated for a short time as
a kind of a coffee house and it was below street level in the industrial
part of town, which was about perfect in retrospect! It was run
by two local surgeons, Doug Graham and Barry Jones who were both
accomplished jazz piano players. At that time Brian Todd was the
band director at Kelowna Secondary School and he was a very positive
force for the music. Brian was turning out students that were really
interested in jazz and so that was a place to at least meet and
play with some good young players from "the north". Kelowna
was isolated, too – but to me it felt like the big city!
Sergei pursue a career in music? Are there other siblings?
Serge is a talented music educator
in the Kelowna School District, teaching at George Elliott High
School in Winfield. He's also a creative pianist, vocalist, and
composer. He plays a lot on weekends and evenings and has a duo
with Tom Esson (Learch's brother). They play weddings and functions,
etc. It may not always be jazz but, I can assure you, he works more
as a musician than I do. I have two sisters, Lesley in Armstrong
is a librarian in the North Okanagan School district, and Tanya
in Sylvan Lake Alberta is an actress who went on to teach drama
at Red Deer College. My youngest brother Jaime is a very experienced
helicopter pilot and helicopter maintenance engineer and he's recently
purchased a company called Selkirk Mountain Helicopters which operates
out of Revelstoke.
did you make the move to Vancouver? Why Vancouver? I mean, Vancouver
might seem the obvious "big city" move but I wonder if you considered
Calgary or Edmonton, or especially Toronto which might have seemed
to have more opportunities for a jazz musician. Or had you even
decided to pursue a career in music by the time you relocated?
I moved to Vancouver in 1980. I attended the
music program at Capilano College. I had established some solid
musical friendships here from encounters at the high school honor
bands and various festivals.
I had great admiration for many of the established professionals
here, many of whom used to adjudicate the SSS stage band in regional
jazz festivals. Great players and educators such as Bobby Hales
and Donny Clark, Tony Nickles and Dave Quarin. Great musicians that
would come through the Okanagan. Most memorable were Ron Johnson,
Torben Oxbol, Jack Stafford, Ian McDougall, Oliver Gannon, and George
Ursan – all of Pacific Salt. Occasionally my dad used to take
me to the coast and get me into the Cave to see the Bobby Hales
Big Band. The faces I'd pretty much memorized from having studied
the cover of his album "One of My Bags". I used to come
down with my dad before I could drive and take lessons with Fraser
MacPherson and attend the jam sessions at the old Hot Jazz that
Brian Ogilvie hosted. Later on Roy Reynolds moved to Vancouver who
I'd previously met by attending a Stan Kenton Workshop in the mid
70's in Sacramento – so I studied with Roy as well.
There was a whole lot happening in Vancouver at that time –
so much so that I found it hard to be in College and do all the
playing I had the opportunity to do at the same time. This is when
Hugh Fraser and I started playing together and we've never stopped
– I strongly doubt we ever will. Within a few years I was
subbing in the Bobby Hales Big Band, which was really a dream come
true for me. I established a relationship with those guys that I
really valued and realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that the playing
experience here was where the real schooling took place for me.
I learned so much from sitting in that sax section and playing in
that band. I had a unique place in this town at that time, working
beside these very busy and seasoned professionals. I really respected
them all – considered them to be my mentors and, over time,
close friends. You just can't pay for that kind of training and
experience. There were times I'd learn a few things there the hard
way and I'd certainly hear about it. But I wouldn't of changed a
thing about the dues I paid with Bobby – at all. I was a lucky
guy and I knew it. There was no reason to leave at that time.
Calgary and Edmonton were busy then, too, but smaller music scenes
than that of Vancouver. I remained in Vancouver until 1989 when
I had a couple of bad personal life experiences and I thought I'd
better make some changes, so I made plans to move to Toronto. I
had met my future wife, Paulina, in Vancouver only a couple weeks
before she relocated to Montreal to attend McGill so I really wanted
to pursue that and I had established some great musical connections
in Toronto already so it seemed like the logical place for me.
Toronto was wonderful and I was treated with great kindness there.
Moe Koffman gave me my first gig in Toronto – a week at George's,
a club he booked where he rarely hired alto players to headline
a week (as alto sax and flute were Moe's primary instruments) so
I felt very honoured. Only myself and PJ would be given these headline
weeks by Moe, who we all knew to be a wonderful alto player himself.
I was busy in Toronto, involved in a diverse array of ensembles.
I was doing everything from playing with the new music Hemisphere's
ensemble – to playing with the Boss Brass. I had many wonderful
playing opportunities there with some really phenomenal musicians.
I lived in Toronto till late 1993 when I received a Canada Council
grant to study in New York with George Coleman so I moved there
for a year and lived with Ross Taggart. In late '94 my mother's
health took a major down turn and there wasn't any family living
in B.C. at the time so I went back to spend time with her in the
Okanagan and go through some recovery with her. For a few good reasons
Paulina and I decided we'd move back to B.C. and live in Vancouver.
We were married in 1996, grew roots, bought a home and had a son
together. Life is full and although lots has changed over the years
both personally and musically there's always indications and reminders
that the choices we've made have all been good.
your choice to live in Vancouver is much appreciated by local jazz
fans, I assure you. But, backing up for a minute, you've just rattled
off the names of some of the most illustrious musicians in Canadian
jazz history. One I'd like to ask you about for now is PJ Perry,
whom you mentioned was the only other altoist Moe Koffman booked
to play George's Spaghetti House in Toronto. Did you have opportunities
to play with him back then, in the Toronto days? Like yourself,
he's one of the purest bop players in the country. How influential
was he in your own development?
PJ was – and continues
to be a – major source of personal inspiration for me as a
person, and as a musician. As I've said before – PJ is my
favorite living jazz alto player, without question. We didn't play
much together when I was living back east. Usually when he was coming
through town he was performing in quartet form but I'd occasionally
sit in with him and he'd sit in with me when it felt right to do
so. When I listen to PJ, that's always more than enough alto saxophone
there for me – there's nothing I could add nor would I want
to. It's always a beautiful experience left on it's own. We tended
to always like similar rhythm sections so we'd often work with the
same people. The same goes for other horn players too, interestingly
enough. I worked quite a lot for instance with Sam Noto as did PJ.
PJ and I have done tours together since my time in Toronto. Mostly
it was around other excursions such as planned fishing trips. PJ
and I are close friends and we hang out and fly fish together often.
We've shared many great adventures and have had our collective wits
tested on multiple occasions. Many times we were glad the other
guy was there! Too much there to go into here and the stories have
become rather infamous but – the history is a part of why
we enjoy each others company as much as we do and it all becomes
part of the music – it simply has to if the music is to be
Hugh Fraser Quintet,
Fraser, Cam Ryga, Ross Taggart
(photo by Brian Nation)
You've had a long creative relationship
with Hugh Fraser. When and how did that come about?
Well, Hugh and I are brothers
on all kinds of levels. We've been through pretty much every conceivable
situation together. His limitless enthusiasm was the first quality
that struck me about him and it still boggles my mind today. That's
not to say Hugh doesn't get down, tired or pissed off about things.
He just has a tremendous respect for the music and the musicians,
and that's the philosophy he lives by. He doesn't know the meaning
of the term "half-way". He simply lives by the the word
We met at VCC, at a big band rehearsal directed by the late Dave
Robbins in 1980. After that I used to hang out with him at the house
he shared with some other musicians our age on Mons St. in East
Vancouver. We'd play well into the wee small hours just about nightly
and the Mons house was where VEJI (Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation)
was ultimately conceived about 6 months later. But before that there
were other smaller groups that we played in such as The Jazzoids.
VEJI was a mere twinkle in Hugh's eye at that point. Well, the rest
is the long road of life's adventure, well traveled. We know how
to work together.There's a formula that we share and there's really
something to be said for being able to read each other's minds.
I really love Hugh and I value his friendship tremendously. As long
as he doesn't finally get tired of me, I'd be happy playing with
him for another 5,000 years.
about Ross Taggart? You mentioned spending a year with him in New
York. What was that like? Did you get to play together much in various
situations? I'm just thinking about how your relationship has continued
to this day, and so wondering what those times were like, who you
played with, and how that experience contributed to your obvious
empathy in Hugh's Quintet and VEJI, for instance.
Living with Ross in New York
was wonderful. We had a great time and we were both studying with
George Coleman at the time. Ross had already been there a year,
living in Brooklyn. We lived in the upper west side – Puerto
Rican Harlem. 106th Street and Amsterdam, to be more precise. The
locals mistook me for Puerto Rican and they had no idea what to
make of Ross.
We played a bit there, mostly sessions and whatnot. Ross and I
were already playing in Hugh's quintet at that time so we had played
together a great deal prior to even moving to New York. Since New
York, Ross and I have continued to play a whole lot together in
everything from orchestral sessions to working together as a duo
– the latter always being a great experience. We've also both
been quite involved in education and I'm pursuing getting us more
involved in duo clinic work as we speak, because we tend to work
very well together in those situations.
From a saxophone players' perspective I'm very blessed to have
been working in close quarters with Ross in a musical format as
technically demanding as the Hugh Fraser Quintet, specifically.
We've learned how to play together very effectively to make the
presentation of Hugh's music our primary focus and purpose, as opposed
to fulfilling any self-serving, competitive mandates to be the one
who "shines a little brighter". There's never been any
of that with Ross and me. Maybe it's because we listen to Al Cohn
and Zoot Sims too much! I just love the way the guy plays and you
hear the history of the tenor saxophone in every phrase, and it's
a beautiful experience for me personally. He always gives me the
feeling that we're doing exactly what we should be doing. Yes –
two funky brothers. Standing next to him on stage though? I would
have preferred it if he'd been born a little shorter.
say you moved to Vancouver in 1980. I remember seeing you play at
the Classical Joint. It must have soon after you got to town. What
do you remember about the place, who you played with there, etc.
Also, I think a comparison with what's available in Vancouver now
for young players would be interesting. We probably all complained
about how few places there were for jazz in Vancouver then, but
compared to today it seems like a Golden Age of Jazz.
I still remember the sound
of that front door. There'll be people reading this who might not
know about the Joint so – it was a coffee house that held
maybe 40 people. It was run by an interesting Swiss-German jazz
enthusiast/architect/historian named Andreas Nothiger and anyone
could get a "dark" coffee there which was coffee spiked
with Jamieson's and whipped cream. Ross ordered one in there one
time, took a sip, got something in his mouth, spit it out and it
was used band aid! That's perhaps my favorite Joint story! A funky
Anyhow, the Joint was a very important place for the Vancouver
jazz community in that we all used to hang out there. It was located
in Gastown, there was jazz going on there all the time, a live CO-OP
Radio broadcast of the band that happened to be playing on any given
Sunday evening. Even the set breaks were broadcast! It was a door
gig. The place wasn't about the money, although sometimes you could
do relatively well there. The Joint seemed to transcend the generation
barriers because jazz musicians of all ages would hang there and
play together and there just hasn't been a hang hole like it since.
I felt it represented the pulse of the Vancouver jazz scene. When
the Joint closed there was a real feeling of a void.
I used to play there a lot with a quartet I had with Renee Rosnes
which included Chris Nelson and Rudy Petschauer. The group was called
"Coastal Connection". We'd play the Joint till 1am, then
walk up to Main and Hastings to where an after-hours club called
Basin Street existed – and we'd play there from 2 till 5am.
Coastal Connection played Basin Street most weekends as we were
primarily the house band. We'd always have people come down and
sit in who'd just finished gigs, from either the Joint or elsewhere.
Musicians on tour from out of town would often come down to either
hang or sit in. I met lots of folks there. Woody Shaw, Steve Turre
and Eddie Harris come to mind.
Although it's true that there were quite a few solid places to play
jazz in Vancouver 26 years ago and prior, I'm not so sure that there
isn't in fact more places for
the younger musicians to play now, what with all the playing activity
that seems to be happening on Commercial Drive that I hear about
from my students these days. This didn't exist the same way when
I was that age. I find, however, that for myself, there are far
fewer places that I can afford to play these days in Vancouver than
there's ever been. But that's another topic
What we no longer have which we used to have by way of the Joint,
was a meeting and intermingling of the older and younger jazz players.
Vancouver is quite different in this regard than other cities I've
lived in. There's an absence of general "hanging" in the
community compared to the way it used to be here. Musicians don't
interact socially much anymore. It's a shame we don't have that
these days. We need to communicate much more. It's our loss.
There's lots of very talented younger players looking for places
to play now – and as Bob Hales used to say, "good players
tend to generate work". I'd really like to see these good players
making sure that they're getting a fair wage and not playing for
next to nothing because this sets a terrible standard and it becomes,
quite literally, the law of diminishing returns. It's worth remembering
that when you agree to work for substandard or otherwise insulting
money. You generally get treated accordingly, regardless of who's
hired you, because those are the people who are showing you in real
terms that they have precious little respect for you and/or what
However, if a club owner or restaurant manager or a promoter values
the music and has half a clue about how much of your life you've
put into honing your craft to this point, and you negotiate the
money you feel you're worth – you will get treated the way
you deserve to be treated. I strongly urge those younger people
to get some guidance and advice in this regard from musicians who
have had experience in this. I don't know any respected professionals
of longevity who wouldn't accredit a businesslike approach and realistic
negotiating tactics as part of their survival plan, so don't ever
be afraid to ask questions. Also don't be afraid to say no to a
bad deal. It's well worth your time to put some business strategies
and bottom lines in place for yourself and/or your ensemble.
Also for the younger players in College programs – FOR GOODNESS
SAKE – insist that your
College or University Music program Department Heads and/or Coordinators
start hiring various established people in the local music community
on a regular basis to give a discussion to music students
about the music scene – the past, present. and future
of the business and industry – and the future of that person's
respective area of concentration, as it relates to their musical
career, as he or she sees it. It doesn't matter if it's a film score
composer or a classical string player or a jazz musician, as long
as that featured person is a respected professional artist who speaks
from experience and authority and is still currently active and
involved. This person does not need to be an instructor or teacher
of any kind to discuss issues of industry concepts with music students.
Teaching background should not be a prerequisite for hiring a professional
musician to speak. There will always be some information there for
any musician regardless of instrument or music concentration. You'll
learn that there's a common bond. Also, students should be required
to research that person well before hand and have specific questions
for that person. What, for instance, can he or she tell you about
how to start preparing yourself right now, to do what they
do. You students need to feel that you are getting a good indication
about what your realistic expectations should be, to prepare yourself
for when you leave school, especially important in an ever changing
Spend as much time as possible with those professionals who represent
where you'd like to be going as a musician, just as I did. Study
privately (very important), join the Musicians Union, hone your
skills daily. GO AND SEE LIVE JAZZ. If you don't go out and attend
live jazz performances you have no business expecting there to be
any opportunity out there for you whatsoever if your intention is
to be jazz musician. Do not assume that there will be places for
you to play because unless people support jazz clubs by going, these
clubs have this nasty habit of closing down. Why? Figure that out
– this is one of the things that's important to know about
"the business of music". To this end, Cory Weeds would
be an example of a great guest speaker, as he is a man who most
certainly knows. This art form is not just about talent. It's a
mistake to think talent alone is going to create opportunities for
you. A reality check is in order if that's what you believe. This
is about becoming a contributor to the music on all levels.
Cory Weeds certainly qualifies as a contributor to the art form
on a variety of levels – no question. It might surprise you
to know the percentage of Capilano College students I teach in the
Jazz Program who couldn't draw me a map to the Cellar Jazz Club
when they started with me. We're talking about Vancouver's only
jazz club. This must change.
Students who tell me they're poor and that's why they can't go hear
live music – with all due respect – please!
They forget I was once a student myself. Worse, I've been a jazz
musician for near 30 years so I know a little something about living
on nothing, with nothing. You can always figure out a way to do
what's important to you. It comes down to priorities and choices.
Forget about the apathy – you can't use apathy as a jazz musician.
Do your soul a big favor and go see the WOW BAND on Tuesday nights
at the Hot Jazz Club. It's free to go and it's a beautiful listening
agree. It's surprising how few people, especially students, take
advantage of the WOW Band Tuesdays at the Hot Jazz. Do you sit in
often? I've seen you there quite a few times.
I used to but I haven't been
in a while. My son is of the age where it's hard to get out after
he's finally gone to bed and we live about an hour away. Had I known
having this young child of mine meant I was going to be starting
my days at 6:00 am, I'd of trained for it my late 30's instead of
diving in at 42. Pavel's almost 3 now. Soon he'll be trying to get
rid of me I'm sure, and after that he'll be wanting to come out
with me, I hope.
long have you been teaching at Capilano College?
Coming up to 4 years at Capilano
and slightly less at Kwantlen University College out here in Langley.
don't think I know anyone, not here anyway, that can support themselves
or a family playing music, especially jazz. Are the teaching opportunities
for veterans like yourself a good way of paying the rent while still
being involved in the music?
I've felt as though
I've personally benefited from the teaching I do in far more ways
than financially. I've always been quite heavily involved in summer
jazz camps and my affiliation with Yamaha Canada has continued to
keep me active as a clinician and adjudicator. I remember about
17 years ago, after a degree of frustration on my part at a camp
with a couple of students, being pulled aside by Dave Proznick who
was teaching there also who advised me to always consider that distance
between where the kids are to where I am. I went through a very
sobering period of re-analysis about how I approached all this to
the betterment of my communication skills with the students. I put
my personal ego issues far away and began looking at things quite
differently and started really respecting the students for the things
they could do rather than unload on them for what they
couldn't. Every one of them has a unique way of processing information,
and they just want to be respected and they really deserve that.
It's tough being a kid, especially these days.
So Proz really opened my eyes here and I feel that this was a very
positive turning point for me. I have tremendous respect for the
teaching profession – it's a part of my daily life as my wife
is a secondary school music teacher and many of our friends are
in the profession. I've never known a time when there were so many
professional jazz musicians who were also teaching in a College
or University. This isn't unique to Vancouver. The same thing is
happening in Toronto and elsewhere now. As musicians, the kind of
money that we'd tend to get paid per night for local gigs generally
hasn't changed much in the last 20-30 years, at around $100.00.
So in essence we're making far less than we ever did because the
cost of living has climbed so much and there are simply less gigs
than there used to be. With that alone I'd have to be working almost
every day as a musician to cover expenses and just stay afloat around
here. Many musicians such as myself now are tending to live further
away, where housing is somewhat more affordable. Also, we're living
in a time when many musicians are having one child if they choose
to have kids at all. So the teaching does help, there's no doubt
about that. I generally choose not to go out of town quite as much
as I used to at this point because I'm needed here more at this
point with a 2 year old at home. I find that when I do go out of
town for work it's understood and accommodated, thankfully, by my
students and the administration at both Kwantlen College University
and Capilano College, where I teach.
How does your teaching influence
If you don't enjoy teaching
yet continue to do it, then it affects your life. I have friends
that have gotten quite burned out from teaching. It can be draining or, on the other hand, it can be exhilarating. It depends largely
on the student dynamic. Sometimes I find there are years where you
have a particularly motivated bunch that tend to feed off of the
energy of each other. Sometimes you'll have the opposite. It's hard
to understand why it can be so radically different. Mostly, though,
I've been very fortunate. I've almost never had problems with motivation
issues and students. Working conditions and hourly teaching rates
can either make the job easy or very difficult. You always hope
that the respective post-secondary institutions are keeping up with
the demand in both these regards. I'm finding that more students
are starting to transfer in from good distances to study with me,
which I really do appreciate. When I see students coming down to
the club where I'm playing it makes me feel as though I'm doing
a good job with them and that they're getting the message that I've
been trying to give. They get to see and hear the information I've
been giving them applied, and they're supporting a place that will
hopefully be there for them one day.
any thoughts on the future of jazz based on your teaching experience?
In my opinion, the future
of the music has everything to do with understanding it's past.
It's very rare to get a student that has any sort of a collection
of jazz recordings – you'd probably be surprised. We live
in an MP3 world now. Never have so many had so much access to so
much information but tend to not use or research it. If I have a
student doing a transcription assignment for me, they're going to
learn something about that target instrumentalist and I'm going
to require them to know who was on that date and what year it took
place and the circumstances around it.
I'd like to see more graduates simply listen to this music with
open ears and with a minimum of pre/misconceptions. Sometimes I
see talented graduates who want to get into something completely
different musically – like smooth jazz (personally –
I like my jazz a little on the rough side!) or wanting to become
a pop star (thank you so much American/Canadian Idol). I mean that's
fine, I suppose, but I'm not sure where it comes from. But if that's
someone's passion, they ought to pursue it – no question.
As instructors it's generally easy to spot the ones that are going
to go on and continue the tradition of the jazz idiom and keep the
faith. That's inspiring and it brings back memories of getting out
into the world and finding your way. This is exciting for us –
no doubt mortifying for them!
important is leading a band to you? You're on over 60 recordings,
I think, but only two that I know of under your name and another
couple as co-leader. In live situations I see the Campbell Ryga
Trio a couple of times a year at O'Doul's and other groups at The
Cellar – none of them regular working bands. And part two
of this question: Who'd be in your "dream band"?
the subject of leading a group, I've always enjoyed the opportunity
of working with a variety of great musicians. It's why I like playing
at the two places you just mentioned because I can have at least
2 or 3 nights for the music to unfold and flow. I have close to
25 years experience working as a founding member of the Hugh Fraser
Quintet. I continue to value that opportunity very much, as I've
mentioned previously. I think what people might not know or consider,
is that there's a degree of familiarity you get from reinterpreting
the same material, which has it's own traps. The challenge becomes
maintaining a consistent degree of creativity – and that can
be a major challenge. The nature of how the Hugh Fraser Quintet
group communicates musically means that when one member is feeling
particularly inspired to challenge himself and step out of any respective
musical preconceived expectations, it's infectious to the other
members and it inspires them to do the same. This may not seem like
a big deal, but it is. As Lester Young said, "forget about
what you did yesterday, what the fuck are you going to do tonight?"
So, when I'm not working with Hugh I'm working with a number of
different and equally inspiring people. I feel very fortunate to
have been able to present a number of different group concepts,
and to have been involved in a variety of other musician's projects
as a sideman – notably with the Mark Eisenman Trio and the
Doug Riley trio, both out of Toronto.
Some of my very favourite players in history were not necessarily
"leaders" in their own right. I have certainly led groups
in the past. I do enjoy doing that and I will certainly always present
that which I feel strongly about at the moment. I have four distinctly
different groups that I'm concentrating on these days. The quartet
I have with Renee Rosnes started off as a recording opportunity
for us but we weren't a group, per se. We had to become a group
pretty damned quickly because we had a recording date approaching
so Cory Weeds gave us the opportunity to play for three nights together
at the Jazz Cellar just before we went into the CBC and created
our CD Deep Cove. Had it not been for Claire Lawrence at
the CBC it would have been doubtful that we would of had the opportunity
to do what we've managed to with that group. These are three very
busy people, I can assure you. It's a difficult group to keep working.
The engagements we receive have to be financially viable enough
to pull these good people away from what they would otherwise be
doing. I will of course endeavour to keep that group working as
long as I can offer Renee, Neil, and Rudy the kind of money they
so rightly deserve.
I have a bebop quintet with Brad Turner that I really enjoy which
features Chris Sigerson, Jodi Proznick and Blaine Wikjord. I have
a trio with Chris Sigerson and Miles Hill which is also a really
wonderful group. The past few years I've been especially enjoying
a group I have with LA accordion virtuoso Frank Marocco, which includes
the local rhythm section of Bill Coon, Jodi Proznick and Craig Scott.
Frank is a very inspirational musician and human being. Playing
with him is like playing with another horn player, another very
heavy horn player.
All of these wonderful players I've mentioned make up my "dream
band". I haven't even touched upon all the other wonderful
players in this city that I've had the honour of playing with over
the years – most notably Bob Murphy.
Murphy is so under-appreciated it's ridiculous. And Frank Marocco!
Wow! I'd never heard of him till he played with you at the Cellar
the first time in December 2003. I didn't think it was possible
to listen to a whole of evening of jazz on the accordion but I could
have listened to another ten sets by the time the evening ended.
How and when did your relationship with him come about?
I first heard about Frank in
the early 80's. A friend of mine in the States collected used jazz
recordings and he turned me on to a couple of duo recordings he
had of Frank with fellow LA-based saxophone player Ray Pizzi. A
few years later I was approached by Gordon Potter, who had somehow
heard that I was very much into Frank's playing. Gord had brought
a few different accordionists to Vancouver over the years and he
asked me if I would be interested in doing a couple of nights with
Frank Marocco, so I jumped on that opportunity big time. I just
so happened to have learned a few tunes that Frank had written based
on jazz standards from the duo recordings I mentioned, so we had
a wonderful time together. Some 17 or 18 years later we had another
opportunity to play together again. I asked Cory at the Cellar if
he would be willing to bring Frank up to play with me. I could tell
Cory wasn't sure if I was putting him on or not, as he wasn't familiar
with Frank up to that point. He realized that I was serious about
it. He checked out some recordings that Frank was on and determined,
I believe, that there was something to the old adage "any instrument
in the right hands" and with assistance from Gordon, has since
brought Frank to the Cellar on two separate occasions to work with
Frank will be coming up again this spring to perform a concert with
me for the White Rock Arts Council – Jazz on the Peninsula.
Frank has a great web site well worth checking out if you'd like
to learn something about him and his amazing career – well
worth a look. [frankmarocco.com]
me about your collaborations with trumpeter Kevin Elaschuk, especially
on the live recording of the quartet you co-lead with him, Any
Answers. It's a bit of a departure from the the two Radioland
albums under your name, "Coastal Connection" and "Spectacular".
Kevin is definitely one of
the most creative musicians I've ever known. He's a real jazz spirit
and he's incredibly diverse in that he plays so honestly in so many
idioms of the jazz language. At a time when people seem so intent
for a need to pigeonhole a player's style, under some misguided
assumption that they're not supposed to be able to play any other
way, Kevin very eloquently dismantles that particular wall. So I
was really flattered when he approached me to do some playing in
his group over at Chris Nelson's place with Chris and Brad Turner
on drums. I've always been big into the music of Ornette Coleman
and so I was really looking forward to the opportunity to explore
that musical direction in more depth – something which I never
had as much opportunity to do as I'd wanted. We played Kevin's wonderful
compositions – got ourselves a weekend at the Cellar which,
thankfully, was recorded as I believe this was Chris's last recording
before he passed away. We had a wonderful time in that group. There
was a great feeling there. I hope we explore it in some way again
There were some surprising responses to our CD directed to me
personally by people who thought I played well on the recording
considering how far out of my musical element they thought I was.
I mean what do these people think really? Do they figure that musicians
such as myself are somehow not qualified in their approach to "creative
music" or "avante garde" or the "new music"
arena? I'm telling you, I hate the labels, because with them there's
most definitely a stigma attached – a whole lot of preconceptions
derived from the largely unqualified. I wish people would forget
about that B.S. I also have a very real issue with some folks out
there who feel that they have a better idea than I do about what
I should be doing, or what music I should be presenting or involved
with at any point in time. I think these folks should feel secure
that whatever I'm working on, or whoever I choose to work with,
or even whatever genre of music it may be – rest assured it's
going to be something very important to me and something I feel
To finish this minor rant – I happen to listen to all kinds
of music and if it's played well I gravitate toward it. If it isn't
played well, I don't. The other fact is that I consider all music
that interests me to be "creative music". If it wasn't
creative, it wouldn't interest me.
there others in the so-called free jazz movement that you enjoy,
or who might have influenced your own playing?
Enjoy, absolutely. As far as influences go, I'm not sure
I'm totally comfortable with the implications of the word "'influence"
any more so than I am with the words "free jazz", but
I can talk at length (it seems!) about issues of inspiration. For
instance, in the musical genre we're discussing right now, I've
found a great deal of inspiration from the music of the following
artists in no order and in quite broad terms: Eric Dolphy, John
Coltrane of the 60's, George Adams, Pharoah Sanders, Bunky Green,
George Russell, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Dave Holland,
Steve Lacy – all great composers/instrumentalists, and my
list certainly goes on. But these ten people, specifically, give
me a great deal of inspiration.
your response to those who say that Bebop is old-fashioned or not
relevant today, or sentiments along those lines?
My response is "I
just heard a door shut". Anybody who knows anything about the
bebop language and has enough imagination to appreciate the yesterday
of it, and can envision the possibilities of the tomorrow of it
– those people would never say something as stupid as "the
language is irrelevant". The Bebop language is in a constant
state of evolution and flux, just the same as any other dialect
in jazz music. Those people – who simply can't live without
categories – they just don't have the ears to realize the
changes that are happening in the music right now.
you've been nominated for Junos five times and won three. You were
nominated for a Grammy, won Western Canadian Music Awards twice
and in 2000 you were Jazz Report's alto saxophonist of the year.
Given the difficulties of making it playing jazz in this country
– or any country – has all this recognition really helped
you further your career or opened doors, do you think?
I do appreciate the recognition
that I've received from all these years of slaving over a hot saxophone,
I really do. I think of the awards you've mentioned, the one that
means the most to me is the Jazz Report award. The reason is that
it was a voting process at that time that primarily involved my
peers, and that really meant a lot to me. The other reason that
award is important to me is that it was formerly held by Moe Koffman,
and later PJ Perry. These are two of my heroes, so I was very honored
How can the appreciation hurt – that's the way I look at it.
Some folks think that life must certainly change for the better
after receiving the Juno Awards, and the Western Canadian Award,
and certain things do change for the better because you end up feeling
a little more appreciated by a slightly wider audience for what
you do – which is very important. Did any of it open doors
for me professionally and did this translate into me being busier
than I was or otherwise change what I was doing? No, not really.
If this were the States or specific European countries, perhaps
the infrastructure of the respective artistic communities would
tie in a little more with their own artists who receive their country's
highest awards of excellence in the Arts, particularly through their
respective media. But in that we are Canadian it's different for
us. We realize that we have to be working damn hard here continuously
to stay active in the pursuit of presenting Canadian jazz. Many
become very proficient at the continuous process of pursuing Canada
Council and Factor funding, something that has become almost a mandatory
prerequisite it seems, to touring and recording any type of jazz
ensemble in this country. I think Ken Pickering might agree with
my contention that in Canada, jazz is a hard sell.
asked because I'm skeptical of awards, generally, but like to think
that if they at least raise public awareness and provide some opportunities
for a handful of of artists then that's got to be a good thing.
I can see why the Jazz Report award meant a lot to you, though.
I had no idea how that worked till now.
I believe the voting
process has since changed. I think that it's an internet voting
form open to anyone, now. That takes away the beauty of it now from
my perspective. That's just my feeling about it.
. . . I forgot about that. It's the National Jazz Awards now. "Industry"
people nominate candidates and then anyone with an email address
Sometimes I wonder if success, in terms
of fame or wealth, has more to do with self-promotion than talent.
John Doheny quotes music educator Jerry Domer as saying that every
successful musician he knew regarded his career as a small business.
How do you deal with the business end of things? For example, getting
gigs or tours happening, promoting your albums, and that kind of
Well, I guess that depends
on Jerry's definition of success. Your question is a big question,
Brian. I'm not really sure how to tackle it. My answer will be different
than other musicians. Everyone I know deals with this stuff differently.
It's not unusual now for musicians, particularly those who are leaders,
to have a person on salary who is a "personal assistant".
I can really only say that it serves a self employed musician well
to be diligent and organized. Also you have to be thinking ahead,
often a year or more. What makes this question all the more complicated
is that, being basically a mid-career guy the parameters are different
than they are for someone who is starting out.
How's that for vague?
particularly interested in this question because vancouverjazz.com
invites musicians to promote their gigs, CD's, etc., to a very wide
audience at no cost and yet so few take advantage of it. I realize
that for many, the promotion side of things is often neglected due
to either not having a head for that sort of thing or just being
too busy playing, writing, practising . . . the creative side.
I think you make a good point.
Most musicians I know feel somewhat awkward about the issue of self-promotion.
It's more typical to see the musicians who have an extremely impressive
talent at self-promotion be the same musicians who perhaps should have spent more time practicing. There are of course obvious exceptions
to that generalization. This is however a common occurrence in what
we do for a living and quite a source of humor among musicians.
Most don't want to be perceived as "that person" by their
peers so perhaps that's partly why so many don't promote what they
do as much as they ought to. You provide a great opportunity though
Brian and you're quite right – I don't think any of your readers
would disagree with me. Perhaps the players don't realize just how
wide an audience your site is reaching – I'll admit, I have
When I mentioned being organized – please understand the context
in which I meant that. I'm a father. The time I used to have to
myself before my son was born is now his time, which is
wonderful. That was the time I spent doing primarily the the three
things you mentioned plus take care of my business. Now I have to
create that time when I can, and I have to be organized about what
I need to accomplish, or it doesn't get done. Parents would understand
what I'm talking about but non-parents might not. When I look back
at life before parenthood I really wonder what the hell I did with
all that free time I used to have. I just wasn't as efficient with
it as I could have been. Life changes constantly. All my decisions
back then were based on what I knew at the time. I do things differently
now. It's all about life's experiences and what you're going to
do, if anything, with what you've learned.
refer to being in "mid-career". How does where you're at now compare
to what you saw in your future when you started out to become a
I had no idea about
what my career was going to look like. I had no preconceptions about
that. All I wanted to do was become a better player. That's my goal
today and it will continue to be my goal as long as I'm playing
really started out without a mental picture of what your career
would look like five, ten, twenty or however many years down the
road? Maybe it's a stupid question but I asked it because I thought
it might give you an opportunity to expound on how the realities
of the jazz life, etc., might have not have been what you expected.
Maybe worse, maybe better.
Well, I knew I wanted to be
a jazz musician. Jazz was always my first love and it was the musical
art form most respected by the musicians whom I really admired and
who I first found myself working with – the aforementioned
veterans of the Vancouver musical community.
I heard more stories from these guys about how the scene was changing
for the worse as I was just getting involved. Stew Barnett once
showed me his date book from the early 70's where every day of the
week he had no less than three gigs a day. In Vancouver and Toronto,
and I dare say many other cities at that time, there were full time
working musicians who owned two or more homes. People thought this
volume of work was never going to end. When things started to fall
off in the late seventies and the interest rates went through the
roof and people started losing homes because they weren't working
enough to support their previous lifestyles, they realized in no
uncertain terms that their livelihood and the live music industry
as a whole was in big trouble. It was at the beginning of this period
of the decline of the general music industry that I was just beginning
my career as a musician. I enjoyed the tail end of the studio industry,
playing in professional dance bands working in every ballroom of
the major hotels nightly, the big concert showcase venues, the whole
theatre show scene, the night club and bar scene. Very little of
any of this was jazz, but it was the kind of work that was keeping
musicians busy at that time. There were also the few jazz venues
which were the places where the more creative music was occurring.
So that was what my career looked like for the first 10 years, and
I did all of it, in order to sustain a living. In that 10 years
I saw the decline of every one of these facets of music. All of
it dwindled to just about nothing. What actually seemed to survive
was the jazz, and although the opportunity to perform it had also
declined, compared to how far and fast everything else went on the
"endangered species" list, jazz actually didn't fair as
badly in my opinion. My feeling about my career, Brian, is that
I'm a musician first and I don't believe it serves any useful purpose
to be the type who won't take non-jazz work because you feel that
this would be somehow beneath you or that you weren't remaining
true to your passion. This is nothing but BS in my opinion. I've
always felt that working hard at being competent and diverse in
multiple areas of music serves you well, gives you a much needed
perspective, reinforces your self worth as a human being, and as
a result, it all transcends to music you're truly passionate about.
I happened to have learned a great deal about playing the alto
saxophone from regular concert touring over a 2 year period with
a saxophone quartet primarily playing difficult French Conservatory
repertoire. I can assure you, doing that never entered my "mental
picture of what my career would look like"! It was often grueling
work but, in retrospect, boy... am I glad I did it, just as I am
about a lot of the other things I did.
your son came to you, say around the age of ten or eleven, and said,
"Dad, I've decided to become a professional jazz musician", what
would you say to him?
If his heart is there, then
of course . . . If he fixates half as much on the saxophone as he
does on his cars, he'll be heavy. I would, of course, want him to
be a much better saxophone player than his dad.
I say the saxophone because there's a few kicking around here
but if he wants to play something else or if he has no interest
in wanting to learn to play an instrument, I'll always love him
just the same. I do hope however that he will have a creative outlet
of some kind.
wouldn't advise him to get into something that offers more financial
security? Even if he inherited your talent and passion for jazz,
would you worry about his future if he followed your path?
I was raised to follow my passion
and was never pressured to conform into anyone else's perception
of being "successful". I realize my situation was unique
in that regard but I have always been grateful for the values I
feel I have, as a result of the perspectives and wisdom my father
instilled in me.
So who's to say there won't be financial rewards or, more importantly,
the possibility of self fulfillment and enlightenment by following
your honest passion? As I've pointed out, you'd need a crystal ball
to know where the future of jazz lies. Even at the slowest of times
– you do something really well, people are going to take notice.
You keep an open and respectful mind, people are going to want to
involve you in their projects and music. You maintain a professional
and reliable way of taking care of all aspects of business and you'll
establish a solid reputation. You keep thinking down the road and
around the corner, and you'll always have something to look forward
to. You make sure that people can get a hold of you, then potential
last minute work will come your way, which you'll often be very
glad you accepted. Give people cause to remember you, if you were
considered but not necessarily chosen, that's a good place to be.
It'll happen in time.
Remember the four stages of a musicians' life:
1. Who's Campbell Ryga?
2. Get me Campbell Ryga!
3. Get me someone like Campbell Ryga.
4. Who's Campbell Ryga?
. . . well, that's better than "Who was
Campbell Ryga?" Knowing what you know now, what would you have done
differently, starting out?
I knew you were going to ask
this! That's the biggest question of all. It's a personal deal,
at least in my case. But I'll try and answer it in the spirit it
I believe if I'd started out single and had experienced more independence
at the outset of my career, it would of given me a little more perspective
on a few levels and would of afforded me to have made some different
choices. My first wife and I started a relationship shortly after
I moved to Vancouver. All the judgments and decisions I made after
that point were in context to that of being a couple. That's the
time when it's to your benefit to have the ability to make instant
career choices as they present themselves. That might mean going
out of town for extended periods, months maybe. When things slow
down or stagnate for you musically where you live, you want to be
able to make the decision whether to fish or cut line – as
opposed to stay where you are and wait for things to be different.
I wish I'd been a bit more independent in retrospect, although at
the time my feelings about this were very different.
I'll also say that I wish I'd been more ambitious at times. In
a smaller scene like Vancouver it can be easy and dare I say, a
little dangerous, to become somewhat complacent. As wonderful as
things were for me, starting out and living in Vancouver, I discovered
that complacency was a dangerous element, and it existed in a few
otherwise very fine players here. Complacency goes against creativity.
There has be a certain degree of discomfort and/or suffering in
what we do, otherwise the music isn't coming from a genuine place.
Finally I might of practiced a little differently from the outset,
certain specific things a bit more. We all go through the challenge
of finding a time and a place where you can practice where you're
not distracted and where there's not "a listening ear".
Many players find that they always feel that they're being listened
to when they practice, so they tend to practice in that way. In
other words they're practicing what they can already sound good
doing, as opposed to spending enough time on the things they can't
do. I always found that I had an abundance of things to practice,
especially being a doubler. That tended to be more maintenance practicing.
I wish I'd had the foresight to realize how important the creative
practicing was going to become back then so I could of spent more
time in that area – but honestly I don't know anyone who doesn't
feel that way, really.
guess every performing artist has to choose between a solid home
life, family or whatever, and a career involving lots of traveling.
As far as the rest of it goes, well . . you're young. How
much practicing do you do now?
I do as much as I'm able to
do. I have to be much more efficient and focused with my practice
time now. The time I have to dedicate to the horn is at a premium.
Parenthood will do that. My three-year-old is very understanding,
though I will admit he mostly just sits with me and occupies himself
when I practice. If I get an hour to ninety minutes now I'm really
lucky. Generally it's more like thirty minutes a day at this point.
I hope that will change.
have to say, watching you solo it seems so effortless. You're obviously
a highly-skilled improviser. But I'm betting it isn't as easy as
I try to instill a "technical
ease of manner" into my students when I teach, i.e., is it
possible to make that sound less complicated? Torben Oxbol taught
me long ago that when the tempos get higher, you relax more. It's
the opposite of the natural way to play, but faster doesn't have
to mean louder which in turn means that it's not necessary to have
to over blow and lose the control and execution that you've painstakingly
achieved while practicing. Intensity doesn't have to come from volume,
it comes from being calm and making accurate choices in the face
of chaos!! I have had lots of experience playing in challenging
musical situations, trying to be creative in extreme tempos or challenging
harmonic situations. Most of Hugh Fraser's repertoire fits into
this criteria for me. I certainly haven't always been successful
at it but I believe through sheer repetition and, often, great frustration,
I've developed some formulas that I think tend to work for me.
know, before you mentioned Hugh's name I was already thinking, when
you talked about "challenging musical situations", of the Hugh Fraser
band, or VEJI. His music must be among the most challenging you've
played. What are some of the other really challenging situations
you've played in?
I guess the most challenging
situations I've dealt with have been the odd occasions where an
attempt at intimidation was a factor. Now that might sound a little
weird and some folks might think that this facet of the industry
must certainly not be very common, but it's the single biggest fear
of many, many players. In the world of jazz, intimidation usually
reveals itself in the form of a competitive environment. From an
agent or contractor, your response to the "asking of a favour"
might mean the difference with regard to the possibility of future
employment. In the musical theatre world you might encounter a Musical
Director from somewhere really unimportant. They sometimes create
tension in the work place, feeling that the threat of being fired
at any time provides the best environment for a performance. The
potential of this possibility motivates some musicians to make a
phone call to the person currently playing their part in the show
in the previous city, to get the low down on the gig before they
determine whether to accept the job or not. Money is usually not
a consideration in those cases. Most musicians I know don't know
how to do anything else for a living. The potential of being fired
from a gig under the premise that you aren't capable of doing the
required job – it's intimidating. I believe it's totally unnecessary
in almost all cases. I've done all of the above in respectful environments
plus countless other types of situations where I was treated respectfully,
and those experiences were always positive.
do you enjoy more, playing in the studio or before an audience?
Before an audience, always.
traveled a lot. You played Ronnie Scott's in London, and in Havana
with Hugh Fraser's band. Those are just a couple of things I know
of and I'm sure there's more. This isn't totally unrelated to my
last question. I'd like to hear about some of your road experiences
but I also want your take on the audiences in some of these places
. . . how they compare to Vancouver.
The majority of the international
touring that I've done has been with the Hugh Fraser Quintet. In
that we've done a great deal of that, we've at times been referred
to as "The Ambassadors of Canadian Jazz" which might be
a bit of exaggeration – but anyways... The fact is that we've
always experienced a great deal of curiosity about "Canadian
jazz" and what makes it different from American jazz to curious
ears wherever we've played. I'm focusing at this point on our experiences
touring in Latin America. We always managed to establish wonderful
camaraderie with local players wherever we were, and at times shared
the stage at our concert performance with some great musicians from
the respective countries because of Hugh's unyielding desire to
share the music. The South American concerts we've done were primarily
sponsored by the respective Canadian Embassies and they were mostly
invitational events which were often open to the public. The venues
were almost always beautiful old concert halls and the treatment
we received was always first class. There were always post gig receptions
and the obligatory brunch at the Ambassador's home the next day.
I believe that one of the reasons we were so well received at these
functions is because the group always left a great impression musically.
In Sal Paulo we played an Embassy-sponsored concert in a wonderful
opera hall, and hung out for a while at the reception with a couple
of the instructors from a local university where we were to be doing
a clinic early the next morning. Anyway, the reception was quite
exceptional and we got back pretty late to the hotel. Sure enough,
we were picked up and taken to this university theatre a long ways
away, got there and walked onto a stage to an already packed house
of Brazilian music students. They quietly watched us as we set up
with some self-imposed feeling of urgency as though we were somehow
late or something. To ease the discomfort we attempted to create
a little interactive small talk with them and realized immediately
that there was a major language barrier. At that point a well known
Brazilian musician joined us on stage and assumed the role of interpreter.
The next thing that came on stage were the two instructors from
the night before with a big tray of beer for us. I believe it wasn't
even nine AM, yet. So we played for these guys and answered many
questions about Canadian jazz. Many had been to the concert the
evening before. I will just say that before going to these countries,
I had no idea how different the indigenous music was from country
to country and how respectful these people were to the diversity
of their musical culture. That made an impression on me and it put
into perspective the basis for their curiosity of Canadian jazz.
good to know the Canadian embassies do this kind of thing. I know
some European groups get to play here thanks to their respective
governments footing at least some of the bill. I wasn't aware Canada
did this, too.
How do you answer questions about
what makes Canadian jazz unique, or different from American jazz?
This is a matter of opinion,
but I feel there is a difference. There's a unique heritage and
tradition in this country which I believe manifests itself in the
way we as Canadians create and interpret the jazz art form. There's
been so many great players that have come out of Canada and of those
who have chosen to live abroad, I've never known anyone uncomfortable
with identifying their heritage as Canadian, as well as to point
out the influential Canadian jazz musicians that inspired them to
pursue their own path. I don't think I'll get into the properties
of what I think makes Canadian jazz different from American or European,
Eastern European or anywhere else for that matter. There'll be people
who will argue there's no difference at all, or will try and critique
one culture's interpretation of improvised music against another.
It's not an arguable point. At least not to me.
It's much harder for good Canadian jazz groups to get equal opportunity
and recognition on the path toward the world stage then it is for
groups based out of the States. So that's something unique to Canadian
There were doors that opened more readily for the Hugh Fraser
Five when we had a musician from New York City as part of our group,
which is a factual statement. Same goes for the tours when we've
had featured U.S. musicians touring with our group. To achieve international
recognition for an "all Canadian" jazz ensemble and to
have the opportunity to play with that group in the worlds best
jazz venues, I think it's an almost insurmountable task –
but I really believe this has to be the goal, ultimately.
The world needs more jazz from Canada. We certainly have nothing
to apologize for and we have a whole lot to be proud of. Support
begins at home. We need more equal representation at our major Canadian
jazz festivals, as featured Canadian artists on the main stage venues.
Festival audiences need to receive a clear message from the respected
opinions of the festival organizers – many of whom have become
influential public spokesmen for the music worldwide – that
Canada possesses an amazing talent resource in jazz which takes
a back seat to no one, anywhere. The festival opportunities are
starting to happen more, but more is ultimately required, at least
in my opinion. I would hope there'd be a day when Canadian groups
could occupy a significant percentage of the featured concert performances
at the major Canadian jazz festivals. I know that change takes time,
but I also feel that "now's the time", to borrow shamelessly
In this way I feel the festivals could really serve the Canadian
jazz community as a whole, in the best possible and "nurturing"
way, by their own respectful and respected example. This initiative
would help elevate the awareness of Canadian jazz within our borders
while supporting greatly the goal of getting Canadian jazz to the
international stage, particularly during the fifty weeks of the
year when the festivals are not happening. More energy needs to
be put in the area of promoting the validity and uniqueness of Canadian
jazz – in all its forms – by the very marketing people
who are doing the good job of selling the music to the people with
respect to these jazz festivals. Guaranteed, this will in turn stimulate
more of the same positive energies from the Canadian artists themselves,
particularly when there are goals on the horizon to work towards.
General funding resources and media support for Canadian jazz are
in a state of peril these days. External Affairs monies have been
steadily diminishing, CBC's Jazz Beat programing has been
scuttled due to the wholesale gutting of Radio Two. Toronto has
lost almost all of it's established jazz venues – it's a bad
time. So it's a good time to assert the validity of Canadian jazz
and make what many an onlooker might view as "our last stand".
I figure when everything is at stake, it's a good time to get determined.
you hear any difference between Vancouver and Toronto jazz?
Again, I do hear differences.
There are a great deal of jazz musicians from the east coast who
live in Toronto, and they're great players – they play differently
somehow, I wonder if it isn't the inherent strong roots and the
folk heritage that comes through the music. You get a group of those
guys together and start them singing after a few beers – you're
going to hear some tunes you never heard of before! They'll also
start talking in dialects so that we have no hope of understanding
them. That's not to say that players from the east sound similar
to each other or anything silly like that, it's just that they have
a different way of thinking about the music and life in general.
There are also a lot of jazz musicians from the west coast living
in Toronto and when you combine that and then add the prairies to
the equation – not to mention the indigenous musicians of
Toronto – you've got a pretty rich cross section of the Canadian
jazz heritage. It's a unique sound there. It's a different energy,
generally. There are great players in Toronto that really have an
amazing ability to change the sound of any group they grace. Some
very strong players in Toronto.
you spend much time listening to CD's? Are you checking out young
up-and-comers? Who, if anyone, excites you?
Well sure, I listen to music.
My musical listening is kind of varied and jazz is a part of that.
I also listen to classical and ethnic music, I basically like anything
that's done well, that reaches me, or that displays an inspired
degree of communication and skill. I'll fixate on certain recordings
at times and listen to those repeatedly. These days I've been listening
a lot to the music of Moacir Santos of Brazil. He's no up and comer,
but he's new to me. I wonder if that qualifies?
I recently received a recording in the mail from Kenny Wheeler,
a recording which Kenny recently did with the Metropole Orchestra
from Holland – music and arrangements by Bob Brookmeyer which
is really very beautiful, so I've been enjoying that very much.
A good majority of my Jazz Studies students have been affected by
the likes of Joshua Redman, or Kenny Garrett. Neither of those musicians
could really be considered up and comers, but it's always interesting
to me knowing what affects student saxophone players. It's always
easy to spot the Kenny Garrett influenced alto players as their
sound tends to be somewhat distinctive as a result of being influenced
by his sound. I do like the way Joshua Redman plays very much.
Of saxophonists, one of my favorite recordings of recent years is
Wayne Shorter's recording, Alegria. I really like that
recording. I've always been very much into Wayne Shorter and, in
particular, his writing. I've also been listening a lot quite recently
to a British tenor/soprano player named Ian Bellamy, who is a great
player and I particularly enjoy his work on soprano. But he's no
young up and comer, either. Ian's my age. Speaking of inspiring
musicians my own age, Mike Murley has been busy making more really
inspiring recordings as of late, and as well another of my favorite
countrymen in his mid forties, Kirk MacDonald.
There's a very young Italian alto player that I've been hearing
a great deal about from a few alto players, who I'm anxious to hear.
Every once in a while you come across some obscure or previously
unreleased recordings of some players that have really affected
you over the years, and I find those to be generally very inspiring
and/or enlightening. Two recordings that have been big for me recently
have been Cannonball playing "Somewhere" for the album
In Person, and Paul Desmond's unbelievable solo on an up
tempo Brubeck tune based on the changes of "Just the way you
look tonight" from the recording – Jazz at the Oberlin.
I've always found Bunky Green to be an extremely interesting alto
You spoke about PJ Perry earlier. The two
of you played two nights at The Cellar last October for a live recording
with Ross Taggart, Neil Swainson, and Terry Clark. How'd that turn
out? Will we be seeing a CD of those performances any time soon?
We actually had 3 nights which
was good because it gave us an opportunity to stretch a bit as a
group. All 3 nights were recorded. At the time I wasn't thinking
about how the 'recording' was going. I've often found that concerning
yourself about that can often get in the way of the music and perhaps
make you play differently.
What I did know was that I was having a wonderful time, every night.
Really, this wasn't a band as such you know, I mean we hadn't played
together collectively before in this configuration and there was
quite a bit of original material for this engagement, so it all
required a good degree of 6th sense and intuitiveness.
Anyway, some time went by thankfully, before Cory was able to give
me a rough mix of the 3rd night - which I was frankly nervous about
listening to, for fear that my memory of that final night might
not be all that I remembered.
However, I'm very thrilled to say that I feel really great about
how this night sounded - which for me is a first for a live concert
recording. I really hope the night comes out as a CD because I feel
very proud of what happened that night, everyone played really beautifully
- I felt the music was there.
Are you working on anything these days, or
have any future projects you can tell us about?
Yes - I'm going to be a father
once again! Paulina is due mid May. I'm working on the baby's room.
Thanks so much for taking the time to do
this, Cam. One final question: Is there anything you wished I'd
asked, that I didn't?
No Brian - not that I can
think of. I'm really not a guy who talks a lot. But I am a writers'
son I guess. I feel that you've asked ask me concise questions and
I've tended to carry on a bit with it at times. I mean I honestly
have a hard time believing that anyone would be genuinely interested
in all this, I hope nobody feels as though this is some kind of
a self indulgent retrospective. Brian's good questions just get
me thinking is all. I hope people understand that.
I guess I'll just say that I've always wanted to be a musician.
I've been afforded some opportunities to educate myself in my high
school years with scholarships to some enlightening educational
Jazz workshops that really opened my eyes and fortified my resolve.
I'm very grateful for that. I've learned that 'being' a musician
continually begs the reassessment of what it is to actually be a
musician. In my 35 year career I've seen an enormous metamorphosis
from the 'schooling' I had been exposed to and which I had respected
so much - and who's to say what's next.
In any case I'll just end by saying that, as someone who is admittedly
rooted in the bop idiom, I most definitely acknowledge the importance
of the evolution of this or any other language in the jazz art form.
I also want to finalize this by stating that in my experience, musicians
really are by and large the most universally wonderful people in
the world. There's a commonality that is shared and importantly
- a degree of humour and cynicism that draws musicians together.
My list of 'words to live by' is large. For example - Paul Perry
(PJ's father) "if you can't go out and hear any good Jazz,
you gotta make it yourself". And one from PJ "at my house,
we say the lords prayer after we eat!" Definitely words to
live by from two of my heroes - father and son.
To take a page from my own father - "you write about what