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These radio shows had initially been intended to be two-part series in celebration of Phil Nimmons’s 97th birthday but I enjoyed the music so much that I added another episode. While preparing the shows for posting the research took me to “The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada” inspiring me to contact my old friend Mark and suggest that he participate in this post. He graciously agreed.

From “The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada”

Nimmons, Phil (Philip Rista). Clarinetist, composer, educator, born Kamloops, British Columbia, 3rd June 1923. If not the father of modern jazz in Canada, then at least a father figure to it, Nimmons has played several important roles — some creative, some diplomatic — in the music’s development from the 1940s through the 1990s.

He led his first band in the Point Gray neighbourhood in Vancouver as a teenager and, with many of the city’s older musicians going overseas during the Second World War, moved quickly into the professional ranks downtown. While working during the early 1940s with the dancebands variously of Sandy DeSantis, Stan Patton, Barney Potts, Dal Richards and Wilf Wylie, he was a member of guitarist Ray Norris’ quintet; his early jazz compositions and arrangements were the basis of Norris’ repertoire for the CBC radio series Serenade in Rhythm.

Nimmons’ interest in classical music during this same period led to his first and ultimately only formal studies — clarinet 1945-7 with Arthur Christmann at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and composition 1948-50 with Richard Johnston, Arnold Walter and John Weinzweig at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Concurrent to his time at the conservatory, however, he was reunited with Ray Norris, who had moved east in 1948; Nimmons played on the guitarist’s recordings for the Monogram label and was heard on a revived Serenade in Rhythm, now broadcast from the CBC’s Toronto studios.

Nimmons was able to reconcile the dichotomy between his jazz and classical interests as a composer of incidental music for CBC radio and TV drama series during the 1950s. Nevertheless, by 1953 he had established the Phil Nimmons Group as a “kicks” band with other Toronto studio musicians who wished to maintain their jazz skills. A few CBC radio appearances followed, leading in 1956 to the band’s public debut at the Stratford (Ontario) Festival and — under the sponsorship of Oscar Peterson — to its first LP The Canadian Scene via the Phil Nimmons Group (Verve).

Taking the name Nimmons ‘n’ Nine, the band became a fixture on CBC radio, appearing 1957-80 on such shows as Nimmons ‘n’ Nine, Jazz Workshop, Jazz Canadiana and Jazz Radio-Canada. It also made three more LPs as a tentet, Nimmons ‘n’ Nine (1959, Verve), Take 10 (1963, RCA Victor) and Mary Poppins Swings (1964, RCA Victor), and would travel widely in Canada and twice in the 1960s to Canadian armed forces bases in Europe.

While Nimmons looked for his lead to the boppish “West Coast” style of similar US bands during the 1950s, he initially developed a darker, weightier and at times more dramatic sound for his band’s unusual front line of trumpet, trombone and five “reeds,” his own clarinet and Vic Centro’s accordion among them. In time — as early as Nimmons ‘s’ Nine in fact — his writing would lighten and relax, setting the tone, as it were, for many other Toronto bands in the years to follow.

Nimmons’ writing was eventfully complex, requiring and receiving performances of considerable technical skill from a cast of players that included trumpeter Erich Traugott, trombonist Ross Culley or Butch Watanabe, alto saxophonist Jerry Toth, tenor saxophonist Julian Filianowski or Roy Smith, and guitarist Ed Bickert.

In 1965 Nimmons added six brass, including trumpeters Guido Basso and Fred Stone, and trombonist Rob McConnell, thus converting the tentet into a more conventional big band known as Nimmons ‘n’ Nine Plus Six. Both of the smaller and larger formations were heard that year on the LP Strictly Nimmons (RCA Victor); the big band also appeared in 1973 on a CBC broadcast recording of Nimmons’ orchestration of Oscar Peterson’s Canadiana Suite with the composer at the piano.

The band began the final third of its 27-year history when Nimmons revamped its personnel in 1974, replacing those musicians whose studio commitments kept them from fulfilling a tour in the Maritimes. Rejuvenated by his new and — tenor saxophonist Art Ellefson and trumpeter Herbie Spanier excepted — younger players, he completed three major works for big band, The Atlantic Suite (1974), Transformations (1975) and Invocation (1976).

His recording of The Atlantic Suite (1975, Sackville) won the inaugural Juno Award for best jazz album in 1977 and was reissued by Sackville as part of a two-CD package that also included a recording by an “all-star” Toronto group of Nimmons’ Suite P.E.I. in 1973, as well as pieces from Nimmons ‘n’ Nine Plus Six’s final recording session in 1979.

As the band’s activities wound down in 1980, Nimmons’ work in jazz education was on the rise. He had entered the field some 20 years earlier on two fronts: the classes that he taught 1960-3 alongside Oscar Peterson, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen at the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto and the many concerts and workshops that his band gave in Canadian schools.

Nimmons would go on to establish jazz programs at several schools and universities, including the Banff [Alberta] School of Fine Arts in 1970, the University of Toronto in 1973, the University of Western Ontario in 1978, the Courtney Youth Music Centre in 1982 and the Interprovincial Music Camp, near Parry Sound, Ontario, in 1987. He was also a founder in 1972 of the Canadian Stage Band Festival (later MusicFest Canada).

He continued to teach well into his nineties as director emeritus of the jazz studies program at the University of Toronto, having by then borne witness to — when not playing a personal role in — the emergence of several generations of Canadian musicians. Nimmons’ persuasive influence, first with the CBC and then in academe, extended further to the Canada and Ontario arts councils. In each case he argued for the legitimacy of jazz in terms previously accorded only classical music.

Meanwhile, his own career as a composer and clarinetist would continue apace. His later compositions included classical pieces 1984-94 for clarinetist James Campbell, the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra and the Esprit Orchestra.

His jazz work, meanwhile, found him with a quartet — Nimmons ‘n’ Nine Minus Six, as it were — once or twice a year at George’s Spaghetti House and later at the Montreal Bistro. While the band, with pianist Gary Williamson and others, was boppishly inclined, his own piping improvisations steered a sometimes quizzical course clear of any such idiomatic limitations, as heard on the CD Sands of Time (2000, Sackville).

Nimmons subsequently established a duo with David Braid, a pianist five decades his junior, to make music on a spontaneously improvised basis. Two CDs followed, Beginnings, recorded in 2004, and Suite St. John’s: Falling Through, issued in 2012, once again capturing the spirit of inquiry and adventure that has characterized Nimmons’ long and remarkably productive career.

End Notes:
“The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada” can be purchased through the normal web sources or found at your local library. If it’s not in your local library catalogue make a special order. This book, with its companion “Jazz in Canada – Fourteen Lives” is a great way to introduce yourself to the artists who have created the Canadian jazz music scene.

Photograph of Phil Nimmons by Mark Miller

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