In my second year of the Jazz Performance Program at the University of Toronto, I had the good fortune to play co-lead trumpet in the 11 O'Clock Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Phil Nimmons. Our first gig of the year was in the Arbor Room at Hart House, and the first tune of the night was a Sammy Nestico arrangement of "Smack Dab in the Middle." Phil counted off the tune and I absolutely pasted the first note.
Exactly four bars early.
And I remember Phil looking back into the trumpet section with a "what the hell was that?!" look...and then just smiling, laughing, and carrying on. In some ways, it was a defining moment in my development as a musician and as a person: Phil would have been well within his rights, as a professor in a professional training program, to reprimand me for the error. Instead, he chose to find the joy in the moment. And that's what got passed on to me, that night and every time I've worked with Phil since: the absolute joy of making music.
Often referred to as the “Dean of Canadian jazz”, clarinetist, bandleader, composer, arranger and educator Phil Nimmons is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the International Jazz Educator's Hall of Fame. He was awarded the inaugural JUNO Award for best jazz album of the year in 1997, and in 2002 he received Canada’s highest honour for an artist, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. He taught at the University of Toronto in the Jazz Studies program for over 45 years. (Read more about Phil here.)
As a student, learning from Phil was...non-linear. There were tangents aplenty, and many hilarious stories. But the point was always made, and his ease of character should never be taken for a lack of seriousness about the subject matter: he aimed to install in all of us the importance of caring deeply for our art, regardless of the project at hand. When preparing composition assignments, he wanted us to be sure why every note was on the page, and its purpose; his own hand-written scores are evidence of the attention he's paid to every bar of music.
I especially came to appreciate his love for nature, and Canada's natural landscape. It can be found in song titles like Tides, Harbours, Horizons and Under A Tree (among others); but it goes beyond just taking inspiration form his surroundings. Phil finds - and encouraged us to find - literal music in nature. One of my fondest memories was when, in fourth year jazz composition, he played a recording of a loon call. And as the loon sang its repeating melody, Phil snapped along - it was a perfect, natural waltz. Several years later, when I was writing a suite of music dedicated to Phil, I wanted to hear that loon call again - I reached out to Phil and he was more than happy to send me a CD of his compiled nature sounds along with, as always, a hand-written note.
And then there's Phil the human being. Almost always positive, always encouraging, always so grateful for the opportunity to work with his students, his fellow musicians. As I look back at some of my correspondence with Phil I'm struck by his grace - in the words he chooses it's clear that he does not take for granted that others would want to work with him, play his music, hear his perspective. Phil stopped teaching just last year at age 96 - I would bet that he loved the teaching just as much as working with the students. And just as I have always found his joy in music making inspiring, so is his sense of playfulness - evident in the way he plays clarinet, in his compositions (tunes like Threeful or Birdburger are HARD to play but so joyful), and even in the way he chooses his titles. In fact, the title of this blog post is the title of a Phil Nimmons composition. It's not a made up word - read it backwards and you'll get a sense as to why Phil continues to be such an inspiration, and why I continue to find joy in what I do.
About 15 years ago, as I was getting ready to release my big band's second album, I reached out to Phil to ask permission to call the album "Under A Tree" - the title of one of my favourite Phil compositions, and a tune we recorded on the album. I missed his phone reply, but he left me a message - a message so "Phil" that I've kept it to this day. With Phil's permission, I'm posting the message here - I think it captures his grace and joie de vivre in just a short 45 seconds:
Last Friday (November 27), the album To The Nth was officially released. A tribute to Phil, the album includes seven of his compositions, arranged by his grandson (and pianist/producer extraordinaire) Sean Nimmons, with a multi-generational ensemble featuring some of Canada's top jazz musicians, all of whom have been influenced by Phil in some way. It's a fitting celebration of Phil who, at 97 years of age, continues to inspire jazz musicians of all ages; and it's a solid introduction to his music. (Find it here.)
I encourage you to learn about - and listen to - Phil Nimmons as much as you can. Whether you choose his own bands like on the Atlantic Suite/Tributes double album, his sublime duo work with David Braid or one of the two albums of Phil's music recorded by the Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra, I guarantee you'll come away refreshed, uplifted, and full of joy.
Thank you, Phil, for everything.