Calgary man fulfils his dream of pulling together Canada’s first national jazz band

Music has always played a role in Allison Au’s life.

Whether it be thumbing through her dad’s vinyl collection, or turning on some tunes at a birthday party, she began to realize music brought people together.

But it wasn’t until she saw one of her female music teachers play the saxophone that she considered pursuing the instrument seriously.

“That really kind of broke the whole stereotype for me,” said Au, an alto-saxophone player from Ontario. 

“It really provided a role model and a very amazing and inspirational figure for me to look up towards.”

Last week in Calgary, the Canadian National Jazz Orchestra performed for the very first time. The project has gathered musicians from across the country to perform Canadian compositions. (Canadian National Jazz Orchestra)

Years later, Au is the role model for the country’s next generation of jazz musicians. She’s one of 18 performers selected to take part in the Canadian National Jazz Orchestra, which played its first performance last month in Calgary, at Arts Commons.

The orchestra is a product of Calgary’s jazz collaborative, JazzYYC. All of the orchestra’s music is created by Canadian composers.

“It’s a really exciting opportunity to collaborate with a lot of different musicians I’ve never played with before, all at an incredibly high calibre … and just the common goal to cultivate original Canadian music,” Au said.

The aim is for the orchestra to tour not only across Canada, but internationally, to show the world what Canadian jazz musicians, composers and arrangers have to offer.

Allison Au is a saxophone player from Toronto in the Canadian National Jazz Orchestra. (James Young/CBC)

‘A huge moment’

For years, Kodi Hutchinson, artistic director of JazzYCC and executive producer of the Canadian National Jazz Orchestra, has tried to put this idea into practice.

“This is a Canadian orchestra playing Canadian music,” he said ahead of the group’s first show.

“This is a huge moment for me personally … it’s a dream that one of my mentors had that was passed on to me. I can’t even explain how excited I am to see this band in action.”

The ensemble is composed of musicians from across the country, the “best of the best,” Hutchinson said. Each member was selected by an advisory group after a nationwide search, including Calgary trumpet player André Wickenheiser. 

“I can’t even count the number of Juno awards that are on stage. I know there’s at least one Order of Canada,” Hutchinson said.

Kodi Hutchinson is the executive producer for the orchestra. (James Young/CBC)

The group also commissioned work from Canadian composers. After 70 applications, five composers were selected to create music for the orchestra.

Hutchinson says the orchestra is a “major accomplishment for Calgary.” 

“I’m a born and raised Calgarian. I love the western spirit of ‘let’s do this.’ And to me, it’s almost like a neutral site where we can say, ‘come here and let’s just create music,'” he said. 

Along with its patriotic mission, he also wants the group to educate and inspire students.

A lot of young people get their first taste of jazz in their high school music rooms, Hutchinson said, and a group like this one will make it easier for them to imagine their own faces on stage.

“Then internationally, we want to have a band that other countries can look at and say, ‘Wow, look at the quality of music coming out of Canada,’ and give more opportunities to the musicians and composers from Canada,” he said.

Andrew Jackson is a Nova Scotia-based trombone player. (James Young/CBC)

Being part of the group is an amazing experience for Andrew Jackson, a trombone player from Nova Scotia.

“With such a high level of talent, with the musicians, it’s really such a treat,” he said.

“There’s no weak link. So everyone is really pulling their weight and coming together, and it’s coming together really quickly, but really beautifully. The blend, and us just finding a sound as a group, has been such a wonderful thing to experience.”

Jackson says he hopes there are more opportunities for the group to perform and grow in the years to come.

“There [are] so many fantastic musicians and instrumentalists in the jazz tradition that I think we should be celebrating,” he said.

Until then, fans will soon be able to access an album and a digital broadcast of the group’s April 28 performance.

Allison Au plays at one of the Canadian National Jazz Orchestra’s rehearsals last week. (James Young/CBC)

The group also continues to pitch the idea for more concerts across the country — an opportunity to share and spread a passion for jazz to the next musically inclined student, just like Au.

“It’s not lost on me how important representation is,” she said. “I hope I can be a role model.” 

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