Trumpeting the Art of Jazz

Art of Jazz Organization Aims To Raise Jazz’s Profile in Canada
for CODA

Flautist Jane Bunnett and singer Bonnie Lester want to make things perfectly clear. Even though their organization, the Art of Jazz (AOJ), is putting together a five-day celebration of jazz and its master musicians in Toronto in May, AOJ is much more than that.

While the celebration that takes place in Toronto’s Distillery District May 17 to May 21 serves as an introduction to AOJ, the group is formulating ambitious plans for educational and outreach programs as well as regular concerts throughout the year.

Established in 2005, by flautist Bunnett, trumpeter Larry Cramer, pianist/ educator Howard Rees and Lester, whose background encompasses marketing communications, AOJ plans to build the audience for jazz. Regular concerts are part of this, but so is an educational component that will see professional musicians – local and international – mentoring students as well as other musicians.

“We have a rich history of jazz in Canada and we want to raise its profile locally so that it’s treated as an art form like opera, ballet and the symphony,” explains Lester, AOJ president. Too much attention in the Toronto area is directed towards once-a-year jazz festivals, with the music almost ignored other times. It’s to fill this gap that AOJ’s outreach programs are directed, she adds. New mid-size venues are needed as well, adds Bunnett. “There has to be something between the Rex [jazz bar] and Massey Hall. Jazz should receive the same respect as [chamber ensemble] Tafelmusik”.

That situation will be rectified during the celebration with concerts taking place in locations in the Distillery District, including the 385-seat Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, home of the Soulpepper Theatre Company.

The first jazz ever to be performed at that venue, the initial tribute on May 18 is for pianist and educator Barry Harris, with performances by pianist Hank Jones, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, bassist Earl May, drummer Leroy Williams and tap dancer Jimmy Slyde. The next night bassist Don Thompson is honored by a band featuring saxophonist John Handy, guitarist Jim Hall, saxophonist Phil Dwyer, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Terry Clarke. “This is the first time Jim Hall has been here in 26 years, and it’s because of respect for Don”, notes Bunnett.

Saturday night is an Afro-Cuban Dance Party with Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana plus percussionist Ray Vega, tuba player Howard Johnson and the Ricky Franco Salsa Orchestra; while Sunday is the debut of the Art of Jazz Orchestra, featuring arrangements by Bunnett, Holland and others.

Jazz duos perform on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, with singer Shelia Jordan and bassist Cameron Brown plus saxophonist Sonny Fortune and drummer Rashied Ali on the first day and pianist Kenny Barron and trumpeter Eddie Henderson plus saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and pianist Luis Perdomo on the second. Chicago guitarist Fruteland Jackson hosts Kids Can Swing Saturday afternoon and the Soul Rebels band headline a benefit performance for New Orleans musicians on Sunday. After hours jam sessions, projection of jazz films, readings and clinics take place in various venues during the weekend, including the first-ever piano clinic by Jones. A gala fundraiser May 17, with performances by Thompson, Harris, Jones, Slyde and vocalist Denzal Sinclaire launches the celebration. (Details:

Although the organization is committed to honoring one international and one local jazz master annually, that’s just the beginning, explains Lester. Regularly during the year AOJ will host concerts featuring the AOJ orchestra, young artists, Latin jazz players, jazz vocalists and visiting jazz masters. Veteran musicians who are also educators will participate in clinics, master classes and other programs when they’re in Toronto.

This fits in with the AOJ’s objective of year-round education for students of jazz and the general public. These clinics/workshops will take place in the distillery district as well as at selected school and community centres. Outreach to areas in which youngsters lack exposure to jazz will be a particular focus, notes Lester. Within a coupe of years the group hopes to launch a summer jazz camp and a high school jazz orchestra.

Chartered as a not-for-profit charitable organization, AOJ began with seed money from private donors. Now it’s seeking more funding, and so far the response from corporations has been positive, reports Lester.

Never losing sight of its dual goals AOJ will “lay the foundation for a strong home for jazz in Toronto and across the country,” she states.

— Ken Waxman