Paul Read: Spotlight on Phil Nimmons

Photo credit: Don Vickery

This article offers a glimpse of Phil Nimmons, 95-year-old iconic Canadian musician (composer/arranger/educator/clarinettist/band leader). 

Of course, no blog can offer what Phil deserves – and, to my knowledge, does not yet exist – a comprehensive authorized biography. But I hope this article may lead you to further investigation of his life and work. At the very least, I wish to add some well-deserved recognition to a great musician.

Further down this post, you will find a link to a video interview dating from December, 2006 when he was ‘just’ 83 years old.1It’s a good thing I hardly ever throw anything away, I guess, because I serendipitously discovered this just recently while trying to find something else.

A Brief Introduction: The Canadian Governor General's Awards are awarded annually by the Governor General of Canada, recognizing distinction in numerous academic, artistic, and social fields. They are the highest awards given to Canadian artists. Phil was presented with this award in 2002 (details are here). In January 2001, I wrote a letter nominating him for a Governor General’s Award:

Phil has made a significant contribution to the cultural life of Canada throughout a brilliant career spanning five decades [as of 2001]. Perhaps best known as a jazz clarinettist and bandleader and composer in the first half of his career, he has also been a tireless advocate of jazz as a significant North American art form and has been a key figure in Canadian music education. He was co-founder (with Oscar Peterson) of the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in 1960 in Toronto, one of the first schools of its kind, and since then has been involved in the development of many jazz educational projects including the addition of a Jazz Performance program at the University of Toronto in 1991. He has always been generous with his time and expertise and has always been willing to help and encourage other musicians, particularly those just beginning their studies and careers.

The following is taken from a letter written by Walter Pitman, Executive Director of the Ontario Arts Council:

"Perhaps most of all, I place before you a truly unique human being whose generosity of spirit is recognized by the artistic community he has served so long. His reputation goes beyond the restrained pages of his curriculum vitae. As Executive Director of the Ontario Arts Council, I discovered to what extent he was an incomparable confidante and inspiration to countless students of music who are now building a reputation for Ontario as a centre of cultural activities."

Phil’s music has touched many Canadians. His performances on his own CBC Radio show with Nimmons ‘N’ Nine and Nimmons ‘N’ Nine Plus Six beginning in 1953, were enjoyed by a wide audience and served as an inspiration to many young Canadian musicians. But while the Nimmons name has long been associated with jazz, Phil has always seen music as music, without stylistic borders, and has written many contemporary ‘classical’ works including a recently completed commission for the Esprit Orchestra here in Toronto.

Phil’s work is renowned and recognized internationally. He was a 2001 recipient of the International Association of Jazz Educators Hall of Fame Award. It is significant that he was the first non-American to receive this prestigious honour, which was presented in New York City in January of this year.”

Another paragraph I think is a propos. These from the liner notes for Verve after Hours Verve Records ‎– 769 748 005-2 (1997) written by Ross Porter, JAZZ.FM radio.

Phil NimmonsWe'll Be Together Again
from the Verve LP The Canadian Scene Via Phil Nimmons (MG V-8025). Previously unavailable on CD

“Of all the musicians selected for this CD, no one is closer to my heart than Phil Nimmons. As a child, I remember lying in bed listening to him play on CBC Radio. Phil was a member of the Canadian jazz scene before there was a scene to be part of. His groups have been finishing schools for musicians. He played a key role in having the Canada Council recognize jazz as an art form worthy of assistance. As an educator, he brings students over fifty years of experience both on and off the bandstand. I'm proud to call him a friend. We'll Be Together Again first appeared on his 1956 album The Canadian Scene and has never been on CD before.”

Ross Porter’s recollection (above) of lying in bed listening to Phil’s CBC broadcasts every other Friday night will have a ring of nostalgia for many Canadians as well as others who were able to receive CBC radio in other parts of the world.  He had his own nationally broadcast radio show on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation featuring his band, “Nimmons ‘N’ Nine” – which later became “Nimmons ‘N’ Nine Plus Six”. (The unusual punctuation in the band name is intentional). He has written incidental music for radio plays, chamber music, orchestral scores, music for film, jazz tunes performed by his own quartet and his large groups. And I should mention his longevity. He has been an active writer, performer, and teacher for almost 80 years!


A Short Musical Excerpt:

The following is the intro to “The Torch” (1988). I think this presents a hint of Phil’s indomitable spirit, his sense of humour as well as his prodigious orchestration skills. You can hear the complete work at, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlgpq-hk40M performed by the Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra. Phil would call that a “glandular” beginning. How perfect is that?  As this might indicate, he has a unique way with words, as well as music.  His family refers to his linguistic ‘gymnastics’ as “Nimmonese”.

Audio clip included with the permission of the Canadian Music Centre and Phil Nimmons.

As you can hear, Phil takes an idea and runs with it….and then runs with it….and I mean, runs with it! This quality exists time and again in his music, and also with the way he interacts with those around him. He is the master of the ‘running gag’, the protraction of any and all ideas. He is constantly improvising and composing, while playing and writing, or teaching, or just living day to day.


Indomitable Spirit

As of this posting he is just 2 days shy of 95 years young and still teaches one composition course at the University of Toronto and performs on clarinet in a duo setting with the stunning and remarkable pianist/composer, 41 year-old David Braid. Their most recent concert was November 29, 2017.  He and David play totally ‘free’ concerts. They never discuss what they are going to do or make plans of any kind whatsoever. Here is a brief sample:

Audio clip included with the permission of David Braid and Phil Nimmons.

 

David Braid (piano) and Phil Nimmons (clarinet) performing in Montreal June 3, 2011 at McGill University. Phil is in full academic regalia as he had just received an honorary doctorate and this performance was part of his acceptance speech. As usual, there was no plan, no discussion of possible keys, or style, or anything else.

A personal anecdote: Around the time Phil started to play ‘without plans’, I had an opportunity to perform as pianist with him in that context at the Montreal Bistro in Toronto. Beforehand, I asked him if we could talk for a moment about a general approach or plan as I thought it would be helpful for me if I had SOME idea of what he wanted to do. He absolutely refused.  The performance was wonderfully fun, and at the same time hair-raising.  As a result I have a special appreciation for what David Braid accomplishes on a regular basis with Phil. Just amazing. David’s website deserves a visit: http://www.davidbraid.com and I hope you will check out his music as well.


NOTE: Many of Canada’s jazz musicians are well known. Kenny Wheeler, Ingrid Jensen, Christine Jensen, Darcy James Argue, Maynard Ferguson, Oscar Peterson, Gil Evans, Ralph Bowen, Rob McConnell, Ed Bickert, Rick Wilkins, Terry Clarke, Diana Krall, Kirk MacDonald, Oliver Jones, Michael Buble, Moe Koffman, Dave Young, Terry Promane, Joni Mitchell, Phil Dwyer, Holly Cole, Don Thompson, Robi Botos, Ranee Lee, Renee Rosnes, Guido Basso, Paul Bley, P.J. Perry, Mike Murley, Carol Welsman and on and on. Of course, this is a representative list only. Sincere apologies to the thousands who I’ve not included.  In any list of Canadian musicians (jazz or otherwise), Phil Nimmons is always mentioned and frequently listed as one of the most significant.

Interview with Phil Nimmons


For further investigation:


About the Author:

PAUL READ (pianist, composer, arranger) lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Currently he curates the blog for the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers. He was a member of the Humber College Music Faculty in Toronto from 1979 to 1991, Program Coordinator there from 1982 to 1987, and Director of Music from 1987 to 1991. In 1991, he founded degree programs in jazz studies at the University of Toronto (Mus. Bac., M. Mus. and DMA) where he was Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies and following that, Director of Graduate Jazz Studies. He was Canada’s Representative on the Board of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) from 2002-2008, and was the founding Director of the National Music Camp (NMC) Jazz Camp (1987 to 2006). He has also taught in the summers at the Ken Kistner Jazz Camp (Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan) and the jazz faculty of the Prairielands Jazz Camp (Regina, Saskatchewan). He is now retired from education.

Selected Recordings:

The Dance Never Ends – with Trish Colter (1998,  At Long Last Love  Trish Colter (2002), The Heart of Summer – Paul Read Quartet featuring Scott Robinson. (2004) Now available on CD Baby, and Arc-en-ciel  Addo Records  - Paul Read Orchestra (2013) Now available on CD Baby.

Awards:

2015 Muriel Sherrin Award for International Achievement in Music (Toronto Arts Foundation), 2008 Paul Read Orchestra (PRO) nominated for a Canadian National Jazz Award, 2007-2008 Awarded a Canada Council for the Arts Recording Grant, 1993 Awarded the University of Toronto Senior Alumni Award for Innovation in Teaching and finally, 1972 Winner of the Rob McConnell/Gordon Delamont Arranging & Composition Award.

Paul's Website: www.paulread.ca

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It’s a good thing I hardly ever throw anything away, I guess, because I serendipitously discovered this just recently while trying to find something else.