Celebrating 25 years of big band a real kick in the brass

Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra welcomes new Voices to eight-concert season


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The Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra began in 1997 with a germ of an idea and an inauspicious beginning.

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The Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra began in 1997 with a germ of an idea and an inauspicious beginning.

Richard Gillis and Sasha Boychouk believed there was room in Winnipeg for a big-band orchestra, featuring the city’s top jazz players and following a community model that helped launch the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 1948.

“I just thought there was a need for something like that, and I see that all over the place. There should be a Vancouver Jazz Orchestra and there should be a Toronto Jazz Orchestra,” says Gillis, a flugelhorn player, University of Manitoba music professor, conductor and the WJO’s artistic director.

“That fall we put together a group. We played the first two concerts for nothing — we sort of pooled the money — and it was a good thing because we would have been broke after the first concert.”

Gillis remembers how busy he was during the buildup to the orchestra’s debut, as well as excited for everyone to join together on a concept that had few guarantees.

“It was rockin’,” Gillis says. “This was pretty special but it had to be, because there was so much work putting it together that the reward was certainly the music.”

Over the next quarter-century, the orchestra grew to a roster of about 40 professional musicians, 17 of whom will be on the bandstand Thursday night when the WJO holds its 25th anniversary celebration at the West End Cultural Centre.

Ten of the musicians who were there on that first WJO concert, including saxophonist Janice Finlay, trombonist and pianist Jeff Presslaff and trumpeter Jeff Johnson, will be performing Thursday night as the orchestra plays works by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Rob McConnell, who established the Boss of Brass big band in Toronto in 1967.

A big difference between 2022 and 1997 is how the WJO presents music. Twenty-five years has led to more experience in arranging their own versions of big-band classics or finding new works to play.

The organization has also has created an educational side, which includes jazz workshops and outreach to schools in Winnipeg and across Manitoba as well as special events, such as an online Women in Jazz Symposium it will host Saturday at 10:30 a.m. (visit winnipegjazzorchestra.com to register).

The WJO usually sets up a six-concert series during the fall, winter and spring months, but it has expanded to eight in its anniversary season.

After tonight’s show, the orchestra will present new works by Canadian composers Fred Stride and Jean-Nicolas Trottier, put jazzy spins on the Beatles and Aretha Franklin and the famous TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and present an all-women’s version of the WJO that will showcase composers such as Mary Lou Williams and Lil Harden-Armstrong.

“We’re committed and dedicated to inclusion and involving more professional players in town,” Gillis says “It’s gradually become an organization that’s developing female players and players from different communities.

“What that does is that brings in new ideas, and ideas are one of the most important things you could have and that comes from people who think differently.”

A grant from the Canada Council for the Arts during the COVID-19 pandemic helped the WJO launch online concerts; it has continued with them in 2022-23 with a 10-show series available to stream, including Thursday’s concert, which will be available online from Nov. 11 to 24.

“There’s some people who aren’t ready to attend live concerts, but (the online shows) also make it possible for people outside Winnipeg to see some of our concerts,” he says.

Two of the WJO albums, 2018’s Suite 150 and 2021’s Twisting Ways, earned Western Canadian Music Awards nominations; a new record, Voices, will be released Nov. 23.

Gillis says it’s the orchestra’s most diverse musical venture yet. Voices includes eight new works representing eight different cultures, including: Chilean-, Brazilian-, Nigerian- and Ukrainian-themed works by city musicians Rodrigo Muñoz, Marco Castillo, Dr. Henry and John Stetch, respectively; a Gillis composition that is based on his Icelandic heritage; and Cree- and Métis-focused compositions from Andrew Balfour and Michelle Gregoire.

“You’d never get that kind of thing if we had stayed as a 16-piece group from the beginning,” Gillis says. “Dr. Henry’s piece, it’s a sound we would not have gotten to.”


Twitter: @AlanDSmall

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Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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