We’ve all heard the expression: marches to the beat of their own drum.
To friends and family, that was Cole Ediger in a nutshell. When he died March 2, 2020, at age 26, the accomplished Winnipegger had established himself as a musician of great promise, with a magnetic personality to boot.
"He was definitely a very inviting presence," says longtime friend Cordelia Donovan, who attended Brandon University’s School of Music at the same time as Ediger and then trekked with him to Vancouver five years ago to start a career in music.
"He just represented a lot of things that I really liked and wanted to be like," Donovan says. "He was always cracking jokes, always trying to make people laugh and he was really known for his recommendations. He was always showing other people new music and sharing little tidbits."
A drummer and percussionist by training, Ediger found his passion in middle school and became intensely focused on the craft, becoming an all-round player on drums, marimba and xylophone at Vincent Massey Collegiate.
He became a fixture in the Massey band room, says the school’s now-retired band director, Bill Kristjanson.
"He was one of those kids who just loved to be there, always around doing things, always playing," says Kristjanson. "He would play with whoever. Whether it was a younger kid coming in or older kid coming in, he would just be trying to make them feel at home. A really positive attitude."
The young drummer embraced and sought out a leadership position in high school.
"He kind of understood his role really well," says Kristjanson. "Fact is, when you’re the drummer in a big band or jazz band or something like that, you get to be in charge of a lot of stuff. He took that role really well, always in a very appropriate way."
Lauren Teterenko resolved to become friends with Ediger upon meeting him when she was new Grade 10 student. Ediger was in Grade 11 at the time.
"I guess he just was way more interesting than any other kids — he was really unique," says Teterenko. "I feel like that would be a better way to describe him. He was super kind and really gentle... He was into like really cool kind of music and really cool kinds of like anime or shows that were not mainstream back then."
Ediger impressed his peers with a talent for playing and openness to new things.
"He played very comfortably, very naturally and was really coachable at the same time," says Kristjanson. "He had a wide, wide range of music that he liked. He wasn’t connected to one genre.
"He was just a lot of fun to be around but I think he could also be pretty serious, like when it came to making music. He could be serious and playful at the same time, which is kind of a unique combination."
Ediger’s fun-loving attitude followed him to Brandon where he met Donovan, a Gimli product also enrolled in music.
"I remember (being) new to this whole thing and seeing Cole play his instruments and being super blown away," says Donovan. "I’d never heard anybody play like he did. And then I just remember him always laughing.
"Cole introduced me to a bunch of music that was new to me, having grown up in such a small town I never really heard of a lot of the hip-hop genre and neo soul and he really embodied a lot of those stylings."
Ediger and Donovan also found a more personal bond.
"He asked me to put on some music, and so I wanted to impress this cool, cool drummer that I was hanging out with and so I put on the most interesting music I could think of to play for a musician," says Donovan.
"I put on some Amy Winehouse and he took off his shirt and it was kind of like, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening?’ He showed me his tattoo of Amy Winehouse that he had on his back. We kind of just like connected over that but it was such a funny little meeting."
Two months later, they became a couple. Following BU, Ediger and Donovan moved west together to pursue careers in music.
In Vancouver, Ediger quickly found his niche in the local music scene. He balanced that with a daytime gig with Long & McQuade national music retailer.
During his 2 1/2 years in the city, he was a founding member Super Krystal Band, a Balkan brass band. He also co-created Hip-Hopalypse, a monthly event for hip-hop artists to perform together while producing other people’s music.
"We set up an audition with him and that’s where we first encountered him and we were just all blown away by his drumming," remembers bandmate Jonnine Mahonen. "And so it’s like, ‘You’re in the band, dude,’ and then we had a gig coming up, I think the week after... It was an awesome experience."
Mahonen described Super Krystal Band’s sound as "party music," with its origins in Serbian Romani culture.
"The cool thing is we all come from different musical backgrounds, so all our different flavours ended up coming into the band because that was the other thing we wanted in our drummer: we wanted someone who was also creative... Cole was totally the perfect guy for that."
All the while, Ediger was struggling with Type 1 diabetes, a condition first diagnosed when he was four.
"He ended up finding a pretty good circle, and he was so charismatic that, as he got to know people, he started getting more work and he was doing pretty well before he went back to Winnipeg," says Donovan. "But obviously it was a challenge, but for someone taking that plunge in a city that they’ve that only lived in for a few years. It’s a pretty big undertaking."
Mahonen, a trumpet player in Super Krystal Band, says Ediger didn’t want the disease to define him.
"You’re just a little bit different and unique and you find your people that love you and appreciate you for that," says Mahonen. "I was actually inspired by Cole because he had this layer of confidence and self-acceptance, that was just like, you know, this is who I am. I just found it really inspiring."
Early in 2019, when managing his disease became too difficult, Ediger returned to Winnipeg to live with parents Alan and Cindy, while being able to reconnect with sister Holly, and two nephews, Bex and Oaks.
He began a new job, working with Teterenko as a music education sales rep at St. John’s Music. He died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition, likely complicated by his diabetes.
To honour Ediger’s dedication to his craft and influence on others, his family founded the Cole Ediger Memorial Jazz scholarship at BU.
Beginning next year, $500 will be awarded annually to a bachelor of music student who displays outstanding ability and creativity in performance. (Preference will be given to a jazz drummer.)
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.