It was a standing joke on Hot Air – the CBC’s long-running jazz program – that any show featuring Canadian jazz would have Vancouver-based musician Ross Taggart involved in some way. His presence on the national jazz scene was so marked that, when they were pulling together ideas to celebrate the show’s 65th year, having Taggart involved was a no-brainer.
With his extensive musical knowledge, he was the obvious choice to lead a celebration of seven decades of jazz. He was, according to Hot Air host Margaret Gallagher, the perfect bridge between the history of jazz and its modern form.
By the time the anniversary concert was recorded in June, 2012, Taggart had been diagnosed with a fast-moving renal cancer. A benefit concert titled Our Friend Ross took place in November. The line-up was a testament to Taggart’s place at the heart of Canadian jazz: Ian McDougall Sextet, Hugh Fraser Quintet, Bill Coon Quartet, Ugetsu, Jill Townsend Big Band, Bob Murphy Duo with Campbell Ryga. Tickets were sold out.
Taggart was 15 when he began his own professional career, and just 45 when he died. Equally – and unusually – accomplished on both piano and saxophone, he was a true scholar of jazz. He regularly surprised friends with his ability to recall the full lineups, technical crew and dates of almost any recording they could pull out.
He was a humble man who strove always to play music to the highest standard, and took every opportunity to mentor and encourage those just starting out.
His generosity, good humour and devotion to his first love, jazz, never faltered. His passing has left an emotional hole in the Vancouver jazz scene.
Ross Taggart was born in Victoria on Nov. 24, 1967. His father, William (Bill) was a librarian at the University of Victoria and his mother, Helen, a homemaker. His sister Nancy was 12 years older than him, his brother Roy, preceded him by 2 1/2 years.
The youngest Taggart was making music before he could talk. His first attempts to communicate were sing-songy tunes that eventually morphed into something resembling words.
His family thought little of it at first. There was always music in the house; Bill was a Gilbert and Sullivan fan and regularly treated the household (and neighbours) to entire operettas on the family’s record player.
After one such vigorous broadcasting of The Yeoman of the Guard, a seven-year-old Ross got up from the carpet where he had been absorbed with his Dinky toys, wandered over to the family piano and picked out both melodies of one song – treble and bass. Formal lessons swiftly followed.
But Ross didn’t enjoy his classical piano lessons and by age 11, was ready to give up. His mother, realizing that her son had a talent she didn’t fully understand, asked the organist at the church the family attended to help. Taggart came home after one lesson and said, “Finally, someone understands what I’m trying to do.”
The lessons were fruitful, but short-lived: The organist – Ralph Cole – headed back east to join the Toronto acapella group sensation, The Nylons.
At 14, Taggart heard the piece of music that would change his life. Memories are fuzzy about where the Oscar Peterson track emerged – it may have been a television ad for the Royal Bank of Canada – but it had a huge impact on the teenage pianist.
The family knew little about jazz, but Bill borrowed dozens of LPs from the university record library to feed his son’s insatiable appetite. Soon after, Taggart began taking saxophone lessons.
He also loved to draw, and at one point, as he neared graduation from Claremont High School in Victoria, he was finding it hard to choose between art and music. Then he noticed most of what he was doing was pointillism of jazz singers and musicians, and the decision was made.
At 16, Taggart was spending time at Victoria restaurant Pagliacci’s, where owner Howie Siegel booked regular live music. Taggart would show up in hopes of sitting in with the band. When his sister Nancy went to see what was happening, she was amazed: “He had been playing sax for such a short time,” she recalls. “But he wasn’t shy at all. He just loved this.”
After graduating high school Taggart briefly considered joining the military, and completed basic training. Put off by a particularly unpleasant exercise, he returned home declaring he wouldn’t work for any organization that would “gas its own members.”
He moved to Vancouver at 18, set on his course to make music his life. He was welcomed immediately into the vibrant jazz scene in the city, working with local band-leaders Hugh Fraser and Ian McDougall, among others.
By 1991, still only 21, he was enough of a name that a teenage Cory Weeds was blown away when he found himself billeted with Taggart (an instructor) at a Kelowna jazz camp. “It might as well have been John Coltrane,” recalls Weeds, who went on to become a successful jazz musician and owner of Vancouver’s best-known jazz cub, The Cellar.
Weeds and Taggart became friends and collaborators. Later, Taggart was Weeds’s pianist of choice to sit in with the jazz greats he booked at The Cellar. It would only take a minute or two before Taggart’s quiet confidence and unimpeachable musical knowledge put the old timers at their ease.
He won a Canada Council for the Arts grant and, in 1993, moved to New York to study under saxophone legends George Coleman, Clifford Jordan and J.R. Monterose. Fellow Vancouver sax player, Campbell Ryga, was in New York at the same time, and the two musicians cemented a friendship that would last 30 years. They were best men at each other’s weddings.
Taggart returned to Vancouver and became known for his authoritative confidence in a solid, mainstream, post-bop, hard-bop and blues-drenched style.
He played and recorded with a number of bands including the Hugh Fraser Quintet, the Ian McDougall Sextet, the Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation (VEJI), the Jill Townsend Big Band, Fred Stride’s Westcoast Jazz Orchestra, the Bill Coon Quartet and the Hard Rubber Orchestra, at various times touring South America, the U.S. and Europe.
He also led his own trio and shared a stage with many greats, including Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Lionel Hampton and Kenny Wheeler.
He was a keen photographer and would take many pictures while on tour, presenting his band mates with copies of the images on their return. He was also an inveterate jokester, his uncanny ability for voice imitation the basis of many prank phone calls.
A firm believer in Canadian jazz and the Vancouver jazz scene, Taggart was frustrated by the rapid loss of live venues across the city. He found himself teaching more, and joined the faculty of Capilano University’s jazz studies program.
He married jazz pianist Sharon Minemoto in 2000 and, two years later, recorded the album Side A on Cellar Live Records as part of the Sharon Minemoto Quintet. The marriage lasted eight years, but their friendship and musical collaboration continued to the end. When Taggart became ill, Minemoto stepped in to help and care for him, and was fundamental in organizing the benefit concert.
In 2011, Taggart was diagnosed with renal failure and required immediate surgery. All looked good six months later, but at his annual check-up in May, 2012, there were spots on his lungs and he was diagnosed with cancer. The disease moved fast and Taggart was hospitalized in October. He died on Jan. 9, 2013.
Though he always had time for others, Taggart remained intensely private, never wanting to burden his friends with his own troubles. Even in hospital and in great pain, he was keen to give his visitors his full attention. He made jokes right up to the last. When one doctor described his dog, Taggart replied that he had a crossbred pooch himself. “Yes, a pitbull-St. Bernard. Great dog,” he quipped. “It ripped my throat out, then went for help.”
Ross Taggart leaves his mother Helen Taggart, sister Nancy Taggart, brother Roy Taggart and his wife, Sandra, nieces and nephews, Emily, Meaghan, Sara, Melissa and Samuel, step-niece Natalie and step-nephew Aaron.