Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Koffman was jazz ambassador and a remarkable innovator Add to ...

Moe Koffman, the Toronto-born musician who, after Oscar Peterson, was Canada's most famous jazz ambassador, has died at 72 after a 10-month battle with cancer. He was admitted to hospital on Tuesday in Orangeville, Ont., near his country home northwest of Toronto. He died yesterday afternoon of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

His death came on the day he and Mr. Peterson were named the first inductees into the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame. "Moe Koffman is a superb musician and remarkable innovator who has had an unquestionable impact on the Canadian jazz industry," a Hall of Fame press release said.

Born Dec. 28, 1928, the son of Polish-born Jewish immigrants who ran a variety store, Mr. Koffman shot to international prominence in 1958 with an infectious, flute-driven melody that he composed and first called Blues à la Canadiana,then changed to its now more famous moniker, Swingin' Shepherd Blues.

Released as a three-minute single, the tune was a hit in Canada and rose as high as No. 36 on Billboard magazine's top 100 singles chart. Over the next four decades, Swingin' Shepherd Blues was recorded by more than 100 artists including Count Basie, Mantovani, Ella Fitzgerald, Herbie Mann and Natalie Cole, and became the signature tune in the thousands of live performances Mr. Koffman gave.

In the seventies, Mr. Koffman established another public profile by composing, arranging and performing the theme music to As It Happens,CBC Radio's popular nightly current affairs program.

Besides being a well-regarded composer and flutist, Mr. Koffman was a superlative saxophonist and clarinetist who, when not working with fellow Canadian luminaries Rob McConnell, Ed Bickert, Guido Basso and many others on the bandstand and in the studio, was a mainstay of the Toronto jingle and advertising scenes.

In 1950, he moved to the United States and played in big bands fronted by Jimmy Dorsey and Sonny Dunham.

In the early eighties, he began an association with the legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie that lasted until Mr. Gillespie's death in 1993.

Contacted at his home last night in Toronto, Mr. Basso, the noted flugelhornist and arranger, said he was finding the death of his friend of 40 years "unbearable."

"I called him Caesar," Mr. Basso said with a chuckle, in part because of Mr. Koffman's kingpin status in the Toronto session scene but also because in the early seventies his friend sported "an Afro hairdo that made him look a little bit like" Rome's first emperor.

He described Mr. Koffman as "a truly heroic musical icon who I don't think will ever be replaced." He spent "most of his life practising and perfecting his art," Mr. Basso said. "When you were working, you could never get him to come out on a lunch break."

Mr. Koffman's last public appearance was in June, 2000, alongside Mr. Basso and other members of Rob McConnell's Boss Brass onstage at the Toronto jazz festival. Just a few weeks earlier he had released what would be the last of more than 70 recordings, The Moe Koffman Project,and his cancer had been diagnosed. "You knew something was wrong with Moe when he stopped practising," Mr. Basso said. The performance with the Boss Brass "was the last blast. I think that expired his tank. He put down his saxophones after that."

Mr. Koffman was also known as a canny businessman in Canadian showbiz circles, finding a profitable balance between his varied musical interests (which included electronic experimentation, work with classical music orchestras, and a fondness for funk and pop-style arrangements of music by Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi) and the more remunerative worlds of TV, radio and advertising.

He also enjoyed a well-paid career as a booking agent, and later as the contractor of musicians.

An appreciation of Moe Koffman will be published in tomorrow's Globe and Mail.

Follow on Twitter: @Jglobeadams

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories