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Rob McConnell at the Savarin in 1969. (Harold Robinson/The Globe and Mail)
Rob McConnell at the Savarin in 1969. (Harold Robinson/The Globe and Mail)

Nobody did it better than band leader Rob McConnell Add to ...

Rob McConnell, founder of the Boss Brass, was a big guy who thought big, especially when it came to bands.

It didn't deter him that by the late sixties, the big band sound was heading into the realm of nostalgia or that there weren't a lot of places for big bands to play in Toronto, or that making music is a tough livelihood at the best of times.

It was music he loved, and especially music made by the likes of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and Glenn Miller. So he went forward with the big band sound - way forward - and brought some of Canada's best musicians along with him.

When he died in Toronto on May 1 of cancer at the age of 75, he had built an international reputation as a valve trombonist, as the leader of Canada's premier big band of the 1970s and 80s and as an arranger on par with the best in the business.

The musicians who played in the Boss Brass were considered Canada's finest. And many stayed with McConnell for decades. They respond in superlatives when asked what engendered their loyalty and respect.

"Musically, he was very adventurous," said the renowned tenor saxophonist Rick Wilkins. "He would go out on a tightrope and then take us with him. He wrote difficult arrangements, and put us to the test to be as good as we could be. When you met that test, you felt great."

Guido Basso, the internationally known flugelhornist, said McConnell's arrangements and the camaraderie he fostered in the group made for the greatest playing experiences of his life.

The harmonies he wrote, Basso maintains, put McConnell in the same league with Henry Mancini and the world's greatest jazz arrangers.

"They were so beautiful that you just fell in love," Basso said. "Rob liked to write stuff that would stump us. So in order to not let him get away with that, we had to rise the occasion."

Don Thompson, a master of many instruments, remembers McConnell's outrageous sense of humour. The band, he said, would be sometimes so amazed about where he was taking the music that they would laugh so hard they couldn't play.

"This was not ordinary music," Thompson said. "This was special music. Rob never did anything in an ordinary way."

Robert Murray Gordon McConnell was born in London, Ont., on Feb. 14, 1935, to Howard and Sally McConnell. He was the second youngest in a family of three boys and two girls. His father, a sales manager, eventually moved the family to Toronto. He died of a heart attack when Rob was 11.

Luckily, the family unit was strong, and resourceful. All the McConnells had part-time jobs - Rob's was working in bicycle delivery - and they had music. Sally played the piano and all the children played instruments, practising together in the evenings. They sang in their church choir.

Rob wanted to play the trumpet, but ended up on the slide trombone because all the trumpets were taken at Northern Secondary School.

As the boys finished high school, they gravitated downtown to work at stock brokering. But for Rob it was definitely just a day job, because jazz already owned his soul. It kept him up nights jamming in bars around town and sent him in search of mentors.

A favourite spot was the Toronto studio of music guru Gordon Delamont, from whom he learned theory and orchestration.

Toronto photographer John Reeves, a friend and a long-time fan, remembers seeing McConnell play at the House of Hamburg in the 1950s, one of the first after-hour jazz clubs in Toronto.

"Rob was walking in there and playing trombone along with Guido Basso and virtuoso guitarist Ed Bickert," Reeves says. "They had visitors such as the legendary jazz drummer Max Roach and other big names. They would jam until 5 in the morning. Rob was a guy who could riff till your teeth got loose."

McConnell married Margaret Bowman in 1957, and they started a family. While his brothers took the safer route and stayed in the business world, Rob went his own way, determined to make it in music.

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