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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.

He moved the family to New York for a time in the sixties to absorb what he could from the centre of the jazz world, eventually switching to the valve trombone to follow in the footsteps of American jazzer Bob Brookmeyer, another mentor. He hung out at the legendary jazz bar, Jim and Andy's and went on the road with Canadian jazz great Maynard Ferguson.

Those were heady times. But McConnell soon gravitated back to Canada, as he would throughout his life, for the sake of family and friends.

His son Brian knows all about the big names his father played with over the years - Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Doc Severinsen, to name but a few - but to him, Rob McConnell was mainly just his dad. "He was a great dad, a very great and supportive, loving dad," he said.

Brian's favourite memories include sitting in sound booths with the engineers as his father recorded commercials for the likes of Pontiac cars and Wink soda pop. As with most Toronto jazz musicians of the time, studio work was the bread and butter that allowed McConnell to pursue his less remunerative musical dreams.

When he wasn't in the studio or leading the band, he spent long hours at the piano in his study at the family's home in Markham, Ont., absorbed in composing and crafting the jazz arrangements that would make him famous.

"There was never a wasted note in any of his arrangements," notes Bill King, the artistic director of the Beaches Jazz Festival in Toronto, and another long-time fan. "He would take something everyone knew as a standard and then sort of rewrite it. He would take it in a different direction, and the arrangement would grow organically into something surprising, something not heard before."

McConnell also wrote his own compositions, some of which ended up on the well-selling Boss Brass recordings. But he always saw himself mainly as an arranger.

"He was a great arranger, and he knew it," Thompson said. "He was a great composer, and he didn't know it. I was always sorry about that."

McConnell formed various sized bands that played park concerts, CBC variety shows, jazz festivals, the CNE and the occasional club.

Then in 1968, he was in the mood to do more. He approached radio executive Lyman Potts, founder of the Canadian Talent Library and a Canadian-content pioneer, and said he could provide the band if Potts could come up with the money to make some recordings.

It was a deal, and the Boss Brass was formed. It comprised 16 pieces - trumpets, trombones, French horns and a rhythm section. The first records were arrangements of the chart toppers of the day - the kind of music that would guarantee lots of radio play.

But while the group was getting known on the radio for pop tunes, its main purpose was always jazz. In 1969, the Boss Brass made its debut at the plush Savarin nightclub in the financial district, wowing audiences from the beginning and drawing huge crowds to hear McConnell's arrangements of the big-band repertoire.

Those who followed the jazz scene in Toronto at the time no doubt remember the night in 1970 when saxophonists Moe Koffman and Jerry Toth picketed a gig with placards saying "Boss Brass Discriminates Against Sax Players." The publicity stunt worked and a sax section was added. Eventually, the band grew to 22 and sometimes included more players sitting in.

Between 1968 and 1998, the Boss Brass made more than 30 recordings for such labels as Concord, Pablo, MPS, Sea Breeze and Innovation. The band earned Grammys and Junos and a wide international following.

It band made its U.S. debut at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1981 and performed with Mel Tormé in 1983 and again at the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1986. Tormé, who had sung with virtually every famous big band through many decades, thought the Boss Brass was the best around. He came to Toronto to record with the group in 1987 and was on record as saying it was one of the highlights of his musical career.

The band played Las Vegas and elsewhere in the U.S. It travelled to Finland. It was famous among aficionados in Los Angeles and drew huge audiences there in the 1980s.

Basso, no stranger to the L.A. scene, remembers being there with the Boss Brass when luminaries such as Woody Herman, Johnnie Mandel and Artie Shaw would show up to hear them play to packed houses.

"For me to go back to L.A., with a Canadian band, wearing my Canadian jersey, that was a big thrill for me," Basso said. "That gave the band a huge sense of satisfaction."

At one point in the 1980s, McConnell moved his wife and one daughter to Los Angeles, where he took a teaching job at the Dick Grove School of Music.

But Margaret was especially homesick for Canada, so once again McConnell came home. Eventually, they moved north of Toronto, where he continued his work - playing, arranging and teaching workshops. Margaret died in 2004 of complications from diabetes.

"Rob was a very proud Canadian," said Anne Gibson, whom he married in 2006. "He worked in the U.S. and Europe, with extended stays in New York and Los Angeles, but he always felt he belonged here."

By this time, however, things weren't what they used to be.

The big band revival was fading. Tastes were changing, and the economics of the business saw fewer and fewer venues that could accommodate such a large group. The commercial work that had kept many great players afloat financially was drying up as session musicians were replaced by digital sounds.

"Things change," McConnell said in a 25th anniversary tribute to the Boss Brass by the CBC in 1994. "I don't know why, and I certainly liked the way things were before. I miss all the hanging out and I miss the income.

"But we had a really great time for many years, and I was fortunate to be a part of it."

In 1997, he reorganized the band into Rob McConnell's Tentet and played Toronto venues such as the Senator, the Rex and the Montreal Bistro, as well as festivals and some concerts. The group made several recordings with the Justin Time label and won a Juno in 2001.

Even when McConnell began to suffer from ill health, he didn't stop.

In 2008, he brought the Boss Brass back for a reunion at the Old Mill, prompting The Globe and Mail's J.D. Considine to say: "Perhaps the most dazzling moment was McConnell's imaginative treatment of the standard All the Things You Are, which opened with chords dense and dissonant enough to have been borrowed from Olivier Messiaen, continued with contrapuntal brass lines worthy of a Bach chorale, and boasted a breathtaking piano cadenza by [Don]Thompson. It was a dazzling as big-band writing gets."

The Boss Brass played together the last time on Canada Day, 2009, at the Toronto Jazz Festival. McConnell ended the concert with O Canada, which he liked to do, his wife said, because he could always be guaranteed of "a standing O."

McConnell performed in public for the last time at the Brantford Jazz Festival in September, 2009.

He leaves his wife Anne, children Brian, Jennifer and Robin and seven grandchildren.

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