Alberta jazz musicians and teachers are dropping their chops at the inclusion of a tune by Premier Jason Kenney’s grandfather in the province’s proposed Grade 6 school curriculum.
“When I Get to Calgary,” as recorded by Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen, is to be part of the Grade 6 program as one of two examples (along with Glenn Miller) of how big bands expanded the sound of jazz.
Calgary tenorman and Mount Royal University professor Jim Brenan once gigged with the elder Kenney.
“He was a very nice man,” Brenan recalled Tuesday. “He seemed like a sweet, kindly old grandfather.”
“It was a society gig. It was extremely polite. It was inoffensive, nonchallenging. When you want to monetize jazz music, you turn it into (that).”
Mart Kenney, a saxophone player, began leading bands in 1935. He became a fixture on CBC airwaves and in hotel ballrooms from coast to coast. His band, which included up to 30 musicians, recorded 25 78-rpm discs for the Bluebird and RCA labels.
He retired in 1969 and died in 2006.
Ray Baril, a saxophonist and music professor at Edmonton’s MacEwan University, is another one-time Western Gentleman. He said there’s value in telling students about music of that generation, and Mart Kenney’s records are good examples of myriad so-called “sweet” dance bands that people loved.
“It was a very commercially based music. It was very much connected to making people feel good at a difficult time.”
But restricting the curriculum’s two main references to jazz to Mart Kenney and Miller – white-led, commercial ensembles – ignores the music’s roots, said Brenan.
“It’s Black American music. When you make a choice and you have two mandated picks, you pick the two that are the most watered down …?”
Baril said there are plenty of Canadian – even Albertan – examples of jazz that come closer to the heart of the music than Mart Kenney’s “The West, a Nest, and You.” He points to Montreal pianist Oscar Peterson or 1930s Kansas City blues singer Big Miller, who lived in Edmonton.
“If we’re going to talk about jazz, then we need to talk about those bands that are based on improvisation. How can you not talk about Duke Ellington?”
Baril said Mart Kenney himself told him he’d been influenced by the Duke.
“I respect (Kenney) for what he did. I just think there are other examples of jazz.”
Baril said he hopes teachers take the curriculum as a jumping-off point to explore other musicians, but he wishes the curriculum writers had done the work instead.
“It would have been nice if they had taken the opportunity to talk to us.”
A spokesman for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said Ellington and other musicians are included in the curriculum as examples.
“Music examples in the curriculum are just that: examples that teachers may use when teaching about big band ensembles and jazz music,” Justin Marshall said in a statement. “They are not intended to be exhaustive or comprehensive.”