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lives lived

Jack Zaza.Courtesy of family

Jack Zaza: Husband. Father. Music legend. Mentor. Born Oct. 12, 1930, in Toronto; died June 24, 2022, in Toronto, of natural causes; aged 91.

In a career that spanned over 70 years, Jack Zaza played mandolin, violin, saxophone (soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone sax), clarinet, flute, alto flute, piccolo, bass clarinet, oboe, English horn, guitar, bass guitar, harmonica (chromatic and blues), harmonium, mandocello, jaw harp, accordion, banjo, ukulele, pennywhistle, recorders, spoons and piano. He hadn’t set out to play so many instruments; he just learned each one as the need and opportunity arose. Jack Zaza was a legend in the Canadian music industry but he didn’t seek media attention for himself. For Jack, music was a means of providing a good life for his family.

The youngest of 10 children, Jack grew up in Toronto and learned to play the mandolin from his father. Recognizing his son’s talent, Jack’s father bought him a violin from the milkman and a saxophone from a newspaper ad and found him teachers for both instruments. Jack learned to play the accordion, too and was soon playing with his father’s quartet.

At 11, Jack entered a radio talent show. He played Tico Tico on mandolin, and also entered under his brother-in-law’s name, playing In the Mood on saxophone. The jig was up when both Jack and his alias made it to the finals; in the end, Jack’s alias won first prize.

Jack left high school to pursue his career in music. He played sax for his first professional gig at 14 but lied about his age because it was a union job and he was too young.

At 19, Jack’s parents and oldest brother died within six months of each other. He was very grateful when his sister asked him to move in with her family.

Not long after, he met Cecilia Mainella at a church dance and asked her out. Once again, he lied about his age, because he was two years younger. They fell in love and married in 1951. Jack and Cece would have six children, Paul, Ann, John, Peter, Jackie and Christine.

Juggling work and family, Jack sought lessons from great teachers. He studied theory and composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music, and with children in tow, he and Cece would drive to Rochester, N.Y., for oboe lessons at the Eastman School of Music. (Jack loved the oboe most because it involved the complex art of reed making.)

With a growing young family and bills to pay, Jack worked long hours playing at dance halls, restaurants and hotels. A turning point came when he got called for a gig at CBC TV. At CBC, Jack played on The Juliette Show, The Friendly Giant, Front Page Challenge, The Tommy Hunter Show and the recording of the original Hockey Night in Canada theme, to name a few. He also performed for live theatre, commercials, movie soundtracks and on albums by Gordon Lightfoot, the Guess Who, Bruce Cockburn, Anne Murray and Sharon, Lois & Bram, among others.

It didn’t matter what clef, key, or instrument was involved, or even if there was printed music to play. Jack was highly sought after for his improvisation skills.

Jack Zaza and his clarinet in the 1950s.Courtesy of family

Jack enjoyed smoking a good cigar, watching the hockey game and gathering with his family over Chinese food. He was a warm and upbeat man. His legacy includes his advocacy with the Toronto Musicians Association and the Recording Musicians Association.

In 2015, he became Cece’s loving caregiver for seven years, despite his own health issues. Much to his children’s frustration, he politely refused their help unless he was in the hospital. His optimism was often boundless to a fault. The couple lived at home until Cecilia’s death in April 2022. They were devoted to one another for over 70 years.

At 91, Jack was still honing his reed-making skills and solving puzzles. He logged 4,000 steps a day with his walker and loved spending time with family. Two months before he died, Jack taught his youngest grandson how to play modes on bass guitar. In that priceless last music lesson, Jack played the bass line from the HNIC theme that he recorded decades ago.

Jack Zaza will be remembered as a Canadian music legend, he was most proud of his legacy as a husband, father and grandfather.

Christine Zaza is Jack’s daughter.

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