Life & Times of Rob McConnell
Rob McConnell was born in London, Ontario on February 14th 1935. He was best known as a Canadian Trombonist and leader/founder of The Boss Brass Big Band [Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass], but Rob was also a respected composer and arranger.
His family moved to Toronto in his youth, where he began to foster a love of music in his primary school days. Rob began playing the slide trombone during high school and quickly developed skill with the instrument.
His professional career began in Edmonton while working with multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson's band. This was in 1954 and didn't last long, as he would return to Toronto and get a 9-5 job at a brokerage firm. This period saw him switch to the valve trombone and take up piano with drummer Alex Lazaroff's Rhythm Rockets band, followed by piano and composition for Gordon Delamont (Rob's then teacher for arranging and composition).
As the 60's begun he continued working with the bands of others; Playing trombone for Bobby Gimby and then for fellow Canadian Maynard Ferguson's big band in New York in 1964.
In early 1965, he returned to Toronto where he became one of the city's leading studio payers. He was continuously in demand and his constant playing with other studio elites allowed him to scout talent for his next project.
1968 saw the inception of his long dreamt of group, The Boss Brass. Rob McConnell assembled the original Boss Brass from Toronto’s finest studio musicians. The music was horn-centric versions of popular songs and even some originals. That's pretty much the idea, a small, 4-5 piece rhythm section (Guitar,Bass,Piano/Keys,Drums & Percussion), flanked on all sides by nearly a dozen horns! The original line-up consisted of sixteen musicians, but in 1970 this grew to twenty-one with the inclusion of Saxophone and Woodwinds, and finally 22 with the inclusion of a fifth trumpet in 1976.
The Boss Brass band became almost an institution of Canadian Jazz and Easy-Listening; releasing over a dozen albums for many labels, including the high-profile Concord Jazz. They stayed together for nearly 50 years, having some of Canada's greatest Jazz and Classical musicians grace its ranks. McConnell was also featured as leader on several small-group recordings for Concord.
As a trombonist, McConnell appeared on recordings by a number of artists, including Nimmons 'n' Nine Plus Six, singers Mel Tormé and Dave Frishberg, vibraphonist Peter Appleyard, and pianist Oliver Jones. The list doesn't end there and the influence of Rob McConnell and his band aren't exclusive to Canada. Recently unearthed tapes from Britain, from the 1980's Brian Savin produced radio series called The Big Band Hour, feature the Johnny Patrick Big Band recreating the music of Rob McConnell. Given the other choices on the show (Stan Kenton, Harry James, Artie Shaw etc.) this seemed a particularly daring choice at the time.
All in all, he’s one of our Elder Statesmen of Jazz; both here in Toronto and in Canada as a whole. He’s released countless albums of his own (both solo and with the Boss Brass), performed on a number of notable works for the groups and artists he worked for, and has influenced many musicians both his own, and fans and colleagues.
A life well spent and a legacy un-forgotten, such is that of Rob McConnell; one of Canada’s finest Trombonists arranger’s composers and band leaders.
Unearthed by Brian Savin, these recordings have been unheard anywhere in the world since they first aired in the 80's to a local radio audience.
In the eighties, Brian Savin produced a radio series called The Big Band Hour. It featured the Johnny Patrick Big Band recreating the music of the major big bands (Stan Kenton, Harry James, Artie Shaw etc.). There were eight programmes in all and one of them was Rob McConnell. At the time that was quite a daring choice as hardly anyone (except jazz musicians and DJ's who used the Canadian Talent Library) had heard of him. However, Johnny Patrick knew him personally and I think this was one of the reasons why we chose his music for the series. Johnny Patrick was (and still is at the age of 89) a highly respected musician in the UK. The presenter of the series, Benny Green, was a saxophonist, writer and broadcaster. Amongst others he played with Ralph Sharon and Stan Kenton.
Recording the big band was quite a feat - mainly because sometimes we could hardly fit them all into the studio!
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Born in London, Ontario, McConnell took up the valve trombone in high school and began his performing career in the early 50’s performing with saxophonist Don Thompson Edmonton, Bobby Gimby and fellow Canadian Maynard Ferguson. He also studied arranging and composition with Gordon Delamont. In 1968, Rob formed The Boss Brass, a big band that would become his primary performing and recording unit through the 1970’s into the early 2000’s.
A unique musical voice, cutting wit and meticulous leadership on the bandstand were just a few of McConnell’s trademarks. He was consummate professional, a perfectionist and difficult task master- an arranger of the highest order and one hell of a trombone player. For all of us that knew and worked with Rob, he made our lives richer in the process.
McConnell was an extraordinarily talented arranger, a lyrical trombonist and a bandleader with a reputation for perfection and artistic drive that made The Boss Brass the renowned band it became after it’s debut in the late 60’s. A unique musical voice, cutting wit and meticulous leadership on the bandstand were just a few of McConnell’s trademarks.
In 1988, Rob took a teaching position at the Dick Grove School of Music in California , but gave up his position and returned to Canada a year later. In 1997 , McConnell was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and in 1998 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada.
“A trombonist, bandleader, composer/arranger, songwriter, and the music educator, he wore many hats and all contributed to his great body of work and his unwavering devotion to the music he loved”, stated Neil Portnow, President/CEO of the Recording Academy, which puts on the Grammys.
His sense of storytelling and humour infused his dynamic career, which will be remembered and appreciated for generations to come! “Rob was one of our greatests gifts to music. His stature, talent and importance in Canadian jazz should rank him with Oscar Peterson”, said Ross Porter, President and CEO of Jazz. FM91.
Rob McConnell passed away on May 1, 2010 at the age of 75. Heartfelt condolences go out to the family, friends and all who have loved his music.
Rob MCconnell: All arrangements
Derick Healy: trumpet
Bert Hasard: trumpet
Paul Davis: trumpet
Dave Browning: trumpet
Bill Turner: trumpet
Chris Dean: trombones
Reg Reid: trombones
Jackie Armstrong: trombones
Andy Forbert: trombones
Roy Williams: trombones solo
George Watts: lead alto sax
Trevor Alton: alto sax
Gary Cox: tenor sax
Dougie Robinson: baritone sax
Colin Campbell: piano
John Smith: guitar
John McCulloch: bass guitar
Alf Bigdon: drums
Jeff Bryant: french horns
Jamie Buck: french horns
Frank Ricotti: percussion (vibes, glockenspiel, congas, xylophone)