Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

July/August 2012: Will Bonness

The Banff Jazz Workshop: A Musician’s Heaven in the Rockies

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In May, tenor saxophonist Niall Bakkestad-Legare and I embarked on a 16-hour drive to Banff to attend the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music at the Banff Centre. I think I can speak for Niall as well when I say that it was one of these best decisions we have ever made.

The Banff Jazz Workshop was created in 1974 by Canadian jazz legends Oscar Peterson and Phil Nimmons, and the list of program directors boasts such luminaries as Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman, Kenny Werner, and current director Dave Douglas, who is stepping down after ten great years of service.

Dave was unable to be there for the first of three weeks, so in his absence we had a chance to work with pianist Vijay Iyer, who will be taking over as director of the program next year. I have infinite respect for both Dave and Vijay, and it is clear that the program is in very capable hands.

In Vijay’s first session addressing all 62 participants (ranging in age from 20-50) as a group, he posed the simple question: why are you here? This brought up some very interesting points about how privileged we all were to have the opportunity to attend the program, and how it is our duty to spread the word, particularly to underrepresented groups. Ultimately we determined that we were all there to help each other and to create something valuable together.

One thing that makes the program so unique is that there is no curriculum to follow, so it is up to the various visiting artists (there are seven per week) to talk about what they would like to talk about. We were treated to everything from cellist Okkyung Lee playing examples of free improvisers on every instrument, to vocalist/guitarist Aoife O’Donovan talking about songwriting and having us sing three-part harmony to bluegrass tunes, from bassist Matt Brewer getting us to play along with odd-metered folk music from around the world, to Miles Okazaki explaining how he bases compositions on the Fibonacci Sequence or the Chinese Magic Square. Dave Douglas also ran a composition workshop where we were limited to writing for three voices only, with no chord symbols, which, in its simplicity, was extremely difficult for me.

It seems one of the main goals of the Banff Jazz Workshop is to get musicians to think outside of their habits, and to create something intensely personal. It completely changed the way I think about music, and I met some people that I am confident will be life-long friends. And for that, it was worth every penny.

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