“Remember, jazz is a noun. People say jazz this, jazz that, jazz ballet, jazz – whatever. Jazz is a noun.”
Ian McDougall is a purist. He can tell you that thing called jazz isn’t the stuff of today’s so-called jazz festivals. He can tell you where it still exists and who the great players are – and why they’re not being born from 10-year-olds with trombones, like he was 65 years ago. He can tell you a lot about jazz, but not everything.
“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know,” says McDougall, quoting Louis Armstrong.
McDougall was a unionized club player at 12. He backed greats – The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett – at The Cave Supper Club in Vancouver as a teen and spent his early adulthood in England, touring and recording with the John Dankworth Band. He chaired university departments, was named to the Order of Canada and when he warms up for the day in front of a Turner Classic Movie, he can look up at the Juno Award on his mantle.
This kind of practice is just as vital for keeping fit as his recumbent bike.
“You’ve got to keep in shape because your chops are muscles and you’ve just gotta keep working on ‘em,” he says from his Saanich living room. “You lose it if you don’t use it, as they say.”
McDougall’s approach: he has respected a lot of great players, but never has he copied them.
“People say you’re self-taught. I say: I wasn’t self-taught. I was self-learned. I had an ability to listen to things and learn from doing.”
He was ready to take a different path – a prospective M.D. that turned out a trombone player – but two years in England confirmed he was, in fact a great player, not just by local standards. He committed to the calling.
“You assume they play better in Vancouver. In Vancouver I thought they’d play better in Toronto and in Toronto you thought they’d play better in London or New York,” he says. “As a kid growing up in Victoria, you never knew where you stood in something in relation to other people.”
McDougall may have retired from his post at the University of Victoria in 2003 – his first “real job” landed at 52, but he remains a busy man. In 2011 he recorded The Very Thought of You, a collection of ballads accompanied by a string quartet, an entirely volunteer project to build an emergency fund for cash-strapped students. The following year he recorded The Ian McDougall 12-tet LIVE, up for Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year at the Junos March 30.
Of all the work he continues – including reuniting late-’80s trio R.I.O. (for Ron Johnston, himself and Oliver Gannon) this month – his beloved 12-tet gets McDougall the most enthused.
“It’s been a real reawakening of my desires to arrange and compose for it and then it’s made me want at many other projects too, while I can still hold a pencil.”
As much as McDougall laments the digital shift in the music industry or the sullying of the noun “jazz,” he holds only empathy rather than blame for the younger generations living it. He has watched dwindling opportunities over the course of his epic career and he would like to create more for the under-40 set, struggling to have what his generation enjoyed.
“I’m really a big advocate for the young, not just young musicians, young people.”
accompanies Oliver Gannon
for the last of the
U-Jam Jazz at the
2pm, April 27 at the
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Tickets at the gallery.