When Mara Bowman was younger, her grandfather found an old tenor saxophone lying in pieces in a dusty cardboard box in the garage. Mouse droppings littered the instrument’s inner tube and the outside was stained with Pepto-Bismol, which someone, decades ago, had used to clean it.
That someone was Bowman’s great-grandfather. Even though he was deaf and none of his surviving family knew he played the sax, Bowman felt a sudden kinship with her wartime progenitor, as she had previously believed she was the only one in her family with musical chops.
“Music is so universal, the way it connects people,” she says.
She’s been playing the sax herself since Grade 9, when her music teacher needed an extra player for the school band. After Bowman’s teacher loaned her a tenor and some instruction booklets, she picked it up in a weekend. (She’d been playing clarinet for three years prior.)
Around that time, she realized that music was her vocational calling. A few years later, a friend told her about the Toronto All-Star Big Band (TABB), a 22-person youth orchestra that plays jazz music from the 1930s and ’40s. Around 50 kids audition every spring, estimates Zygmunt Jedrzejek, the orchestra’s founder and current artistic director. Fewer than 10 get in. In 2015, Bowman was one of them.
“I grew up listening to this kind of music,” she says. “I just found a companionship with all the people here.” This month, she’ll be performing with the orchestra at the Beaches International Jazz Festival in Toronto.
Jedrzejek started the TABB in 1979, after graduating from teachers’ college. He rejected the conventional career path of most school music teachers, instead leaning into his love of the accordion and creating the Etobicoke Accordion Youth Orchestra.
The idea wasn’t as popular as he’d hoped. “Getting 25 accordion kids was pretty tough,” Jedrzejek recalls during an interview in his office, which is covered with loose papers and adorned with a large wooden nutcracker looming over his shoulder.
Throughout the ’80s, Jedrzejek transitioned his accordion group into an instrumental band and decided to avoid labelling it a youth orchestra. “In most cases, you see ‘youth orchestra’ and think, ‘I gotta bring my earplugs,’ ” he says.
But the idea remained the same: having talented budding artists learn a strictly technical kind of jazz – and performing with veterans of the genre, such as Peter Appleyard, Ranee Lee and Clark Terry – livens up what some may assume is music reserved for older people. Nowadays, with the kids posting their performances on social media, the band is able to introduce classic numbers to new audiences.
This year, Bowman has been rehearsing for the group’s 80 annual shows with four other young vocalists. She initially joined as a sax player, but transitioned to a singer this year, matching her major at the University of Toronto.
With her group, Bowman leads a bouncy rendition of Manhattan Transfer’s The Boy From New York City, a funky number that blends ’60s pop harmonies with a ’40s swing tempo. She sings it well, smiling wide the whole time.
Bowman plans on leaving the orchestra next year to focus on her studies. But she might join the TABB alumni group, a new tradition that draws back former members for annual reunions. Jedrzejek likes the trend, saying that it bridges current members with older generations. “Sometimes,” he says, “they don’t know what a great time they had until they leave.”
The Toronto All-Star Big Band will play at the Beaches International Jazz Festival in Toronto from July 22 to 28. Admission is free. See beachesjazz.com for details.