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Jazzing up the Toronto music scene

The TJO (Oh Happy Day photo)

Trumpeter Josh Grossman came to a crossroads some 17 years ago, after graduating from the University of Toronto’s jazz performance program.

The conductor and artistic director of the 18-piece Toronto Jazz Orchestra (TJO), Grossman realized that a life of performing exclusively for a living wasn’t for him. “There are a lot of people that work a lot harder at it than I was able or willing to work at it. And so, rather than muddy the waters, I figured I would just pursue a different thing and let the people that really have the heart for that pursue that,” he said. “But the big band has remained something that is very close to my heart, always an inspiration and always a creative outlet for me.”

Grossman decided to branch out, taking on behind-the-scenes roles with local music organizations. In 2010, after stints as the performance manager of the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music and the artistic director of the Markham Jazz Festival, he was appointed artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz, the presenter of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival – an eight-day event that, in recent years, has attracted more than 500,000 festival goers annually.

As the Toronto Jazz Festival has grown and matured over the past 31 years, so has the TJO, a band Grossman and his classmates at U of T founded in 1998. This year, the orchestra celebrated its 20th anniversary with the release of its fourth album, 20.

Some people may think that big bands died after the Second World War, but they never really went away, Grossman said. With the popularity of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s, big bands began to change, moving away from swing and in the direction of playing more cerebral listening music. “The musicians – the bandleaders, the composers – they all adapted. In the past 20 or 30 years, a whole new crop of big band music and composers have picked up the flame of the bands that used to be,” he said.

Grossman’s ambitious, four-movement composition on the new TJO release, 4 PN, has more in common with chamber music than classic swing. The suite was inspired by bandleader Phil Nimmons, a giant of Canadian jazz and one of Grossman’s teachers at the U of T. Grossman said he had Nimmons’ Atlantic Suite in mind when he was writing 4 PN.


About 50 local musicians have played in the TJO over the past 20 years. When the orchestra was founded, they started out playing music composed in the United States, including classic swing and the works of bandleader Thad Jones. Recently, the TJO has collaborated with local artists, including tap dancers and a gospel choir, and performed jazz arrangements of Radiohead songs.

Grossman said the TJO could be very popular if they played only classic swing. “But that’s not what the band is about. We’re about playing really interesting big band music, primarily Canadian, primarily contemporary,” he said.

Grossman takes a similar approach when he’s programming the Toronto Jazz Festival. “The jazz fest could be a standard run-of-the mill event, where there’s traditional music and no surprises, and it would be popular with a certain demographic. Certainly, we want to pay tribute to where the music has come from. At the same time, we are looking for artists who are ready to take the music into the future. Sometimes that means taking risks on certain shows and not selling as many tickets as we like,” he said.

“It’s a delicate balancing act … because no festival can be successful without a positive number in the financials at the end of the year, yet no (jazz) festival can be relevant and important to the development of the art form without taking some real risks.”

The TJO is performing at 12 p.m. on Sept. 16 at El Gordo Empanadas (214 Augusta Ave., Toronto), as part of the Kensington Market Jazz Festival. The festival, which runs from Sept. 14-16, features 170 performances by 400 musicians at 12 indoor venues in the market.


For more information, visit kensingtonjazz.com and thetjo.com.