Cats cookin’ for a quarter century

The Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra reflects on their past and upcoming season

The Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra is celebrating 25 years of making live jazz available and accessible to Winnipeg audiences. (Supplied photo)

For those who’ve been snapping their fingers the last quarter century, now’s not the time to stop. On Oct. 27, the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra hosted an anniversary celebration concert to inaugurate their 25th season, which featured alumni from their first performance back in 1997.

Before the event, artistic director and trumpeter Richard Gillis said the celebration was designed to feature Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra alumni, rather than “just having a concert.” Most of the performed pieces were specifically chosen from past seasons, too.

Gillis, who teaches at the University of Manitoba’s Desautels Faculty of Music, says the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra started when he and Soviet defector Sasha Boychuk had the same bright idea on a school trip to France.

“We talked, and I told him that I had this idea of starting a professional big band like a symphony orchestra, city-based, and that you explore repertoire from history and commission new repertoire,” Gillis says.

“That was my vision. He said he had the same concept of having a professional big band. We got a lot of great musicians, so we started that fall.”

Darren Ritchie, fellow trumpeter and band teacher at Dakota Collegiate, was one of those selected musicians.

“Every day, I still feel super fortunate that they ask(ed) me to play in that band. I always think that there should be a hundred other trumpet players that are in it,” Ritchie says.

For both musicians, the thrill of performing is the main draw.

“Oftentimes, it’s moments within a particular concert. Maybe not the whole concert, but certain moments that are just amazing. Things come together. We play looking forward to those moments,” Gillis says.

“I love the spontaneity,” Ritchie says. “Just the fact that you can get up there and have a conversation musically without a word being spoken, and it can change every time.”

In a genre sometimes maligned by casual listeners for esotericism or inaccessibility, the group is devoted to a musically diverse experience that can appeal to a wide audience. Concerts later this season will feature music from The Beatles and Aretha Franklin, and a holiday special will showcase their own take on How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

“It’s very important for us to play a range of things for the audience’s sake. We need to be broad in the material we present to people, because otherwise we’re not doing the music or the art form its due,” Gillis says.

Consistent but not stagnant, the group has made strides in inclusion by welcoming more members over time and showcasing an all-women ensemble.

“It’s important for us to address (inclusion), because it really will propel us forward in terms of creativity and that sort of thing,” Gillis says.

The Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra also has a forthcoming album planned that takes influence from a wide range of cultures, including Gillis’ own Icelandic heritage and contributions from Nigerian jazz fusionists of the Dr Henry Band.

With 25 years of accomplishments and musicianship behind him, Gillis focuses on and looks resolutely toward the future.

“We’ve involved more really good professional players. We’ve got more inclusion, more writers involved from Winnipeg than ever before. We’re just developing … a community that can really intersect with and through the WJO to create music with the idea that central to that is the big band,” he says. “As soon as the Oct. 27 concert is done, we’re on to the next 25 years.”

Published in Volume 77, Number 08 of The Uniter (November 3, 2022)

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