Thursday, August 25, 2011

Rob McConnell and The Boss Brass

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


At one time or another many, if not most, Jazz musicians want to try their hand at playing in a big band.

When you are in one that clicks, there’s nothing in the world like it.

The surge of energy and rhythmic propulsion generated by a powerful big band leaves you giddy with excitement.

Navigating your way through a big band arrangement with fifteen or so companion musicians creates a sense of deep satisfaction that comes from successfully meeting a difficult challenge.

The art of individualism, which is so much a part of Jazz, gets put aside and is replaced by the teamwork and shared cooperation of playing in an ensemble setting.

When it all comes together you feel like you’re in love; overwhelmed by something bigger than you and that you don’t understand.

You gotta pay attention; you gotta concentrate and you gotta do your best, otherwise it’s a train wreck.

So much goes into it:

- great charts [arrangements]
- great section leaders
- great soloists
- a great rhythm section
- and most of all, a great leader who melds it all together.

Enter Rob McConnell, who for over thirty years led a band based in Toronto, Canada which he called from its inception “The Boss Brass” [“boss” being slang for “incredible,” “awesome,” and “very cool”].

Rob passed away on May 1, 2010. The following memorial post and podcast was broadcast on Jazz.fm in Toronto, Canada. It was produced by Geoff Siskend with Jessica Humphries and Ross Porter as executive producers. Ross Porter also hosted the program for which financial support was provided by The Department of Canadian Heritage and the Canadian Culture Online Program.

You can also hear the documentary Rob McConnell: The Boss of the Boss Brass online at the Canadian Jazz Archive:

© -George Siskend, Jessica Humphries, Ross Porter, Jazz FM 91 and The Canadian Jazz Archives, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Rob McConnell: The Boss of the Boss Brass

“For close to 30 years Rob McConnell’s ‘Boss Brass’ reigned over the Big Band scene with its driving power, clever arrangements and the raw talent of its roster of A-list players. In recognition of his accomplishments, McConnell has received more Grammy awards than Bryan Adams, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen put together. Crusty, comical, and opinionated, McConnell is tough on musicians and, as the boss, doesn’t settle for anything less than perfection.

Transcript of the audio documentary

Ross Porter: To me, Rob McConnell is one of the larger than life figures in Canadian Jazz. He is crusty, comical, and a musical triple treat. Because not only is he a gifted valve trombonist, he is also an incredibly talented composer and arranger. His band, The Boss Brass, received great international acclaim during its near 30-year reign. His arrangements have set the bar for big band music around the world. He has won more Grammy Awards than Bryan Adams, Neil Young, and Leonard Cowen combined. He has a reputation for excellence and an absolute demand for perfection.

I’m Ross Porter and welcome to the documentary, ‘Rob McConnell: The Boss of the Boss Brass.’

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rob McConnell in a studio in Toronto to talk about his life, his work, and his music.

Ross Porter: The music that you hear in your head, does it sound the same way after the musicians have played it?

Rob McConnell: Well, it’s usually better than I had hoped for because of the sparkling and eager and talented musicians I’ve had in any of my bands. I find that the musicians bring so much eagerness and talent to the floor that in under any circumstance they lift me up.

Ross Porter: A list of the players who’ve worked with Rob McConnell reads like a who’s who of the Canadian Jazz scene. Players such as Ed Bickert, Mo Kaufman, Don Thompson, Guido Basso, Terry Clarke, Rick Wilkins, and Ian McDougall. Rob may be admired throughout the jazz world for his playing ability and composing, but it’s his gift as a big band arranger that has really set him apart.

Jack Batten (former jazz critic for the Globe and Mail): The whole world should know about Rob McConnell, but not even all of Canada knows Rob McConnell, but that’s the nature of jazz, I guess. I mean, anybody, anywhere in the world who knows about big band music, in any country, knows about Rob McConnell.

Alex Dean (Boss Brass saxophonist): I think Rob is an individual voice, a true artistic individual voice in the world of jazz music. And I mean, in the world. I don’t think he’s doing anything that’s like, “Oh man, this is all brand new!” “This is the new thing.” In fact Rob would probably happy if you said, “Oh this is the old thing.” You know. His writing is incredible and his influence. I mean, he has influenced all other writing. The way he voices. The way he harmonizes. The way he puts unisons together. I guess the thing now is that people lift Rob’s stuff and use it. And they don’t even know.


Ian McDougall (lead trombone player for The Boss Brass): You know when went to an LA for the first time Rob was honored by the LA people and all the big people there. They just said, “Rob, you’ve actually done something that’s changed the way we think about rearranging for the big band.” It was the best damn band in the world.

Ross Porter: This giant of jazz was born in London, Ontario on Valentine’s day 1935. The son of a traveling salesman, Rob’s family was uprooted to Toronto to follow his father’s career when Rob was just 11 years old. And it was in Toronto that Rob was first introduced to the instrument that would become his musical forte and define his style as a composer, the trombone.

Rob McConnell: I started out singing, you know, as a soprano in church, stuff like that, but I was soon singing tenors so I was singing harmony parts. And then when I started to play in grade 9 at Northern Vocational School here, I really wanted to play the trumpet because my brother played the trumpet. But when they got to McConnell MCC, they didn’t have any trumpets left. So he said, “All we have is a trombone. And I said, well, it’s down an octave, but I’ll give it a try.”

Ross Porter: So in the 50s, what kinds of bands were you playing with?

Rob McConnell: Well, you know, I started in high school and I quit high school in grade 10, my second year of grade 10, I’m ashamed to say, and I went west. Go west young man, you know, whatever that is, and worked on an oil rig for about seven months, way up north of everything. And then I came back to Edmonton and I had cash money. So I went in the most famous music store in Edmonton and I bought a brand new trombone and put the cash on the counter in sight of those in the store, $250 or so. And so then I started practicing and I started playing around Edmonton, you know, like club dates and, oh you know, the odd Bar Mitzvah or whatever, you know, just kind of crappy jobs.

Ross Porter: Deciding that it was time for him to come home to Toronto and to get serious about his career. Rob piled into an old beat up car with no muffler and headed east. Joining him on the journey were brothers Don and Lloyd Thompson and Winnipeg piano player Bob Erlendson.

Rob McConnell: We were completely flat, busted broke by the time we got around Winnipeg. At that time we were siphoning gas so we could make a day’s drive.

Ross Porter: Siphoning gas from other people’s cars?

Rob McConnell: Yes, yeah. Usually used car lots or, you know. It would be at night, you know, in the dark. We got here and that was kind of, okay, now I’m home, now I‘m going to start trying to get some work here.

Ross Porter: It was the 1950s and the Toronto music scene was very much alive. Seedy rock and roll clubs littered the Young Street strip popping out the hits of the day to a well liquored crowd. Rob found himself stringing together a living by finding work playing in many of these clubs including one of the rowdiest, the Zanzibar Tavern.

Rob McConnell: Women take their clothes off there, now.  I think I haven’t been in there in a while – I don’t really want to see it again. I sang and played the piano and the trombone and we sang songs of the day, you know, mostly early rock and roll.

Ross Porter: And what was that like?

Rob McConnell: Well it’s long hours, low pay, and I was studying with Gordon Delmont then and I had to get my lessons done and stuff like that. I wasn’t a very good student.

Ross Porter: What was the clientele like back then?

Rob McConnell: Oh, a bunch of drunks, you know. A lot of them were kind of gangsters. One night, I knew all their names and they’d buy me a beer, you know, they were all friendly. They’d have this kind of crap game that was based in going into the washroom of places all. You know bars; and it was a set up.

Ross Porter: In the early 60s Rob left Canada briefly for New York where he spent time playing and touring with Maynard Ferguson. He returned to Toronto a short time later when he joint Phil Nimmons in his big band Nimmons ‘n Nine plus Six.

Phil Nimmons: What happened with the band, it was originally like, Nimmons ‘n Nine and we added six brass and of course, Rob was one of the trombone players that was added to the band that time. Rob was always a very vital individual and you could sense the sort of leadership qualities at that time and a tremendous sense of conviction about what he wanted to see happen. You know, and so, it was a great asset, both musically and more than that, we’ve been very close friends ever since then.

Ross Porter: He was still part of the Nimmons group when the idea struck him to form a big band of his own, a band that would define him for years to come. It was the beginning of The Boss Brass.

[Music]


Ross Porter: Did The Boss Brass come together by design? Or out of evolution?

Rob McConnell: Well, it was designed, Pat Williams did a gig. Pat Williams, the arranger, who lived in New York, he did an album of pop tunes with a New York studio band and it was very good. I forget what it was called, but I went with that idea to Lyman Potts at the Canadian Talent Library was just part of CFRB at the time.

Ross Porter: Formed in 1962, the Canadian Talent Library was conceived by Lyman Potts as a way of producing commercially viable music for air play on Canadian Radio Stations. A concept for which Rob’s initial idea for The Boss Brass fit perfectly.

[Music]

Guido Basso (founding member of The Boss Brass): Rob came up with this idea that he wanted to form a band without saxes and just have brass instruments, French horns, and trumpets and trombones, and percussion and rhythm section, which he did. And recorded some cover songs from the Hit Parade and like ‘Mrs. Robinson’ and ‘God Didn’t Make The Little Green Apples’, you know, and it became a big hit and people loved it. So then he got the band a gig at a place called The Savarin here in Toronto, which was a huge lounge, very, very large and with a nice stage on it. So we’d play there regularly and one night, Jerry Toff, Mo Kaufman, and Phil Nimmons, they led a whole bunch of saxophone players into the club with placards saying, unfair to saxophone players, you know. Boss Brass should have saxes and they came in during a ballad. We were playing something very, I think it was a guitar solo with Ed Bickert. It’s very quiet and all of a sudden these guys come in making all these rackets with their placards and the press was there of course, they took shots of that because they were told that they were going to do this. It was in the paper the next day and Rob decided right there and then. “Okay, enough of this, let’s have a real jazz band.”

Rob McConnell: I went from four horns to two. Fired one of the guitar players. No fender base. Add five saxophones, who all play woodwinds. The very first chart I did was Body and Soul, which was about 10 minutes long and then continued on, you know. I think that record, which was for a Toronto company.

Ross Porter: The Attic.

Rob McConnell: Yeah. People didn’t like the fact that the one, on Attic was called, “The Jazz Album.” Like they thought, well, you think you’ve heard jazz, well this is the jazz album. Well it wasn’t meant like that it was a poor title choice for me and because it wasn’t meant like that. It was just, finally we’re able to do a jazz album.
Ross Porter: From the 1976 Boss Brass released, The Jazz Album. Here’s ‘Body and Soul’.

[Music]

Jack Batten (former Globe and Mail jazz critic): The first time I heard the band. It was a thrill to hear them. The amazing thing is that Rob built it into something huge and wonderful. It was just a great band.

Rick Wilkins (tenor saxophonist and arranger): Rob was very into the music and he must’ve spent his countless hours writing all this music to get it right because when you show up and you rehearse it, you don’t want anything to be wrong. And he definitely knew kind of what he wanted in music and rehearsed the band that way. And he didn’t tolerate any kind of lack in musicianship; he always wanted your best efforts in trying to get it right. If you weren’t in your best effort, you’d get cussed out pretty badly and if you did it more than a few times, there’d be a new guy in the chair there. That’s how it went, you know.

Alex Dean (Boss Brass saxophonist): Well I just think that, you know, he’s gregarious. He enjoys a drink every now and then. He gets angry when things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, when the music and himself and more likely the band and us are treated a certain way that he feels is not right, he is more than willing to raise his voice about it and let you know and also if you don’t give him exactly what he wants, he is more than willing to tell you in a loud and clear voice.
Ross Porter: The honor of playing with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass attracted the best and most experienced musicians in the business and topping off this elite group of players was one of the most successful jazz musicians this country has ever produced, Mo Kaufman.

Mo Kaufman: There’s nothing like sitting, playing lead alto with some of the best musicians in the country and some of the best arrangements ever written. There’s a few of us guys of the same age ilk, we call ourselves the older boys, but because a lot of the younger guys in that band, when I say younger, I’m talking guys that are like in their 30s and 40s and guys like Rob, Guido Basso and myself and Rick Wilkins are sort of the older part of that band and we know each other as friends as well as musicians. And when you say the wit that Rob has, we can like crack each other up at any given time. He is a consummate musician. I respect him very much.

Arnie Chycoski (lead trumpet player): Mo is, I always consider him like a senior person. Mo was maybe 10 years older than him and yet he would rip into Mo. Mo, what are you doing? You know, like that. Treating him like little kids then. So, once you could realize that, that was part of the bear, you know, he was great. Just don’t argue with him.

[Music]

Ross Porter: The process of finding musicians to play your music. Walk me through that.

Rob McConnell: Well, you know when I was younger. I will probably be considered kind of a tough band leader. You know, come on boys, you know. I mean I was impatient and kind of strict, I think. I mean I always liked having laughs and good breaks and, let’s all go for a drink and, you know, things like that. I never treated anyone badly.


Ian McDougall (lead trombonist for the Boss Brass): You know, if you’re talking about an art, artist and art, you’re doing it because you want it to be the best it can be. And it became the best it could be and they said it was the best thing in the world. Best thing of its kind in the world at that time. So, is that worth it? Sure it’s worth it. You know, he was striving for perfection and we’re doing it and once in a while we’re not. You know, when you’re tired or something and he would lose it and we would lose it and in particular Guido would lose it and then these guys would come screaming at each other and then they kiss and make up afterwards, you know. Not literally kiss and make up, you know what I mean.

Guido Basso (flugelhorn and trumpet): The only time that I’ve had a problem is if he insulted somebody in the audience, that would embarrass me. There were times when I had to do my big feature number, ‘Portrait of Jenny’ and the introduction starts very quietly with woodwinds and flutes. So, it starts and one table would be acting up. So he stops, cuts the band off and tells the people to keep quiet. “Shut up!” and then he brings the band in again from the top and again, people are not responding. So, two or three false starts like that and then the people would get quiet. He’d tell them to shut up or get out! So they would. They would eventually just remain silent and on with his work. Those were difficult moments. Yeah! They were.

Ross Porter: Here’s The Boss Brass featuring Guido Basso on flugelhorn with Portrait of Jenny.

[Music]

I’m Ross Porter. You’re listening to a documentary: ‘Rob McConnell: The boss of The Boss Brass.’

Ross Porter: The 1970s were glory days for Rob McConnell and the A list of players who made up the Boss Brass. In Toronto work for musicians was both plentiful and profitable. At night the clubs were hoping with the sound of jazz echoing out onto the streets and during the daylight hours there were plenty of studio gigs to choose from. Everything from session work on albums to performing jingles for commercials to providing music scores for television and radio.

Rob McConnell: If you go, go back and get my book in 1972 and just show it to you, there is not a day when there isn’t three, four jobs on it.

Ross Porter: You’re talking about the Bob McLean show and.

Rob McConnell: That, which was 5 shows a week. At the same time we were doing Juliet Show, which was 5 a week, too. At the same time we’re doing a radio show from The Colonnade, which was five a week. Wayne and Schuster, I did Wayne and Schuster for 35 years. You know, I mean and then jingles and records and the Boss Brass. All of that went on at the same time.

Ross Porter: And was that good work? Was it satisfying to do?

Rob McConnell: No, we’d be bitching all the time about it. I mean I would be. It was trash generally.

Ian McDougall: Well sometimes Rob and I got, we were catalysts actually. We would spur each other on to do bad, be bad boys. It’s usually because we’ve been, you know, loaded with a couple of extra drinks or something like that, but you know, we have a good time together Rob and I. We would do the Bobby Benton Show and pre-record it and we got there to do the miming for the show, first of all we didn’t mime it. Rob and I had a case between us and we would be playing cribbage as the show was going on and they would give us shit for it, and certainly the leader wasn’t too thrilled with it, but Rob and I didn’t seem to give a shit so we did it anyway.

Guido Basso: He’s a guy who has taught bartenders all over the world how to make a Martini properly. You know, he goes to the bar and he says, I want a Martini, but I want to make it. I will come in there, let me get over this bar. Where’s the door? You know, he goes and helps himself to all the ingredients and shows the bartender how to make a proper Martini. I think it’s hell of a lot of gin and very little Vermouth and an olive and a twist, but it’s never the right combination, when other people make it. So, he has to make his own Martini and if he doesn’t like it then he’s the only one to blame.

Ross Porter: As the number of albums that The Boss Brass put out grew, so did the band’s stature and reputation. Each new release introduced new listeners to The Boss Brass and gained them an increasingly large fan based stemming from countries all around the world.

Ian McDougall: By popular demand we wound up going to Vegas. We did the Monterey Jazz Festival. We did the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl and we played in a few clubs in California, jazz clubs. And it’s amazing what a compliment to Rob for, when you look at the people sitting in the club and you’ve got Nelson Riddle, Hank Mancini sitting there, all the guys from the Tonight Show Band. Doc Severinson of that band. Composers. Woody Herman also. You know, we did two shows, you do the first show and go outside because the club was smoky and it’s not a very large club. So you go outside for a breath of fresh air and you see these big-named band leaders and musicians lined up for the second show because they’d throw everybody out at the end of the show and then if you want to catch the second one you have to pay another cover charge, you know. So, I would say that, that was probably one of the only, as far as I know, the only jazz band that became a name band all over the world. It’s quite an accomplishment. Yeah, it is. It looks good on Rob.


Ross Porter: And the awards piled up including Grammy’s and Juno’s.

Rob McConnell: I’ve given them all away.

Ross Porter: Have you?

Rob McConnell: Yeah.

Ross Porter: Where did they go?

Rob McConnell: Don’t tell Juno. Well, grandchildren. I have seven grandchildren. So I gave them all away and then all except the youngest, I guess. Then I had a couple of kids that lived across the street from me in Peterborough that helped me with various things, the pool and all the garden, cleaning up leaves and stuff like that. So I gave them each one and I put a new label on it. So I said, “To the world’s best neighbors,” and gave them both one.

Ross Porter: And how many Grammy’s?

Rob McConnell: Three.

Ross Porter: And where are they?

Rob McConnell: I have one. I don’t know where the other two went. Probably with my two daughters. I was nominated for 17 Grammys and I won three in three different categories.

Ross Porter: For your work with the Boss Brass?

Rob McConnell: Yep.

Ross Porter: So, world-class band. That kind of recognition from the industry.

Rob McConnell: Yeah, I don’t think anybody can top 17 nominations and three wins in three different categories. Best Band. Best arrangement. Best arrangement accompanying a vocal.

Alex Dean: That’s pretty amazing. When you think about it, three Grammys. I don’t think anybody in Canada knows that Rob has got three Grammys. I’d be surprised. You know. I don’t know if the awards mean that much to Rob. Maybe they mean more now that he is older and he’s starting to slow down. Maybe mean a little bit more, but at the time he would get the award, but, you know, I think at one point, it was Toshiko Akiyoshi got an award for a Grammy or something and then she went and made the speech and she said, “This is very nice, but what I really need is a job.”

Well, I think that’s sort of a way Rob looked at the awards, you know. It’s very nice to get these awards and stuff, but what I really need is a gig. I really need to be touring and working with this band and I need to do it. It doesn’t have to be easy. I just need to do that and, people always give you these awards and that’s great, but really we’re musicians. We just want to play. I mean, that’s what we want to do, we want to play. We want to hang out. We want a couple of pops. We want to play some hard music and make it sound good. Sit in the bus. That’s what we want to do. It’s fun, you know, and I think that’s what Rob is about to a certain degree.

And I think, to a certain degree he is an anti kind of guy in a way because on the one hand he doesn’t necessarily get a lot of the respect that he deserves possibly because he’s a cantankerous individual and on the other hand, complains a little bit that, you know, it would be nice if he got paid a little bit or got the respect that he deserve, you know, it’s kind of like six to one that have this to the other. I think he would be happy if, you know, if his big band records and his quintet records and his trio records had sold billions and billions and everybody was happy and he was touring all the time, but he never got an award. I think he’d be happier with that.

Ross Porter: One of Rob’s Grammy awards recognized a very special collaboration in his career. It was an award for one of the two studio albums that the Boss Brass recorded with a man they called, the Velvet Fog, Mel Torme’.

Rob McConnell: He was damn musical. He had a great ear. He very seldom made a mistake. There was a couple of charts that I can’t sing and I wrote them.

Ross Porter: By the time of their first collaboration Mel was a seasoned veteran with a reputation for sharing many of the same traits as Rob, both were seen as opinionated and wouldn’t settle for anything short of perfection. For the guys in The Boss Brass. The bets were in. They were all curious to see how two of the most temperamental musicians in the music business were going to get along when challenged with working together in the high pressure environment of a recording studio.


Rob McConnell: We had a really funny chart. I was quite sure it would be okay, but I was worried that Mel might not like it. He liked the tune. And we had a certain amount of trouble with people high up in the company that, there are three guys on the record company and an engineer, none of them from Toronto and none of them had been at any other dates I’ve done. We worked on it quite hard. We did I think two takes and we’re going for take three the suit people in the booth are asking about, is that note right and I had to go in give them a little talk into and I said, “Now, here’s the situation you guys.” I said, “I‘m the band leader and I’m the arranger. It’s Mel Torme’s record and he’s the engineer. I don’t want anybody else to have any opinion or open his mouth about the music. That’s all been decided a long time ago and has taken a long time. And getting a take on this Goddamn thing is taking a long time too and I’m not pleased about that, but I’m certainly not pleased when you’re giving advice. So, button up.”

So that was our little meeting and then I came back and the band all heard me and so then, Mel was standing right near me. He said, “You know, what is bothering me about this chart and the band?” You know, so like this and I‘m saying, so I’m standing there and the booth is listening too and they’re hoping that he doesn’t like it and he says, I said, “No what is it Mel?” And he says, “I’m starting to like it.”

Ross Porter: From the 1995 album, ‘Velvet and Brass’. Here is Mel Torme singing the Grammy Award winning Rob McConnell arrangement, ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You.’

[Music]

I’m Ross Porter and you’re listening to Canada’s premier jazz station Jazz FM 91. You’re listening to a documentary: ‘Rob McConnell: The boss of The Boss Brass.’
Ross Porter: For 32 years the Boss Brass towered over the big band scene. They recorded dozens of albums, which earned them both critical praise and countless awards and throughout this amazing run it was Rob McConnell who stood at the center of it all and kept The Boss Brass moving.

So, 32 years. What kept you doing it?

Rob McConnell: Well I had work most of the time and my late wife Margaret said in 2000, you know, she said, Rob you got to start addressing this problem here. If you have a band that only works three times in a year, you don’t have a band do you? You have three gigs for a big band.

Ross Porter: How long had you kicked it around before you announced that it was over.

Rob McConnell: Not long Ross. Our last gig is in 2000. I had already started writing in 1998 for the 10-piece band. So, my wife’s and my discussions about, do you have a band if you only work three times in one year, which was the year 2000 and I said no and the first thing I have to do is write for a band that’s half that size because I can’t make any money myself and I can’t pay the guys in the band. You know, it’s just what bands are left now that are playing around? Not much. Like it’s a big enough insult to pay Guido Basso and Mel Kaufman and Ed Bicker and Terry Clark and Don Thompson and all these all stars of Canadian music, $250 for a concert and I’ll take the same. I’ll take $250 too. It’s just not enough. You can’t do it for that. You know what I’m saying. And it’s too much money. It’s almost $5,000, you know, by the time you – and nobody will pay you $5,000. So, I’ll do it with 10 people. I still want $5,000.


Guido Basso: Rob formed a tentet and I was in the tentet with the other boys and that was fun for a while and I think at the moment the tentet is dormant. Rob is getting himself together again because he has not been well and I certainly hope that the sun shines on him again.

Rob McConnell: I had some trouble with my balance and stuff this summer, well this year.

And then I had a fall down at the Rex one night and so I missed the second night. I fell down and was taken to the hospital and musician humor is that one by one every guy in the band wanted to call me and say how good it sounded without me. So, okay, they played my book and he said, boy it was really good the second night without you, you know. It’s too bad you couldn’t have heard it.

Ross Porter: What have you learned about yourself over the last few months?

Rob McConnell: Well, nothing much I haven’t changed anything. I take a lot more drugs and I’ve seen, I’m on doctor number 13 I think now. So, I’m hopeful. I have got McConnell heart disease, grandfather’s, father, elder brother, me, my younger brother. My younger brother has five stents. So it’s just, you know, welcome to the club.

Ross Porter: How has all of this changed your outlook? Or has it changed your outlook on life?

Rob McConnell: Well it has a little bit. I haven’t been playing. It got so, well I don’t want to talk about it anymore, but I only have three arteries left, like two are closed, but they are not important, but it can’t get down to just one.

Ross Porter: Rob’s trombone has been sitting quiet since his heart troubles began, but the illness hasn’t dampened Rob’s spirit or his love for the music, even as just a listener and fan.

Rob McConnell: I have an iPod now and it has really revitalized my listening to music. Two years ago my first wife died, Margaret, and Jean Purling of the Singers Unlimited and Helen came to our, we didn’t have a real funeral. We had a reception in my son’s house and I had listened to the iPod on his veranda the last visit I had at his place in Marin County.

Well, he brought the iPod that I had listened to at his house because he bought a better one and he’s programmed everything so I‘ve got an iPod, a 25 gigabyte iPod with 4,000 tunes on it of everything you can imagine. Some classical music a lot of piano players, some Singers Unlimited, some Hi Lo’s, some Rob McConnell, Ian McDougall. And if you just put them on random play you don’t even remember the last time you heard it, you know, because they just go back like, while they are unplugged. They go back to random.

Yeah, I could never find anything I wanted if I had it with me now I’d want you to hear something and of course it would take me about nine hours to find it, but it’s just so little trouble. There’s always beautiful music, Bob McFerrin and oh gosh they are just swooning some things. It exhausts me actually. And the girl I live with. She can tell when I’ve been listening. You know, if she’s in another room or comes home from work or whatever, she says “Did you have a nice afternoon with the iPod?” Because I sing.


Ross Porter: Rob’s influence as a big band arranger will live on for many years. His international acclaim and stature has earned him a proud place in the history of jazz. His strong sense of determination helped push himself as well as the musicians around him to extraordinary heights through his desire for excellence and his stubbornness to settle for nothing less. He was able to achieve something that was and will continue to be truly magnificent.

One last thing before we wrap it up. It’s a quote, ‘When I’m [Rob McConnell] asked ‘What do you really want to do?’ Well, I really want to be in charge.’

Rob McConnell: I remember saying that. I forget where, but that’s why being the band leader is best for me. I’m not really a good side man because I’m trying to change things for somebody else because I think they’re not doing the right thing. You know, I think I was a pain for several band leaders that I played for. I think

Guido Basso once said that he played lead trumpet from the fifth chair: “I’m playing fifth trumpet, but I’m telling all the other trumpets how to play”. So that’s what I do in a band of my own. So the best idea is to get your band and you can tell them what do.

And you have to be a writer really, you can’t have a band and just ask people to write for you. You have to pay them. The only reason I did it because I didn’t have to pay me, you know. I used all my money, I have no money. I used all the money I made from studio work in those busy times. I used it running my band and at a loss, you know, it’s expensive, but I had a lot of fun.

[Music]

You’ve been listening to ‘Rob McConnell: The boss of the Boss Brass,’ an original documentary on Jazz FM 91.”

Here’s a video tribute to Rob and The Boss Brass that uses as its audio track one of Rob’s arrangement in which he combines Horace Silver’s Peace into a medley with trumpeter Blue Mitchell’s Blue Silver.

The soloists are Kevin Turcotte and Steve McDade on trumpet and Ted Warren on drums. Listen to how Rob takes Blue Mitchell’s improvisations from the Horace Silver quintet recording and orchestrates them as a shout chorus beginning at 7:22 minutes.

As Rob explained: “Blue’s original choruses are hard enough to play when you can practice them, let alone create them instantly on a record date, as Blue did … whew!”

Terry Clarke, the first drummer with The Boss Brass, said to me recently: “Rob McConnell was some kind of big band arranger; they don’t come any better.”

I’m sure going to miss Rob McConnell.

He was a boss arranger.