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Thank you Denny

I tend to shy away from writing here in response to someone’s passing. It’s too fraught – why write about this person and not others? How can I possibly capture someone’s life’s work in a short blog post? – but word of Denny Christianson’s passing has hit hard.

Denny was a trumpeter, composer, bandleader and educator who, for 17 years, was the director of music studies at Humber College. Since word of his passing emerged yesterday, tributes have been written by some of Canada’s top musicians – along with some of the outstanding younger musicians his work at Humber College helped to foster. I won’t try here to list Denny’s impressive biography; and there are many who can write much more eloquently and knowledgeably about his achievements on and off the bandstand. Instead I wanted to share just a few thoughts about my experience with Denny.

My first interactions with Denny were at National Music Camp, where I was a camper about 30 years ago. I was still relatively new to jazz at that time, and NMC was an incredible source of information and inspiration for me each year. Denny led the trumpet master class one year, and although my memory is a bit foggy of everything we discussed, two items in particular stand out: he had us listen to excerpts from a recently-released (at that time) Columbia Music collection of Miles Davis recordings; and he introduced us to the work of vocalist Carmen McRae. I didn’t really know who Denny Christianson was at the time, but I knew that if he was on faculty at NMC, I should listen well to what he had to say – his speaking passionately about Miles and Carmen has always stuck with me.

When I was auditioning for music schools, I didn’t apply to Humber College. I wanted a degree, which wasn’t available from Humber at that time, and the program was in need of redevelopment. Denny took over as director of music studies at Humber two years after I graduated from U of T Jazz, and the transformation of the program was amazing to watch. In just under two decades, he redeveloped the program and (re)positioned the school as an important player on the international jazz education scene. The quality of students graduating from the school skyrocketed over his tenure (to be clear: there were always fantastic students coming out of Humber’s program), and he developed an awe-inspiring artist-in-residence program – one workshop by Pat Metheny is particularly memorable for me. Humber is now a degree-granting institution, and even the facilities received an upgrade, with the opening in 2007 of the Humber Recording Studio. Although I didn’t attend Humber, so didn’t work with Denny as a student, I benefitted from his passion for providing an outstanding educational experience: I was enriched by the various guest artists whose public workshops I attended; many of the students who graduated during Denny’s tenure as director I now count as friends or musical colleagues; and the recording studio (with Steve Bellamy at the helm) provided a fantastic venue for the recording of my band’s third album – I have such fond memories of that entire experience.

Over his career, Denny worked with some of the top musicians and educators in the world – people that I look to as models of outstanding playing and teaching. Which is why, in some ways, I so appreciated the interactions I had with Denny over the past few years at the jazz festival. Despite my being a relative amateur when compared to so many of the faculty and guests he would work with each year, every time we spoke – either in person or on the phone – I felt such respect from Denny. He spoke to me as if I was a real colleague. It was clear he wanted the best for his students and faculty, but also for the festival; he appreciated the efforts we made to feature Humber personnel, but also wanted to make sure the collaboration, however it looked, fit within the context of the Festival. Even in these interactions I was able to learn from Denny, and am thankful for having had the opportunity to work with him, in all of these various contexts, over the years.

Please take some time to read some of the official obituaries but also the numerous comments on social media about Denny’s passing. The impact he had on so many is far wider than I could hope to express here.

Josh

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