The Jazz Performance and Education Centre – A New Vision of Jazz in Toronto


By Bill McDonald

Keeping jazz not only alive, but flourishing, is a common challenge in many cities across North America.  Despite our rich music history, world class musicians, and great education programs, this is equally true in Toronto. 

This is the basis of an exciting, new initiative, the Jazz Performance and Education Center (JPEC) - a not-for-profit and charitable organization dedicated to the preservation and continued development of jazz music in Canada.

The genesis of JPEC was an emotional reaction by long time jazz fans, Ray and Rochelle Koskie, to the loss of two Toronto jazz venues:  the Montreal Bistro and the Top O’ The Senator.  While they were looking for a way to revitalize jazz, they were clearly aware of the challenges involved in for-profit jazz venues.  Instead, they looked at the Jazz at Lincoln Centre in New York City, which is in fact a charitable organization, which not only hosts jazz performances but reaches out into the wider community and promotes jazz education at all academic levels.  They thought that this concept could work in Toronto.

Gathering a group of like-minded friends, including Anne Page, Jim Galloway, Ted O’Reilly, Sybil Walker, Bobby Herriot, and John Norris, they began to develop a way to make this model work in Toronto (and hopefully, across Canada).  Through their contacts, they began to involve others to help achieve this vision.  Included among these was Lea Parrell of Harmony Marketing.

The kick-off gala concert in early October at the Glenn Gould Studio was a jazz tribute to the extraordinary Canadian, former Ontario Lieutenant Governor Lincoln Alexander (who, along with the Honourable Warren K. Winkler, Chief Justice of Ontario, serves as honorary co-chair of JPEC). 

Those fortunate enough to attend this event witnessed an evening of incredible performances.  Under the direction of accomplished musician and arranger, Russ Little, an all-star band of musicians performed with guests Jackie Richardson, Molly Johnson, Arlene Duncan, and Michael Dunstan (vocals), Joe Sealy (piano), Archie Alleyne (drums), Peter Appleyard (vibraphone), and Guido Basso (flugel horn).  The “I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I believed in what they were trying to accomplish”, says Parrell.  “I came on board to act as a marketing consultant and a partnership consultant, and put together all the things required before we could actually go out into the market.” 

Despite the daunting challenge and virtually no capital, they were able to get to the point of producing an inaugural series of fund raising concerts.  Key to this was their media partnerships with Jazz 91.1 and The National Post.  Parrell emphasized the tremendous support received from Ross Porter and Paul Godfrey. The enthusiasm of the performers was clear evidence of their love of jazz and long time friendship with Mr. Alexander.

The legendary Jackie Richardson best summed up the importance of recognizing Lincoln Alexander and his support of JPEC.  “There are no words to express how much the people of Canada love him, and respect him, because he cares.  He has always been for the people.  He is the one who has fought for each and every one of us.  There is still so much we don’t even  about because he often does it so quietly.  He has always been a supporter of the arts, especially jazz.  That he gives his utmost support to JPEC goes so far.”

Arlene Duncan represented well the performers’ support of JPEC.  “I have to give them credit.  It seems the jazz venues are disappearing.  It’s great to create a place dedicated to celebrating this kind of music where people can come out and hear our artists, so when we come to Toronto, we will have a place to play.”

The remaining concerts at the Glenn Gould Studio include the Oliver Jones Trio (November 14, 2009), Ingrid Jensen Quintet (February 24, 2010), Kurt Rosenwinkel Quartet (March 27, 2010), and Bill Charlap / Renee Rosnes (April 24, 2010).  Also appearing at the Bluma Appel Theatre on December 12, 2009, will be internationally acclaimed and Grammy Award winning jazz vocalist, Dianne Reeves.

With the success of these concerts, which will hopefully inspire further corporate and individual support, future concert series will continue to host equally impressive line-ups.

To truly achieve its’ vision, JPEC has a number of initiatives to educate audiences, musicians, and students in the world of jazz:

They will present performances by local and international jazz artists.  JPEC will reach out to communities in need with subsidized tickets.

Selected performances will feature special pre-show events engaging the artist in conversation with the audience.  JPEC believes that it is important to making the music and music makers accessible and understood, as well as appreciated.

Local and visiting musicians will perform for school groups and senior citizens.  Some performances will include a workshop component.

JPEC will partner with post secondary institutions that offer jazz studies and master classes with visiting musicians, providing invaluable access to some of the most import jazz artists today.

Jazz students and members of the community will have the opportunity to contribute to ongoing JPEC activities.

Included in the ongoing JPEC activities are the creations of an Archival Museum, Hall of Fame and Performance Centre.  This will be a first class venue for local and international musicians to showcase their talent.  Like the Lincoln Centre, this facility will expand Toronto’s reputation as a vibrant city to experience jazz and create an environment that nurtures local talent and creates a new and diverse audience.

The theme of education runs throughout JPEC.  It is building relationships with music programmes at Humber College and the University of Toronto.  As Parrell states, “when I was growing up music was my life.  Now you hear about young people who are not able to experience this because it is one of the classes being cut.  It’s such a shame because it’s not educating them for when they become adults.  All they will know is the music that is on the radio.  They are not going able to appreciate classical music and jazz music.”  The Centre will be a place where they can bring instruments, and try instruments.  It will be a place where they can learn and a place that can spark a musical direction. 

There is a quote by Dr. Oscar Peterson that is featured on the JPEC website: 

“If live performance is scary, it is also uniquely exciting: once it’s bitten you, you never get rid of it. Nor do you want to; for you come to believe that if you get it all right, you will be capable of virtually anything. That is what drives me, and I know it will always do so.”

In this quote, Dr. Peterson is clearly reflecting on his experience in performing jazz.  But his words could just as easily be applied to establishing the Jazz Performance and Education Centre.  This ambitious prospect is indeed scary, but uniquely exciting.  It is what drives those involved and the wide community that it will benefit.

Visit the JPEC website at: