Calgary trumpeter Al Muirhead waited a while to put his jazz career into high gear.
His first solo album, the aptly named It’s About Time, earned him a Juno nomination in 2016 — not long after he’d turned 80. Muirhead’s followed up with two more discs that showcase his lyrical playing, and this summer, he’s playing at six Canadian jazz festivals.
At the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, he plays Sunday, June 25, at the NAC Back Stage, with fellow musical veterans Guido Basso and Brian Browne, plus youngblood bassist Kodi Hutchinson.
Below, Muirhead describes his musical path and priorities.
Q: How did you start playing the trumpet?
A: During the 1940s the war was still on, and my father was overseas. My older brother Cal was playing tuba in a reserve army band, and for some reason, brought home many brass instruments: tubas, baritone horns, French horn, trombones, and cornets. I started fooling around with all of them, to see if I could get a sound. I started on the tuba. I played in the Regina Junior Symphony at age 12, and then went to the cornet. I must have been 13 or 14 before I got my first trumpet. There were no formal lessons at the conservatory in those days, so my older brother was my first teacher, so to speak. We could not have afforded music lessons even if they were available. So we joined bands, and learned how to read through the hit-and-miss method. I developed a very good ear for playing starting this way. I eventually played first trumpet in the Regina Symphony orchestra in my early 20s.
Q: When did jazz enter into the picture?
A: At age 15 or 16, they started a big band fashioned after the big bands of the day (Miller, Kenton, Ellington, etc.) and they asked me to play in the band. That is when I started to listen to jazz on late-night radio stations, from all over the U.S. I listened to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and many others, and became absolutely enthralled with this new style of jazz. At the same time I was playing the circus or ice show, or backing celebrities that came to town. I played in dance bands, barn dances — you name it and I probably played it. I thought this was great, getting paid to do what you loved to do the most.
Q: Did you ever give any thought to being a full-time jazz musician?
A: I became a partner in a music store in Regina, Arcade Music Centre, and moved to Calgary in 1966. I was married and had four children at that time. I needed something more secure in my life in order to house, feed and clothe my family. However, I was still playing all the time. I did think about being a full-time jazz musician, but after going to a concert in Vancouver with many of the jazz greats on stage, I was really disturbed by the drinking and drug activities that were going on. If this is how you have to act to be a jazz musician, then no thanks. I don’t want to live that way.
Q: Who are some of your favourite musicians that you’ve worked with?
A: It was always such a thrill to play with great musicians from Eastern Canada. I got to meet and play with Moe Koffman, Eric Traugert to name a few. We had a big band going in Calgary called the Pro band, and we played with Dizzy Gillespie. He rehearsed us and we played some of his arrangements. What a great memory. I also had the pleasure of sitting beside Thad Jones until the wee hours of the morning at a jam session in Regina after a Count Basie concert. Lots of wonderful experiences to look back on.
Q: Your debut as a leader came out in 2016. What took so long?
A: Only the greats were recording during my early ages. I did play on a lot of other people’s recordings, but for some reason, never thought of doing one of my own. Now everybody is recording, a new kind of calling card. Kodi Hutchinson, a very fine bass player and owner of Chronograph records, talked me into doing a solo album, so you can blame him.
Q: Tell me about the tunes that you like to play.
A: I grew up listening to the music of the day, on radio, records, or TV. The tunes of that period are now called standards in the music world. That was our repertoire. I love the tunes that move to another key or chord change quite unexpectedly, or give a new twist to the melody. The tunes we picked to play on the recordings are tunes that all the musicians have played hundreds of times. It was a nice, relaxed, no-pressure kind of a way to do it.
Q: On your tour, you play with peers such as Guido Basso, P.J. Perry and Tommy Banks, but also younger Canadian jazz musicians. When it comes to playing jazz, what’s the difference between the musical generations?
A: Playing with Guido, Tommy, P.J. was a thrill. We are all pretty close in age, and it just felt so comfortable and easy to make music with these guys. They are, without a doubt, my favourite Canadian jazz musicians. Meeting and playing with the younger players, Laila (Biali), Chris (Andrew) and Kodi, you start realizing that you are getting older, and don’t have the knowledge and skills this new generation has. The colleges and universities are turning out more highly skilled players than ever before.
Q: How much jazz listening do you do?
A: I still have a lot of tapes, CDs, recordings, but don’t get a chance to listen to them often enough. I do listen to Stingray Jazz almost daily. I do hear what the players have been studying at school in their playing. It is sounding very scholastic to me. When I stop to think of why this is, I realize that we are living in a very busy time, and the music reflects that. Higher, faster, louder, busier seems to be where it’s at these days. I prefer the music of my generation — melodious, warm, loving, swinging, and a lot of fun to play. Do you think this has anything to do with my age? I am so grateful that I am still able to play with all the new and wonderful players out there. Music is in very good hands, and will continue to be an important part of all of our lives.
Al Muirhead plays:
Sunday, June 25 – TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
with Guido Basso (flugelhorn), Brian Browne (piano) & Kodi Hutchinson (bass)
Tuesday, June 27 – TD Toronto Jazz Festival
with Laila Biali (vocals), Reg Schwager (guitar) & Kodi Hutchinson (bass)
Thursday, June 29 – TD Edmonton International Jazz Festival
with Tommy Banks (piano), PJ Perry (sax), Kodi Hutchinson (bass) & Tyler Hornby (drums)