Against the odds, these Canadian bandleaders made it big in the U.S.

During the heyday of the big bands, it was next to impossible for a Canadian orchestra to get permission from the American Federation of Musicians to perform in the United States. But there were eight Canadian bandleaders who succeeded at their craft by moving to the U.S. and working with American players — all, of course, AFM members.

Some of these Canadians, such as Gil Evans and Will Osborne, moved to America with their families at an early age and grew up in the U.S. Others, such as Dennis Farnon and Maynard Ferguson, moved south after their careers were well established. One of them, Guy Lombardo, began playing in Cleveland in the early 1920s, long before anyone thought to tell him his group of Canadian musicians wasn’t welcome.

Here is a list of eight successful Canadian bandleaders, all of whom were famous in their day and some of whom are still well known for the great bands they led and the great music they created.

Georgie Auld

Georgie Auld was born in Toronto and moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1929. A self-taught saxophone player, while still a teenager he became a tenor sax sensation with the bands led by trumpeter Bunny Berigan and clarinetist Artie Shaw. After the Second World War, Auld led his own big band and recorded for the then-new Musicraft label.

Gil Evans

Born Ernest Gilmore Green in Toronto in 1912, jazz pianist Gil Evans later adopted the last name of his stepfather. Evans grew up in California and first earned prominence as an arranger with Claude Thornhill’s orchestra in the early 1940s. He is considered one of the fathers of “cool” jazz through his work with trumpeter Miles Davis from 1949 to 1960. Evans also led his own adventurous jazz orchestra for many years.

Dennis Farnon

Born in Toronto in 1923, Dennis Farnon may not be as famous as his brother Robert, who led the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Force in England during the Second World War and then, after hostilities ceased, stayed to become one of Britain’s most revered composers and arrangers of light classical music. But Dennis, along with another brother Brian, played in the Canadian Army Show orchestra during the war, and later moved to the U.S. where he enjoyed a long career writing music for films. In 1956, he recorded an album called Caution! Men Swinging with an all-star band of California musicians.

Jack Kane

Jack Kane was born in the U.K. in 1924 but grew up in Canada, where he received his musical training. He was a brilliant arranger whose first album Kane is Able, recorded with an all-star group of musicians in Hollywood in 1958, was nominated for a Grammy. Kane enjoyed fame on both sides of the border through his weekly CBC television show, Jack Kane’s Music Makers, and as the musical director for the TV specials of singers such as Eydie Gormé, Steve Lawrence and Andy Williams. Also a brilliant composer, Jack’s career was cut short by his death from cancer in 1961 at the age of just 36.

Maynard Ferguson

Maynard Ferguson was born in Verdun, Que., in 1928 and became the prototypical high-note jazz trumpet player, first earning fame with the Boyd Raeburn and Stan Kenton orchestras in the 1940s. Ferguson formed his own orchestra in the mid-1950s, known as the Birdland Dream Band, and enjoyed a long career as a leader and player, eventually with orchestras such as Big Bop Nouveau, which featured a blend of jazz, rock and funk.


Guy Lombardo

This is arguably the most famous of all Canadian bandleaders. Guy Lombardo started to make a name for himself when he left his hometown of London, Ont., and began playing in Cleveland in the 1920s. Eventually, the Lombardo sound, known as “the sweetest music this side of heaven,” became the most popular of all the “sweet” bands. For years, on radio and then television, it wouldn’t have been New Year’s Eve without the Royal Canadians playing their theme song, Auld Lang Syne.

Will Osborne

Born in Toronto in 1905, Will Osborne was an important bandleader and singer in the U.S. in the 1930s. As a “crooner,” he was a rival to Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby and led a highly stylized orchestra that featured “glissing trombones,” a musical effect achieved by playing through megaphones. Then, in the early 1940s, he changed musical styles and led a very swinging outfit.

Oscar Peterson

Born in Montreal to immigrant parents from the West Indies in 1925, Oscar Peterson is considered Canada’s greatest-ever jazz musician. Duke Ellington called him the “Maharaja of the Keyboard” and his piano playing, mostly with his trio and quartet, earned him eight Grammy awards. Peterson made more than 200 albums during his long career, but only two of them were ever done with a big band. We will feature recordings from those two LPs, especially his tribute to Nat Cole, on Sept. 1. Oscar swings — and sings!