In memory of Denny Christianson, beloved Canadian jazz educator

Denny Christianson, the jazz musician and educator who appeared on more than 250 albums and inspired generations of Canadian jazz students along the way through his work at Humber College, has died at the age of 78.

Rising to prominence as the leader of the 18-piece Denny Christianson Big Band in Montreal in 1981, Christianson was a widely acclaimed trumpeter, flugelhornist, arranger, composer, conductor and bandleader with a career that lasted several decades.

In 2001, Christianson became the director of music studies at Humber College in Toronto, where he made a lasting impression on the past, present and future of jazz in Canada. He retired in 2018.

“This man is responsible for single-handedly fostering thousands of careers and recordings,” trumpeter Andrew McAnsh wrote in a tribute to Christianson late Wednesday night.

“Denny was a driving force in Canadian music and Canadian education,” wrote saxophonist Pat LaBarbera.

MusicFest Canada, for whom Christianson served as president since 2018, confirmed his death on Wednesday.

Christianson’s wife Rose added that he “passed away quietly and peacefully with his wife at his side.” He had Parkinson’s disease and later suffered complications from leukemia.

Born Sept. 12, 1942 in Rockford, Ill., Christianson first moved to Los Angeles and then to Montreal, before finally landing in Toronto. He has been a Canadian citizen since 1991.

Christianson has a long list of recording credits with jazz and pop stars including Tony Bennett, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Benny Carter, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., Kenny Drew, The Jackson 5, J.J. Johnson, Oliver Jones, Diana Krall, Carmen McRae, Smokey Robinson, Guido Basso and Stevie Wonder.

Christianson recorded and toured internationally with his big band, and he also led several critically praised smaller groups. He recorded numerous film soundtracks and hundreds of commercials, and was the music director for 15 television shows.

Prior to joining Humber College, Christianson taught at McGill University, Concordia University, Université de Montreal, and John Abbott College, and he served as the head of music at Centennial Academy in Montreal for eight years. He led the CJAD All-City Big Band for 15 years, winning national titles at MusicFest Canada and awards from Jazz Report Magazine.

Christianson also led the TD Young Jazz Showcase, a highlight of the All Canadian Jazz Festival since 2002, bringing five or six of the finest high-school jazz musicians to Port Hope, Ont., each year for intensive workshops, culminating in two sets on the festival’s main stage.

Upon hearing the news of his passing, numerous Canadian jazz musicians paid tribute to Christianson this week.

“Denny Christianson was one of the most gentle and generous people I’ve ever known,” said singer-songwriter Laila Biali. “As a young woman in jazz, he challenged me to really go for it, and he connected me with so many significant opportunities along the way. Denny, you’re forever in our hearts. Play on, friend. Play on.”

“Denny was a wonderful musician and a brilliant source of education and motivation,” said musician and JAZZ.FM91 host Heather Bambrick. “He was tireless in his efforts to nourish and expand jazz education in Canada.”

“Denny Christianson has a storied history in Canadian music, education, and entertainment,” said the official Facebook page for Oscar Peterson. “A respected musician and bandleader himself, Denny’s fierce dedication to music education has left an indelible mark on generations of students, faculty, and friends of Denny’s. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who crossed paths with Denny and didn’t leave that conversation feeling more encouraged than they had in moments prior.”

“I knew him to be endlessly passionate about life, family, music and his time at Humber College,” said bassist Mike Downes.

“Denny Christianson, you were a fearless leader, a gracious man, a wonderful musician and a great hang,” said drummer Mark Kelso. “It was an honour to know you.”

Christianson leaves his wife, Rose; his son, Eric; and his grandchildren, Juiliana and Elliot.

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