The moniker of “best damn band in the land” may have been coined by Rob McConnell himself for one of the dozens of albums he recorded with his legendary big band, but it wasn't an undeserved boast. The Boss Brass set a standard and defined the Canadian sound for big band music for decades.
McConnell died of cancer in a Toronto hospital on May 1, 2010, and with his passing a unique era in big band music ended.
"Rob was one of our greatest gifts to music,” said Ross Porter, CEO and President of Jazz.FM91. “His stature, talent and importance in Canadian jazz should rank him with Oscar Peterson.”
McConnell was an extraordinarily talented arranger, a lyrical trombone player and a bandleader with a reputation for perfection and artistic drive that made The Boss Brass the renowned band it became after its debut in the late 60s.
Born in London, Ontario, McConnell took up the valve trombone in high school and began his performing career in the early 50s, performing and studying with Bobby Gimby and Maynard Ferguson.
But McConnell's influence went well beyond Canadian borders as the band played to acclaim at all the major festivals around the globe. In its heyday in the 70s when the Boss Brass played in clubs in Los Angeles, famed musicians and band leaders from the area, like Nelson Riddle, would flock to the shows. They could even be seen lining up night after night to hear the band, according to long time band member, trumpet and flugelhorn player Guido Basso.
McConnell and the Boss Brass collaborated with many jazz greats over the years including Mel Tormé on Mel Tormé, Rob McConnell & the Boss Brass in 1987 and Velvet and Brass in 1995 and The Singers Unlimited in 1978 on Singers Unlimited with Rob McConnell & The Boss Brass.
The list of musicians who played in the band reads like a who's who of Canadian jazz luminaries: Moe Koffman, Ed Bickert, Don Thompson, Terry Clarke and Guido Basso are just a few.
Awards and honours for McConnell and the band were numerous, with a phenomenal 17 Grammy nominations and three wins for Best Jazz Big Band, Best Arrangement and Best Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist. McConnell was also recognized at home with three Juno awards in 1978, 1981, 1984, an induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1997, and the Order of Canada in 1998.
A unique musical voice, cutting wit and meticulous leadership on the bandstand were just a few of McConnell's trademarks. "His irreverence and comedic touch were endlessly entertaining,” said Porter. “He was a consummate professional, a perfectionist and difficult task master; an arranger of the highest order and one heck of a trombone player. For all of us that knew and worked with Rob, he made our lives richer in the process.”
The Boss Brass last played a three-day concert run at the Old Mill Inn in Toronto in December 2008, which sold out in one day, reviewed here by the Globe and Mail.