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The Denisons: a family playing jazz together

Patrick, Lucas, Emily, Tom, and Kay Denison. ©Brett Delmage, 2011

Back in 2009, at a Jazz Evolution evening, your OttawaJazzScene.ca editors had our first introduction to the Denison family. We had seen Tom around at many shows on bass or drums, but we now met his mother and son – both musicians, too. We kept running into Denisons at the Carleton U Jazz Camp and at jams, sounding better all the time, so it seemed so appropriate to introduce you to them as a family today, on Family Day.

From 85-year-old Kay to 16-year-old Emily, the Denison family has been a consistent presence in Ottawa's jazz community for more than 70 years.

It's become a three-generation tradition, on organ, piano, bass, drums, guitar, saxophone, violin, and trumpet. "Whenever you want to jam, you can just say, 'Hey Dad, come play some bass for me', or [have Emily] play some trumpet. You've got a rhythm section whenever you want," said 17-year-old Lucas.

Kay Denison at Jazz Evolution, Oct. 2009. ©Brett Delmage, 2009Kay Denison has played piano, keyboards, and organ for everyone from visiting heads of state and Governors-General, to Tony Bennett and Connie Francis, to hockey and basketball games. When professional baseball came to Lansdowne Park in the early 1950s and the team needed an organist to play the game soundtrack, she took a quick crash course and taught herself play a Hammond B3. Her youngest son, Tom (53), is a full-time musician, playing both bass and drums, and a regular in many local jazz combos, while her eldest son, Terry, has played music part-time.

Terry's son, Patrick (31), studied music at Humber College in Toronto, and now plays saxophone around Ottawa. And Tom's two children, Lucas and Emily, are both students at Nepean High School, where they're in the school concert and stage bands, as well as several outside jazz and classical music groups. Emily plays violin and trumpet, while Lucas plays drums.

"For me and Lucas, there's just so much to learn from people so close to us," said Emily.

"I think it's been helpful being around Tom and my grandmother all my life," said Patrick. "My grandmother would take me around on gigs when I was 11 or 12, and she would make us all learn these old tunes because she knows every tune that was every written. It's been helpful to learn from the experience of someone who's been there through all these different musical eras. It's one thing to learn tunes from books, and it's another thing to actually learn from somebody."

Lucas said he felt there was a family musical tradition to live up to, but, at the same time he was never pressured to take up music as a career – unlike some of his friends in high school who were expected to go into science. "My parents say 'Do whatever you want' but luckily for them, it is music."

Lucas Denison at Jazz Evolution, Oct. 2009. ©Brett Delmage, 2009

Patrick: "We all do it just because we want to. Nobody was really pressured into playing music. My grandmother taught us when we were kids and she just encouraged us to do it, but there's a lot of other family members who don't do it because they weren't really interested in it. We all just do it because we like it."

Music was always around in their house, Tom said, even to the extent of Kay selling Allen organs out of their living room. "Musicians would come over and there'd be band practices in the house. It was just around. ... When I was a little kid, it seemed like that was the way it is. That's what your parents do (play music)."

Starting young

They all started out in music at a young age.

Emily said, "I remember when I was probably five, Grandma teaching me how to read music and how to name all the notes and the notes on the piano. I just really wanted to play violin, so I started on that." When Emily went into the band at school in Grade 6, she had to play a band instrument. She initially picked French horn, "but that that was a bad idea so I switched to trumpet in Grade 7" at the suggestion of her music teacher.

Patrick started as a boy soprano in the Christ Church Cathedral choir. After his voice broke, he took up the trumpet and then switched to saxophone at age 17. Kay would take Patrick to the Legion when he was was 11 or 12 and "just make me play tunes for all the people. I started to meet people that way and other people eventually started hiring me."

"Like my cousins, I wanted to play really modern. My grandmother would say, 'Stop playing all that fancy stuff; that's not what people really want to hear. Play the melody'. It was good to learn the practical side of it – just what gigging was  like. It's one thing to get together with your friends and play really creative music but that's not what gigging is."

Tom Denison at The Ottawa Jazz Festival, June 2010. ©Brett Delmage, 2010

But Tom was the earliest. When he was still in the womb, Kay was playing the Hammond B3 organ at the La Paloma Restaurant on Rideau Street. "The owner told me I could play while I was able to, so I played it until the night he was born. I think that's why he became a drummer and a bass player because I was doing this all the time."

"To this day, I love B3's and Jimmy Smith and Joey deFrancesco," Tom said. "I can't get enough of it."

Tom started playing gigs with his mother when he was about 12, as a drummer in her organ trio, playing a lot of weddings and Saturday night gigs. "In those days, you'd play lots and lots of tunes, because you'd have to play lots of standards, that's the way it worked. So that's how I started."

Playing together

The family plays together to this day. On New Year's Eve, 2010, all the family musicians were in a combo on the afternoon at the Bridlewood Trails Retirement Residence. It felt like a "family reunion," Emily said. In the evening, Emily, Lucas, and Patrick played with other musicians at the Chartwell Retirement Residence.

And they reminisce and laugh about other get-togethers: when Emily was about 8, she busked a few times with Patrick and Tom in Westboro Village in the summer. The two men only raised $5 over several hours – but when they added Emily, they suddenly made $25 in five minutes. People said Emily playing her pink violin was so cute, Tom said. And, in the 1980s, Tom took a leave of absence from the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces for one summer, and joined Kay in Banff, playing with Moxie Whitney's Big Band at the Banff Springs Hotel – and they still happily remember the music there.

But then there's the music everyday: Lucas and Emily play regularly together in high school bands, the youth orchestra, and at home. And when they have spares near lunch hour, their high school is only five minutes away from their grandmother's house, so they can pop over for lunch and maybe sit in on some music, if Kay's having a practice with her groups.

And they teach each other. "I'm learning newer types of music, even at my age," Kay said. "I'm learning the more contemporary stuff from the kids and I learn just as much from them as they do from me so that works out pretty well for all of us."

Kay plays with the Grey Jazz Big Band in Ottawa, consisting of older professional musicians. The group likes guest artists, so Emily, Patrick, and Lucas have sat in.  "They get the experience from all the old geezers."

Disadvantages?

Are there disadvantages in being in a musical family? "I would say there aren't many," said Emily, although occasionally it might be difficult to practice when Lucas was "making a lot of noise".

The biggest difficulty is with scheduling vehicles, particularly for transporting drums and the bass. Until Lucas got his driver's license this year, Tom was "almost a professional chauffeur, too". Sometimes scheduling is hard because they're all doing gigs, he said, and his mother is often playing four or five times a week herself.

What about the non-musicians?

I asked how the non-musician family members reacted to music being such a dominant part of Denison family life. "They help load the van," Tom said.

"They provide moral support," Kay said. You've got to have a supportive family – for example, her son Ken would get her to her gigs if the weather was bad. Ken retorted that he got to see many hockey games for free accompanying his mother when she played organ at the games.

Patrick pointed out that even his father, who is a lawyer, plays guitar and piano and trumpet, and Ken played trumpet in high school. And even if they don't play, Lucas said, "they do have an appreciation for music. Occasionally my Mom will actually know what a II-V-I is."

Kay's husband (who died in 1999) was a real music-lover, Patrick said. "He was my Mom's biggest fan," Tom said, "and he always supported me and my oldest brother Terry when we did music or anything else we did."

Emily Denison plays a solo, with brother Lucas on the drums and her father Tom on the bass at the September 2010 JazzWorks jam. ©Brett Delmage, 2010

The dynasty

How do other musicians react to the Denison "dynasty"? "We just spring it on them at a jam session," Patrick said. "It's called guerrilla jamming."

"[Ottawa saxophonist] Mike Tremblay is always on us: the Denisons are taking over," Tom said, "And I say: That's right. The other night when I was playing with Peter Hum at Cafe Paradiso,  Lucas and Emily came down to sit in, and they came up on the stage. And Peter Hum went to the mic and announced: 'The Denisons are taking over the stage now – again'."

At the Carleton University Jazz Camp in summer 2010, Lucas and Emily had an opportunity to play with piano veteran Brian Browne, who was teaching at the camp. "And eventually he realized 'Jesus Christ, you're both Denisons, aren't you!'," Lucas said.

The next generation

Besides their high school bands, both Emily and Lucas play in the Ottawa Youth Orchestra, where Emily plays the violin. The Orchestra has a primarily-classical  repertoire, and will be going to Italy next week for 10 days, to play four concerts themselves and to listen to orchestras and opera. Emily also plays trumpet in the Nepean All-City Jazz Band, which will be going to Vancouver in May for the MusicFest Nationals.

In both 2009 and 2010, Emily won a scholarship to the JazzWorks jazz camp, which is held on a long August weekend at a music retreat in Quebec. "It's cool especially because JazzWorks is not just a camp for kids, so you can can have all the older and more experienced people and jam with the staff. It's great to be able to share the experience they have that I don't have."

In 2010, Lucas was awarded the Jamey Aebersold Scholarship, which sent him to a summer jazz workshop in Louisville, Kentucky – an intensive program for for bassists and drummers to learn jazz improvisation. "That was an experience. Being able to go down there and play with all those people from New York and Boston and just everywhere across the map and then getting clinics with guys like Ed Soph and Steve Barnes and all these crazy drummers. And of course I got to meet Rufus Reid a bit  – even eat dinner with him at the camp. Two weeks playing non-stop: it was so great being able to jam with such hot players. It was great."

"My parents say 'Do whatever you want' but luckily for them, it is music."
– Lucas Denison

They assured me they had no problem with teachers at the same high school comparing them. Emily has a 90 average and has had for years, Kay pointed out. "Since I'm a year ahead of her," Lucas said, "I don't get them saying 'Why can't you be as good?' She's the one that goes in and surprises them and redeems the name. She's got that covered."

Both of them have decided to go into music. Lucas has applied to the music programs at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, while Emily will most likely study music outside Ottawa. "It's a hard decision to make," she said. "Going into music can be risky, so a lot of kids our age, it's easy to worry a lot and not want to make that decision.

"But to have role models in our family who have done it and seeing that you can be successful, it's easier to make that decision, I think. Obviously I still worry about it – but it's easier to know it can be successful."

   – Alayne McGregor