Mary Frances Simpson and Bill Luxton (photo by Rod Digney)
Mary Frances Simpson and Bill Luxton singing at the Grey Jazz Big Band's Dovercourt Recreation Centre dances this spring (photo by Rod Digney)

At 61, John Merritt is one of the youngest members of the Grey Jazz Big Band, whose members' ages range from 55 to the early 90s. On Friday afternoon, he's leading the band in “A Concert to Remember” – playing tunes from eras some of those musicians lived through.

Merritt is the director of the 19-piece big band, whose repertoire is primarily vintage swing music. Their Friday concert at Centrepointe's Studio Theatre will broaden that to include tunes from 1903 to 1968 – Dixieland to the Beatles.

The Grey Jazz Big Band is Ottawa's most senior band, with “a lot of experience”. It includes many retired musicians keeping up their chops playing in it. In the last 30 years, the band (and its smaller sub-bands) has specialized in community work and fund-raising, as well as playing for seniors, particularly day-time concerts that other bands might not be able to undertake because of conflicts with day jobs.

“We've got a few people in their 90s, and they're still playing really well,” Merritt said. “They're as sharp as tacks. It's awesome to see. Of course, we have [pianist] Kay Denison, who's been around for a very long time in the jazz community here in Ottawa and elsewhere. And Bill Luxton, formerly a CJOH announcer and he did a lot of live theatre as well, he's one of the singers, Mary Frances Simpson being the other one. Bill is in his 90s. Bobby Cleall, a trumpet player, he just turned 90 last week. He does some very nice soloing.”

The full band performs about a dozen times a year, he said. For example, it ran a monthly dance series at the Dovercourt Recreation Centre this spring. But smaller sub-groups play even more frequently: “Mary [Simpson] and Bill Luxton, a couple times a week they'll be out playing in old folks' homes. They're very busy. Kay Denison is always busy.”

Merritt is a trumpeter who has a considerable jazz and orchestral background. He was recruited by the band as its director in 2016, and when he met the band, he recognized many he'd played with previously.

“Just to see the enthusiasm they had for for what they were doing! It was really touching to see all these players and to see that they're still enjoying music-making later on in their life. It's awesome, it really is!”

He said most of the members see the band as a long-term commitment. “I think they all want to stick around and keep doing it. Definitely. There hasn't been much of a turnover. It's generally failing health that causes people to leave.”

For the musicians, “the love of the music is first and foremost, I think. It's stuff that they've known for all their lives. And secondly the camaraderie of the group. They're friends. They've become very close over the years.”

They particularly enjoy “the old swing stuff. You name it, as long as it's played well and it swings, they love it,” Merritt said. The band also makes a point of performing the music as authentically as possible to its era, although some nuances may not be there because “there's been such a change in the way big bands play over the years. They do their best.”

The Grey Jazz Big Band (photo by Rod Digney)
The Grey Jazz Big Band (photo by Rod Digney)

Since he joined, Merritt has “weeded through the charts”, and brought in “some fresh material, something a little bit more challenging as well.” The newer material works well in concerts, he said, but is “certainly not danceable, a lot of it. We do a lot of dances and for that it's the old swing stuff.”

The title of Friday's concert was “a theme that was thrown at me” by the Centrepointe Theatre management, Merritt said, “and I worked with it.” The idea was to highlight “those touchstones, those tunes that bring back fond memories. Because it's a matinée program, we'll see more seniors there as well. It's good memories, I hope”.

It's “not for the most part” related to Remembrance Day the following day. There will be some familiar tunes from the WWII era in the first set, but “we don't want to supersede” the actual ceremonies.

The band has been working on the material since September, he said. It will start with Dixieland and go through to a Beatles tune as the finale; the oldest tune (from 1903) has the most recent arrangement. With tunes from a 65-year period, “trying to do that in 85 minutes or whatever, is quite the feat!”

While the show is set up as a concert and not a dance, “if anyone were to get up and dance, I don't think anyone would worry about that. It would be a compliment, I think.”

At the concert, there will be some laughs and sharing stories, and he hoped the audience might even be inspired to sing along. “Bill and Mary are such great front people. They just are so natural, and they'll spread a lot of fun.”

Merritt said that when he saw the older musicians in the Grey Jazz Big band still playing even at an advanced age, he thought “Well, there's hope for all of us. We can keep this going!”

“These people have put their lives into music, and love what they're doing, and I hope that comes across.”

The Grey Jazz Big Band will perform "A Concert to Remember" at Centrepointe Studio Theatre, Ben Franklin Place, 101 Centrepointe Drive (near Woodroffe Avenue at Baseline Road), on Friday, November 10, at 2 p.m. The theatre is a short walk from the Baseline Transitway Station, and accessible by car or bike (including off-road paths along the Transitway). Tickets are $15. More info and tickets

Read related stories by