Updated July 21
Ottawa's jazz scene has lost one of its most gentlemanly stars with the death of vocalist Bill Luxton Sr. CTV Ottawa reported that Luxton drowned in his backyard swimming pool this weekend.
Luxton, 92, had been the MC and male vocalist with the Grey Jazz Big Band for the last 25 years. The 20-member band draws its members from retired amateur and professional musicians, whose ages range up into the 90s. They play big band and swing numbers from the 20s to the modern day – with energy that belies their calendar ages.
“Bill was a gentleman to his fingertips – handsome, urbane, unflappable,” said Mary Frances Simpson, Luxton's vocalist partner in the Grey Jazz Big Band. At the band's concerts, the two would sing separately and together, often smoothly alternating lines in duet performances of songs such as “They Can't Take That Away From Me”.
“He was the consummate professional – punctual, letter perfect, in command of his material, unfailingly courteous, easy to work with. He passionately loved being a performer and those of us who were privileged to work with him benefitted from absorbing his enthusiasm, and his vast knowledge, and his absolute command of his profession.”
That professionalism came out of decades of experience working as a broadcaster at CJOH-TV (now CTV Ottawa), hosting shows such as Morning Magazine, Lunch Party, and The Amazing Kreskin – as well as a comic actor in the long-running syndicated “Willy & Floyd” children's show.
Luxton continued to deploy those announcing skills at Grey Jazz concerts, talking about the songs and their history, cracking jokes that got the audience chuckling, and introducing band members.
“Bill had a marvelous sense of humour, charming audiences with his witty remarks and jokes,” said saxophonist Paul Caron. “He would routinely address the audience without a script and would easily improvise a funny monologue if the band wasn't ready to begin playing.”
“He was a natural performer and draw for the band and we will surely miss him,” said trombonist Rod Digney.
“He ‘took the stage’ when performing and could hold the audience attention with his charismatic style and demeanour,” said band music director Brian Boggs. “He had a very calm and controlled stage presence when performing, but was not immune to putting on a cape, a hat or a costume to lighten the mood and add to the flair that a song required.”
Luxton loved classic jazz tunes, and could easily remember all the lyrics in a long set list. “He amazed us all with his phenomenal memory, his ability to recall the lyrics of so many songs without recourse to a text,” Caron said.
“He had this deep, warm, resonant baritone tone to his voice, and could perform all the Jazz standards that the band is famous for,” Boggs said. “His repertoire for songs was incredible, and knew the lyrics to countless songs that even the other musicians weren’t familiar with.”
“His renditions of some war time songs were always well received,” said saxophonist Gord Price. “Songs like 'We'll Meet Again' and 'The White Cliffs of Dover' which we regularly performed at the Billings Bridge Plaza during the week before Nov. 11th. These performances were never just a job to him as he would stay and mingle with the audience members.”
Boggs said that the band will “miss his presence and his musical stylings immensely. While nothing is planned to date, it is most likely that our next large public concert will be dedicated to his memory.”
Last November, the Grey Jazz Big Band presented its second “Concert to Remember” at Centrepointe Studio Theatre. The show closed with Luxton singing the reminiscent and conversational Bob Hope hit “Thanks for the Memory”. The audience responded to its closing notes with an immediate standing ovation – and repeated the standing ovation after the encore, a full-out version of “In the Mood” with Simpson and Luxton dancing together to the music in front of the band.
A celebration of Luxton's life will be held on Wednesday, July 31, at Kelly Funeral Home (Carling Chapel), 2313 Carling Avenue, Ottawa (613-828-2313) from 12 noon to 2 p.m. There will be a service in the chapel at 2 p.m. with a reception to follow.
Read related stories on OttawaJazzScene.ca:
- The Grey Jazz Big Band remembers touchstone tunes from the last century 
- The Grey Jazz Big Band: remembering the 20th century with tender ballads and exuberant swing 
Updated July 21 to include funeral information. The obituary indicated Luxton died July 13.