Ian McDougall Receives The Order of Canada
Congratulations to Ian McDougall who was presented the Order of Canada for his contributions to Canadian music last week in Ottawa.
The official citation reads: “A renowned trombonist and composer, Ian McDougall has had a distinguished career as a musician, bandleader and teacher. At home with both classical music and jazz, he has written compositions for symphony orchestras, chamber choirs, jazz bands and for special events such as the Commonwealth Games. Highly regarded by his peers, he is a top-ranked studio musician, has served as leader of a variety of jazz groups, and has been principal trombone in numerous others. Professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, he was instrumental in developing a jazz program there. He is also an esteemed and dedicated mentor whose students now rank among the top trombonists and teachers in the country.”
Earlier this year, a few months after he found out that he would be receiving the award, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ian in his Ten Mile Point home for a profile in Monday Magazine. That profile is reprinted below.
A Good Road
Ian McDougall reflects on a life well lived.
by Rick Gibbs
Strange how lives unfold. One day you’re a young kid opening your first trombone method book in a tiny working-class apartment in post-war Victoria and the next you’re standing in Rideau Hall accepting the Order of Canada for your contributions to the jazz and classical music of your country. At least that’s how trombonist Ian McDougall’s story goes.
Sitting at the dining room table in his comfortable Ten Mile Point home, the plain-speaking McDougall is characteristically modest about the success he’s enjoyed. “There was a path set for me, and I just stumbled along it and the next thing you know it worked out fine,” he says as he reflects on the journey that took him from that apartment in James Bay to his present-day status as one of the great Canadian musicians of his generation.“I’d go out of there and they’d [other musicians] sort of shield me from the two guys fighting in the hallway and the one guy puking over the other and stuff like that.”
I ask him how it all began and he tells me that at age 11, on the suggestion of a friend, he decided to join the Victoria Boy’s Band but wanted to play the drums. “I used to like listening to the radio, which we did at that time…and I would get some boxes or pots and pans and spoons or something and pretend that I was Buddy Rich.” Told that he wouldn’t be playing a regular drum kit, he thought he’d try trumpet instead, but his father intervened with a piece of advice that could only have been delivered at the tail end of the big band era in 1949: “Play the trombone, son, because a good trombone player is never out of work.”
McDougall laughs telling me that story because, as he says, “It’s about as untrue as you could possibly imagine in this day and age.” But it was a fortunate piece of bad advice, since McDougall found he could play a scale within five minutes of picking up the instrument and, within a year or two, was gigging professionally all over the city. “I didn’t think too much about blowing – it came, fortunately, rather natural to me.”
His first major gig was at the Sirocco Club on View St., a typical drinking and dancing club of the era, but it wasn’t an easy first gig. “I actually peed my pants the first night I was so nervous,” reveals McDougall. “I was really nervous. I mean I was thirteen years old – there was all these adults there and the band was dressed up in tuxedos.” McDougall played other gigs around the city, including at the Crystal Gardens, but the Sirocco clearly left the biggest impression on him for many reasons: “I’d go out of there and they’d [other musicians] sort of shield me from the two guys fighting in the hallway and the one guy puking over the other and stuff like that.”
“There was a path set for me, and I just stumbled along it and the next thing you know it worked out fine.”
You’d assume that a young kid playing in adult bands practiced his brains out. Not so, says McDougall. “I was a lazy bugger – I liked playing rugby better than I liked practicing.” Lazy or not, he clearly had talent since his next step landed him in one of the best known big bands in the world.
In 1960, graduated from Victoria College and eager to see a bit of the world, McDougall headed for England and within a short time not only had a seat in the John Dankworth band, but was a featured soloist. Nearly fifty years later, he still marvels at that period. “I can’t explain how different it was,” he says, contrasting England with what was then an extremely provincial Victoria. “I went over there and my eyes started to get opened up.”
He also can’t believe it all happened at such a young age: “Sitting in my first recording studio in my life, playing with members of the London Philharmonic and the Dankworth Band, and I’m 21 and I don’t know my – well, I won’t say what I don’t know – my dad had a phrase for it which you probably can’t print: I didn’t know my ass from a shotgun.”
Canada might have lost McDougall forever to the allure of London but for two things: his love of the west coast and a meat shortage in England following the war. “I got very homesick for this outside the window here,” he says, pointing to the stunning natural landscape right outside his home. And then in his down-to-earth way, he adds, “I was just dying for a hamburger and a milkshake.”
The rest, as they say, is history. After 20 months in England, McDougall returned home, settled in Vancouver, and forged what would become a great chain of successes that included a two year stint with the Vancouver symphony; working six nights a week at the Cave with all the great acts that came through town (Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, The Supremes); regular gigs with the CBC; establishing himself as a composer; founding Pacific Salt, a highly influential jazz-rock fusion band; and then in 1973 moving to Toronto, where he and his wife Barb, a violinist, both enjoyed stellar careers as studio musicians in the then-lucrative recording industry. It was there, as well, that Rob McConnell invited him to join the Boss Brass, where he had a lot to do with that group’s run of Grammy and Juno awards.“Sitting in my first recording studio in my life, playing with members of the London Philharmonic and the Dankworth Band, and I’m 21 and I don’t know my – well, I won’t say what I don’t know – my dad had a phrase for it which you probably can’t print: I didn’t know my ass from a shotgun.”
In the end, though, McDougall’s life would come full circle. In 1983, foreseeing the demise of the studio business, he returned to Victoria and within two years was offered a full-time teaching position at UVic. “I loved the teaching,” says McDougall, who is clearly proud of the mentorship he provided over the years.
Now 70 and several years into retirement from UVic, does he plan to put up his feet and snooze through the rest of his life? Not likely. “I’ve got a lot of writing projects, a lot of playing projects, and a lot of other projects. I don’t ever see myself stopping playing in the foreseeable future.”
A few months ago he toured Denmark with his sextet, the very group that will be doing two shows at Hermann’s and a jazz vespers gig at St. John’s United in Deep Cove this week. The lineup is a who’s who of West Coast jazz greats (Oliver Gannon, Neil Swainson, Ron Johnston, Ross Taggart, and Craig Scott). Of the group, which emphasizes swing-based standards in its repertoire, McDougall says, “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but I tell you, everybody in that band is bloody good – that’s for sure.”
And that Order of Canada induction? “I don’t exactly know how it happened but I’m glad it did and I’m very proud of it.” So are we, Ian, so are we.