Home > Events > NMA Big Band 50th Anniversary: Exclusive Interview with Bryan Stovell

NMA Big Band 50th Anniversary: Exclusive Interview with Bryan Stovell

March 5, 2017



The Nanaimo Musician’s Association Big Band will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Sunday, March 12th, 2017 from 2–4 pm at the Branch 256 Legion Hall on Wellington Rd. in Nanaimo. Island Jazz interviewed Bryan Stovell, mentor to Phil Dwyer, Ingrid and Christine Jensen and Diana Krall to understand better how central Vancouver Island has produced so many great players.

1. The Nanaimo area and the Island in general have produced some amazing players who have gone on to international fame. Is it something in the water? 

Not the water, but the coal, discovered in the 1850s. The Nanaimo musical ethos began with the Nanaimo Concert Band which formed in 1873, comprised of colliery band musicians from Britain. The NCB is in its 145th continuous year. In 1931, during the Swing Era, the iconic Pygmy Ballroom was built and touring bands of Louis Armstrong, Harry James, and the Dorsey Brothers played there. When Rock music killed Swing in the late 50s, trumpeter Al Campbell led a group of former Pygmy dance band musicians who played at the Branch 10 Legion on Wallace Street. When I returned from Music studies at UBC, Al and I combined his band with the best student musicians and local band directors to form a Jazz Band. Sponsored by the Nanaimo Musicians Association (NMA) the band is now in its 50th year. Malaspina College (now VIU) added a Jazz Program and all the schools had a music program from K – 12. We all collaborated in the NMA Big Band that still is a mix of music professors, school band directors, the best jazz students, and local musicians.

2. Did you see something special in these players when they came through your program? Did you expect them to go on and do amazing things?

Yes, one can tell if a student has a good swing time concept, an affinity for improvising, and a determined work ethic. We had no idea just how big Phil Dwyer, Diana Krall, the Jensen sisters and others who followed would become, but we knew how good they were as students.

3. Can you say something about your teaching philosophy and how that might help inspire younger players to excel?

I believe that all students should be exposed to music during their school year and those who choose to pursue it further should be given opportunities to do so at the level they are comfortable with. Like hockey, many take it up when they are young and benefit from it. A few will make it to the NHL. They all learn skills that can transfer to other aspects of life. Every student is important, not just “The Stars.”

4. You’ve had a long association with music on the Island. Has jazz always had a special place here? Have you seen a lot of change over the years? Are the programs today in your area as vibrant as they’ve always been?

Jazz has been part of the island musical scene since the 30s. The changes I see are that school music programs have improved and colleges have now added Jazz Studies. VIU’s Jazz program has been developing musicians since about 1970. Also, technology has enabled students to hear and see jazz musicians perform on YouTube and other sites, and many training programs are available online.

5. How long have you been associated with the NMA Big Band? 

I started the band in my basement in 1967. When I left to study at Berklee in Boston, school band director Norm Porter took over. Then VIU college music prof Steve Jones directed until 2010, when Steve turned the band back to me. I have been in touch with many alumni in preparation for our 50th Anniversary Concert on March 12. Several of them are now in their 80s and they, along with many younger alumni, have promised to come. Al Campbell will be there. Al is our link back to the Pygmy Ballroom and he still plays in the Nanaimo Concert Band.

6. What can folks expect at the upcoming concert?

We will play a mix of Swing standards as well as contemporary funk, fusion, and Latin charts. Our soulful singer, Sydney Needham, will sing the original arrangements of tunes made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London, Natalie Cole, and Diane Schuur.

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