Ron Collier

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This talented Canadian trombonist, composer, and arranger is best-known for his collaborations with Duke Ellington in the '70s, but was also part of a tiny Canadian third stream jazz scene in the late…
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This talented Canadian trombonist, composer, and arranger is best-known for his collaborations with Duke Ellington in the '70s, but was also part of a tiny Canadian third stream jazz scene in the late '50s, backed up visiting jazz dignitaries such as Billie Holiday, and worked with iconoclastic bandleaders such as George Russell and Charles Mingus. Collier's ability to get funding from the Canada Council to embark on with the former artist represented the first time this funding body had tossed nickels at a jazz artist, an achievement for which Collier has been happy to take credit in the grant-happy Canadian environment. In the early '50s, Collier was the prize student of the Delamont family, an Ontario dynasty of bandleaders and composers. He got his start with the Kitsilano Boys Band under the direction of Arthur Delamont and then later studied composition in Toronto with the younger generation as represented by son Gordon Delamont. This was Collier's so-called experimental period: He knocked heads with Russell and oozed enough third stream vibes to be considered part of a tiny third stream jazz movement in Canada in the late '50s, the stream no doubt frozen over by one of those storm blasts known as a "northerner." Actually, the Toronto jazz scene is busy enough so that it would not be inaccurate to say the city gets more jazz than snow and Collier was always able to find eager accomplices for whatever project he wanted to take on. In the case of the third stream paddling, a composer ten years his senior named Norman Symonds was one of his frequent collaborators. The trombonist also worked outside of the jazz scene, touring Canada with Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen, an outfit that sounds like it wouldn't be allowed to play jazz if it wanted to, and providing live music for the National Ballet. He studied with orchestrator Hall Overton, again with funding from the Canada Council. In 1967, producer Louis Applebaum put together the project that would bring Collier together with Ellington, certainly the hero of any jazz player. It was a program to feature the work of three Canadian composers, the triumvirate of Symonds, Gordon Delamont, and Collier. Ellington agreed to participate in the event, resulting in an album on Attic that contains two of Collier's most well-known compositions: "Aurora Borealis" and "Silent Night, Lonely Night." The next year, Collier conducted an orchestra with Ellington as guest soloist. This concert took place in Detroit and again featured Collier's compositions. Shortly thereafter, Ellington summoned Collier to write the arrangements for a new album, to all smooth sailing at first. Apparently when Collier presented the first set of charts to trombonist Lawrence Brown, one of his great inspirations, the Ellington vet looked at the part and announced: "I'm not gonna play that! I don't have the chops!" The solo was handed over to altoist Johnny Hodges. Collier was again called in to help Ellington assemble a concert at a Benedictine monastery in Oregon. Collier later did the orchestrations for Ellington's ballet suite The River. As in the case with most of the great bandleader's arranging and composing collaborators, there is a great deal of Collier on the page and in the music, as Ellington was most likely to start him off simply with single melody lines and chords, telling Collier to do the rest.

In 1974, he joined the faculty at Toronto's Humber College. Before retiring from this facility, he turned out mounds of scores, typically under great pressure due to lack of proper arrangements for the school's reduced size ensembles. In the process, he wrote for every instrument combination instrument imaginable, including solo flute with piano, strings, woodwind groups, brass groups, full orchestra, concert band, big band, and studio orchestras. He produced such works as "The Humber Suite," "Four Kisses," and "Gentleman Harry," one of many musical tributes that has been written for Ellington's longtime baritone saxist Harry Carney. In the early '70s, he also created three film scores, including A Fan's Notes. Since retiring from the college, Collier has kept busy with writing projects. In 1997, he completed an ambitious version of Oscar Peterson's already breathtaking "Canadiana Suite," arranging the piece for jazz orchestra. The eight-movement work, in some ways the musical equivalent of a drive across the prairies from Winnipeg to Calgary, lasts only an hour and not the solid 12 that would actually be required for such an undertaking. Collier's version was premiered in Vancouver in 1997 and performed again at the Toronto and Ottawa jazz festivals the following year. Ron Collier's Jazz Orchestra was featured in a 1999 Ellington Centennial concert with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale. After a busy career, Collier succumbed to cancer on October 22, 2003. He was 73.