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Capilano University prepares students for the jazz life

Juno nominations add to school’s reputation as a music mecca

Rejean Marois and his wife, Johanne Fradette, first set eyes on Vancouver while they were chaperoning a student vocal group from Quebec on an extended tour of B.C.

“As part of Expo 86 there was an educational festival with big bands and all kinds of different ensembles,” recalls Marois, who focuses on vocal music as an instructor in the Jazz Studies program at Capilano University.

“We were here for almost a month. We got stuck in a really bad hotel on Granville, you know the kind of place where a lot of business is happening. We had to change in the middle of the night and find another hotel. I could write a book ... but then for the rest of the tour the students were billeted with other students. It was incredible, we were really well-received.”

Back home at Cégep de Sainte-Foy in the suburbs of Quebec City, Marois was involved in teaching different aspects of the music program. “I was a big band and a symphonic band director. In fact, there I was more of an instrumentalist than a vocal music director.”

Marois developed his own musical chops on trombone, guitar and vocals, performing in bands every chance he got. While teaching at the cégep he also went on several tours overseas every year playing for Canadian troops with a band called The Tip Tops.  

“I was lucky to be part of those years when the government of Canada was actually sending entertainment groups wherever there were Canadian soldiers,” he says. “I’ve been to every place you wouldn’t want to go now: Egypt, Syria. We went to the Golan Heights in Israel. It was like a circus. There was a group of about 60 people, including comedians, magicians, a chorus line of dancers and a band. I was writing for the tour, and playing and singing. It was very demanding and a great experience for everybody.”

But after almost a decade on the road and teaching on a contract basis Marois and his wife were ready for a change. They had a new baby and wanted to settle down.

“Somebody from the Lower Mainland got in touch with us and we decided to come (out west),” Marois says. “It was 1988. I took a leave of absence. We said, ‘OK we’ll go for one year and then we’ll be back.’ And, of course, we never went back.”

“Jazz is a very democratic musical form. It comes out of a communal experience. We take our respective instruments and collectively create a thing of beauty.”
– Drummer Max Roach


The news that seven Capilano University jazz alumni and two faculty members are in the running for 2017 Juno Awards attests to the high standard of musicianship the North Vancouver school has developed into its program over the years.

The post-secondary institution, established as a college in 1968 and rebranded as a university in 2008, has offered a four-year bachelor of music and jazz studies degree since 1993 which evolved out of an earlier two-year program that was called the Commercial Music Diploma.

The University of New Brunswick, Banff School of Fine Arts and the University of Toronto were among the first post-secondary institutions in Canada to offer programs focusing on jazz studies in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Today most universities offer some sort of jazz program, but at the time the Cap degree was still unusual and offered by only a few other schools in Canada.

“It was kind of a magical period in the early ’90s as they were making the transition from the commercial music program into the jazz program,” says Jared Burrows, academic co-ordinator of Capilano University’s Jazz Studies department. “It attracted a lot of people who wanted to do musical degrees in something other than classical music. That was really a key period I think for the university, then a college, as they made the transition.”

Burrows was actually a student at Cap before the college switched to jazz as the main focus of the curriculum.

“I was a guitar player that came here to get  what I would think of now as basic literacy skills,” he says. “Most of the people who were here at that time were not that interested in jazz because it wasn’t a jazz program. There was a small group of really fine musicians who came here from Quebec that were all interested in jazz and I connected with them very early on. Cap was a springboard for my musical life and by coming here I got a lot of really important skills that helped me later on in my career.

“We were doing jazz but a lot of people were doing it because they were just told to. The early ’90s was the time when people who really wanted to learn about this art form started to show up. Now here we all are contributing to music education from the other end of things.”

Burrows continued on to get a master of music in jazz performance from the University of Oregon and a PhD in arts education from Simon Fraser University before returning to teach at Cap.  

“I started becoming interested in the sounds of jazz. And I went to a concert of Jazz at the Philharmonic when we lived in Omaha, Neb., and I saw Charlie Parker play and Billie Holiday sing and Lester Young play, and that did it. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
–  Bassist Charlie Haden


As part of their Jazz Studies program Capilano University has three big bands (A Band, B Band and C Band), three vocal ensembles, a percussion ensemble, a guitar-based ensemble as well as a unit known as the Rhythmic Music Ensemble. Each of the groups feature a dozen to 18 musicians.

“Students also play in small combos, but those large ensembles are kind of a different experience as there’s a lot more music reading,” says Burrows. “Students audition for places in those large ensembles every September. Standard jazz big band is about 15 or 16 musicians, five saxophones, four trombones, four or five trumpets, guitar, bass, piano and drums is the standard instrumentation. Because people audition it’s really strictly merit-based. We place them according to where they are going to learn the most.”

Students thinking of entering the program must be fairly functioning musicians when they arrive at Cap. “We’re very lucky because of the reputation of the university,” says Burrows. “We’re able to attract a very high level of student and so when they audition most of them already have a basic grasp of theory and most of them are already quite good in terms of performance skills and sort of general musicianship so they go through quite a rigorous audition process that includes a performance component, a theory exam and an interview.”

There are currently about 125 students enrolled in Jazz Studies across all four years of the program.

“They start about 8:30 in the morning and they’ll go pretty regularly to 8:30 or nine o’clock at night,” says Burrows. “They’ll do theory classes and ear-training classes and the large ensemble performance classes. They’ll play small combos, they’ll do a history class, private lessons on their instrument and they’re also doing one non-music class per semester. They’re pretty busy dawn to dusk.”

Most of the musicians up for awards at this year’s Junos were students at Cap before Burrows returned to teach. “They were just graduating as I was showing up here,” he says. “Bria (Skonberg) and Amanda (Tosoff) were both 2005, 2006, something like that, and the folks in Pugs and Crows were maybe a year before I showed up but one of the people in the band, Russ Sholberg, was a student with me back in 1990. The neat thing about Cap is there is this kind of continuity between different graduating cohorts so people who have been part of this community tend to connect with each other outside the school and the relationships they form in the program often serve them well into their professional careers.”

“Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night but differently each time.”
– Ornette Coleman


As an instructor at Capilano University for almost three decades, Rejean Marois is understandably proud of the music program’s accomplishments.

He was a member of the faculty when the school made the transition to Jazz Studies and says in the first few years they experienced some growing pains as the university attempted to find its footing in the academic music world.

“We had a great faculty but some of the faculty was not necessarily ready for that move. When the bachelor degree began we were actually supervised by other universities. We had to gain some credentials. Let’s put it this way: we couldn’t fake it.”

Currently CapU places students in one of two streams with the bachelor of music and jazz studies – performance/composition program focusing on a career as a professional musician, while the education program prepares them to pursue an educational role.

One teaching strategy in particular addresses an important issue that Marois first noticed as a professional musician on tour – singers were often isolated from the rest of the musicians in a band.

“Dealing with vocalists I saw that many didn’t really have any formal musical training,” says Marois, “They basically just learned on their own. They didn’t know how to describe what they wanted to have in a song.”

Capilano University wants vocalists to be on the same level of training as the instrumentalists and have designed a curriculum which integrates them into the instrumental class and vice versa. In rehearsal you don’t learn your part – you should already know that – you learn everybody else’s parts.

“We do a lot of team teaching,” says Marois. “For example, I teach the first year class with Bill Coon, the great guitar player. I’m doing the vocal approach and he’s doing the instrumental approach and every student has to sing and every singer has to actually play something. The integration is done right at the beginning. After one year they feel very comfortable about being part of the instrumental group.”

The North Shore will be well represented in all aspects of the Juno Awards when they are broadcast on CTV on April 2: Three Handsworth secondary grads, Brandi Disterheft (Jazz Album of the Year: Solo) Renee Rosnes (Jazz Album of the Year: Solo) and Darcy James Argue (Jazz Album of the Year: Group) – all former students of Bob Rebagliatti – are nominated for awards, as is Deep Cove’s Jordan Nobles for Classical Composition of the Year. West Vancouver’s Sarah McLachlan will also be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame during the ceremonies and former Tomahawk dishwasher Bryan Adams is slated to co-host the broadcast.

CapU at the Junos
Seven Capilano University jazz alumni and two faculty members have been nominated for 2017 Juno Awards: Bria Skonberg and Amanda Tosoff are nominated for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year, with drummer Morgan Childs playing on Tosoff’s album, Words, and saxophonist Evan Arntzen, on Skonberg’s release, Bria. The album Everyone Knows Everyone by Pugs and Crows, which includes CapU alumni Cole Schmidt, Russell Sholberg and Catherine Toren, is nominated for Instrumental Album of the Year. Jazz instructor Brad Turner is nominated as a member of Metalwood for Jazz Album of the Year: Group for Twenty. Warren Dean Flandez, arts and entertainment management instructor, is also nominated for Contemporary Christian/Gospel Album of the Year.

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