Jim Head and the MacEwan music legacy

Jim Head GigCity EdmontonIn the wake of being nominated for his first Juno award, local jazz guitarist Jim Head reveals the secret to making it as a jazz musician in Edmonton: “If you’re the last man standing when the smoke clears.”

In other words, if you spend years learning your art, more years paying your dues eating Kraft Dinner for your art, and stubbornly refuse to leave your hometown for your art, you just might get to be the next Tommy Banks.

The truth is that most professional jazz musicians in this town make ends meet by teaching, a number of them at MacEwan University, which has for the last 45 years trained legions of eager young musicians and released them wild and free into the Edmonton music scene and beyond. The bar for “chops” – the term jazz musicians use for technical proficiency – is said to be higher here than anywhere else in Western Canada. Indeed it would be hard to find a working local band that didn’t contain at least one MacEwan musician. Sometimes you can hear them.

Jim Head, a student in the early 1980s, is now in charge of MacEwan’s guitar program. All instructors are expected to be working musicians and even recording artists, as with English professors told to “publish or perish.” The faculty list reads like a who’s who of Edmonton music: from ESO percussionist Brian Thurgood (head of the drum program) to noted producer and founder of the band Wilfred N. and the Grown Men, Wilf Kozub, who was the first (and only) graduate in the first year of the new MacEwan recording program in 1974. He taught songwriting until he retired last year.

To some ears, Head’s style back then is little different than it is now: A fondness for be-bop, clean guitar and “contemporary” melodies and harmonies (lots of augmented scales, polychords and demented flat fifths, for those musicians keeping score at home), in the vein of John Abercrombie, say. Head found his passion early and stuck to it.

Jim Head GigCity EdmontonObviously his sound has matured on his independently-produced second album Zoetrope – named after his three-year-old daughter Zoe and recorded in New York last year. It’s a worthy contender for Jazz Album of the Year at the upcoming Juno awards, Sunday, March 15 in Hamilton. By fantastic coincidence, former classmate Owen Howard is nominated in the same category. He also played drums on Zoetrope. Never before in the annals of Edmonton jazz has such a Battle of Alberta been waged.

It would only take one hand to count the number of students from Head’s class who are still working jazz musicians – less if you limit it to people still living in Edmonton. There’s Dan Skakun, recording artist and MacEwan percussion instructor. And there’s Howard, but he now lives in New York with his family; his wife is a very busy violin teacher, he does carpentry on the side and they rent their house. Former Edmonton pianist John Stetch, who graduated MacEwan a year after Head, made the move to the Big Apple a long time ago. It’s where you go for jazz.

Head says he wasn’t tough enough live in New York.

“I had a grant about 10 years ago, I went there for about five months, which was fantastic,” he says. “It was real life changing experience. It really gave me a perspective on what I needed to do to try to be the best player I could be. Among the best players there there’s such a high level of commitment. But I also knew then that I couldn’t live like that. It’s tough, man. It’s really tough. You make no money when you play there. It’s really expensive and the gigs don’t pay. I realized then: as much as I loved the music I literally wasn’t tough enough to stick it out.”

Owen Howard toughing it out in New York

Owen Howard toughing it out in New York

Head actually quit music for a time, for three years during the ‘90s, taking his father’s job as a sales rep for a sunglasses company. He made more money than most Canadian jazz musicians could ever dream of.

“I guess there were lingering questions about whether I’d be happy doing something else where I made lots of money,” he says, adding that it took a year to come to the answer: No. Head was happier making music. He earned his Master’s degree at Montreal’s McGill University in 2004, released his first record two years later and in 2007 was hired at MacEwan. He’s been there ever since.

While the humanities and liberal arts are down because high school graduates are under such pressure to train for a “real” career, enrollment in MacEwan’s music program has never been better, Head reports. They added a four year Bachelor of Music program “because the demand was there,” he says. “We have twice as many students as we did six years ago. The irony, I guess, and we don’t tell them this all the time, but the culture has changed. The era we grew up in where there was live music in various venues every night, that’s gone. So it’s tougher than ever. It’s always been tough, but it’s tougher than ever. But there’s the thing that’s driving them: They want to have to have success in music.”

While most MacEwan students know music is a labour of love that won’t necessarily add up to rock stardom, there is almost always at least a tiny lure of celebrity driving any performing artist, no matter how esoteric and pure they claim to be. The world of celebrity is defined by artists: actors, writers and of course rock stars. Head observes there’s almost no difference between music students today than when he was a student 35 years ago, save for the additional modern illusion that you can become famous instantly on a reality show or with YouTube. Some MacEwan students do get their priorities confused, Head says, and get into music for the promise of fame.

“But that’s not the thing that gets you through the hard times,” the professor says. “What gets you through those hard times when you can’t afford to go the dentist or you literally have nothing to eat but oatmeal for a week – I’ve been there – the only thing that gets you through those times is the fact that you love this music and you just couldn’t do anything else. That’s the bottom line.”