It’s hard to believe that the OJO has been running now for thirteen seasons. It’s arguably even more than that. Way back in 2005, I presented a single concert entitled “The Magic of Miles Davis” at the NAC Fourth Stage as an initial concert in a series to be known as “Impressions in Jazz.” The following year I presented two concerts, one at the Fourth Stage, and another at Dominion-Chalmers United Church. It was at this second concert that the “Impressions in Jazz Orchestra” made its first appearance and this is what would eventually later become the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra.
The really exciting part about that concert and what would follow was not just that the ensemble brought together many of the best professional jazz and classical musicians in Ottawa but that our programming for each concert was so unique and that we always tried to both entertain and educate. We certainly weren’t shy about taking on challenges. Presenting major works such as Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain, and even a whole Nutcracker show with dancers, actors, and multimedia were major undertakings but so worth it.
Over the years, we performed countless concerts, almost always featuring larger ensembles and we relished employing unusual instrumentation. At that 2006 concert we performed two major works: Duke Ellington’s Liberian Suite and John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass. While Liberian Suite does employ a typical 15-piece big band, it also has vibes, a vocal baritone solo, and a violin solo. Africa/Brass has very interesting instrumentation including French horns, euphoniums, and various woodwinds.
I always loved performing and presenting music that crossed genres between jazz, classical, and other forms. At various concerts we had swing dancers, tap dancers, modern dancers, and even Shakespearean actors. Over the years we’ve presented everything straight ahead jazz to free jazz and we’ve explored works influenced by music from Spain, France, Brazil, Cuba, and a lot more.
Many of the works we performed were Ottawa or Canadian premieres. Along the way we changed our name to the more fitting “Ottawa Jazz Orchestra.” For a while our home was in the double ballrooms of the Crowne Plaza hotel (now the Delta) and then later we were at Dominion-Chalmers for many seasons. We tried the Shenkman Arts Centre for one season. Eventually we came back to the National Arts Centre and the Fourth Stage. Fitting bigger ensembles on the stage is sometimes a challenge but we love the ambience and the recent renovations have made the sound in the room wonderful for even with larger ensembles.
Occasionally people ask if we ever perform at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival. We’re actually one of the few local ensembles (perhaps even the only one) that has performed in three of the leading series in the festival. In 2005 we performed in the Connoisseur Series at Library and Archives, then in 2006 we performed in the Studio Series at the National Arts Centre, and in 2008 we performed on the main stage in Confederation Park as part of the Great Canadian Jazz series. It has indeed been a while since we were at the festival and perhaps we’ll go back one day but we feel honoured to have presented the performances we did.
What has been most incredible about the OJO is that every year has truly been better than the last. We owe so much of our success to our audience and to the incredible musicians that we’re so lucky to have in Ottawa.