January 26, 2018
This past weekend, the ESO played a jazz concerto written for P.J. Perry by Allan Gilliland. At the post-concert chat with the audience on Sunday, P.J. praised the ESO for always being a great jazz band. And he said there was one reason for that: the concerts that Tommy Banks conducted in the 70s and 80s for a series of ITV television concerts.
Tommy Banks made every musician he played with better. Great ones were fabulous, good ones were great, and young children, like those in our YONA-Sistema program (a cause he championed from its inception), couldn’t help but be inspired.
Senator Banks was an outstanding musician himself. There’s plenty of proof of that – in the countless concerts he gave: whether conducting orchestras from the piano, or just Tommy by himself. There’s also the recordings, the awards, and the innumerable people that saw him perform that speak to the fabulous artist he was.
If all Tommy had given us were those concert memories, chances are that would have been enough. But in reality, that only scratches the surface. If music had a more tenacious, determined, eloquent – more fierce – spokesperson, you’d have a hard time convincing anyone in this town. His advocacy for the arts, and for his adopted city of Edmonton (he was born in Calgary, after all), was tireless and pugnacious.
He held to his beliefs with a grip of iron, and argued his case with intelligence, compassion, and an equally iron will. His time as a Canadian Senator gave him a chance to put arts in a spotlight it has rarely had in our federal discourse.
And yet for all this, what those who knew him will miss most is his easy manner, his delight in friendship, and the way he’d say, “Hey, how are ya, man?” that made you believe he genuinely cared about the answer.
Even those who didn’t know him, knew him, somehow. He was the guy who hosted a jazz show on TV, late at night before the movie came on. Or they remember him lately, being interviewed and making his eloquent case for introducing music into the lives of children as soon as possible, because of all the good it does.
That particular mission dovetailed with the Edmonton Symphony and Winspear’s vision to make music accessible to as broad a spectrum of the community as possible, which led to the establishment in 2013 of the Tommy Banks Centre for Musical Creativity at the Winspear Centre. He was thrilled to have his name linked to a cause to which he had devoted so much of his time. Naming it for him was, for us, inescapable.
If there was one thing Tommy was lousy at, it was being retired. He was the busiest retiree we knew. He kept giving concerts. He and Ida still came to every public event in the YONA-Sistema calendar. When presented with the opportunity to advocate for music, for the arts, he took it. Tommy was supposed to accompany his old friend P.J. at those concerts this past weekend. It finally took his illness to slow him down.
There will be accolades – of course there will. There absolutely should be, in a line as big as Canada itself. Tommy won’t be listening. He’ll be looking for the piano in the corner, so he can sit down, start noodling his own version of a jazz standard, and inevitably tell you something about it, or the singer, or the recording session, you didn’t know. He’d share.
He was like that.