Tommy Banks (1936-2018)

There’s a much-used cliché: “this guy’s done it all.” But when it comes to Edmonton’s music scene, that absolutely describes Tommy Banks. Pianist, big band leader, arranger, conductor, TV host, community advocate, and respected member of the Canadian senate, Mr. Banks’ tireless efforts on behalf of both his community and his fellow musicians – and that wonderful space where those two intersected – made him a fierce and devoted champion for causes that meant so much to him.

Tommy Banks was a guest conductor, arranger, and/or performer with the Edmonton Symphony for decades. He also appeared as guest conductor with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra of the Hungarian State Radio & Television, the Calgary Philharmonic, Chattanooga Symphony, Hamilton Philharmonic, Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, Lethbridge Symphony, Memphis Symphony, National Arts Centre, Regina Symphony, Saskatoon Symphony, Southwest Florida Symphony, Symphony Nova-Scotia, Toledo Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, and Winnipeg Symphony orchestras.

He produced five internationally-syndicated television specials featuring the ESO; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Symphony with an allstar cast headed by Tim Conway; Tom Jones In Concert; Engelbert Humperdinck In Concert; Lighthouse with the ESO; and Procol Harum with the ESO. Tommy conducted the world premiere by the ESO of Rod McKuen’s Ballad of Distances on the Warner Brothers LP Back to Carnegie Hall, and served as conductor or music supervisor for 48 ITV In-Concert TV specials syndicated in 78 countries of the world, and featuring stars from Tony Bennett to Dione Warwick, accompanied either by our orchestra or by his big band augmented by the strings and woodwinds of the ESO. In addition, he handled musical direction for Olympic and Commonwealth Games, and for visits by such dignitaries as Queen Elizabeth and Pope John Paul. Banks was also the music director for Expo 86 in Vancouver.

In 1980, Tommy Banks declared that Edmonton was just, "too big and too good a city not to have a concert hall." At around the same time, another ad hoc committee was struck to study the feasibility of both building and sustaining a concert hall. In August, 1983, Tommy Banks' group and this new committee joined forces, and formalized themselves under the Edmonton Concert Hall Foundation name, with David Norwood as its president. Their vision – the Francis Winspear Centre for Music – opened in September 1997.

Representing Alberta in the Canadian Senate from 2000 to 2011, Tommy did far more than advocate for the arts. He served on several committees, as well as a panel which advised the government during the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations. He was a founding chairman of the Alberta Foundation for the Performing Arts, and was made an officer of the Order of Canada.

Through it all, Tommy Banks never lost an opportunity to stress the value and importance of arts education, and the value it has in the lives of everyone – particularly young people. He was an ongoing supporter of the Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta-Sistema (YONA-Sistema) program, and was an obvious choice for the name of the Edmonton Symphony/Winspear Centre’s vision of making the Winspear Centre a place for everyone to learn about and experience music – The Tommy Banks Centre for Musical Creativity.