Tommy Banks, a Canadian icon in the music industry, has a lifetime of achievements and huge pinnacles of success in his long and prosperous career.
But, in the ‘40s when the town of Sylvan Lake became alive in the summer with the sound of big bands, he was simply an awe struck teenager.
“My earliest Sylvan Lake memories are of listening to Sonny Fry’s band play at Varsity Hall – that would have been in the late ‘40s.”
Banks’ talent as a jazz musician was obvious at an early age and by the time he was 15, he was playing at Varsity Hall, himself.
“I first played at Varsity Hall with Don Thompson’s band when we were touring with Don Thompson’s musical Revue of 1952,” he said.
He remembers it well.
“The excitement of being in a big band on the road with a bus-and-truck show, replete with singers, specialty acts, comedians, and dancers (one of whom happened to be my girlfriend) was pretty special,” he said.
One incident still stands out in his mind.
“What I remember most about playing at Sylvan Lake was that some idiot had booked the show to play in Red Deer during the 24th of May weekend. Of course, on that weekend in those days, everybody from Red Deer was in Sylvan Lake. So Don cooked up a deal with the brothers Paul Perry and Jim Guloien for the show (or as much of it as would fit on the Varsity Hall stage) to play the weekly Sunday afternoon concert in Sylvan Lake, just so the weekend wouldn’t be a total loss.”
During his years as Senator in Ottawa, Banks gave his heart and soul to politics, but the music lived on inside him.
“While I was spending so much time in Ottawa I wasn’t playing or conducting as much as I had in previous years, of course; but I always played a bit here and there. One day in Ottawa, Peter Nero had been booked for a series of concerts with the orchestra, but pulled up ill on the day before the first rehearsal. They weren’t quite sure what to do and then they remembered that I had conducted and played with the National Arts Centre Orchestra before and wondered if I could step in at the last minutes. And I did. So even when I was in Ottawa, I did a bit of musical work.”
Now, retired from politics, Banks is busy, happy and looking forward to coming to Sylvan Lake.
“I’m working on a new Christmas CD, playing a few concerts including some at jazz festivals, and sorting through eleven years worth of papers,” he said.
In his lifetime, Banks has played jazz throughout North America, Western and Central Europe, Japan and Southeast Asia. He is the recipient of the Juno Award, The Gemini Award, The Grand Prix du Disques Canada and is an officer of the Order of Canada.
“He truly is jazz master, a Canadian jazz legend and one of the finest jazz piano players alive today. To see and hear him perform live in this setting (the jazz festival) is a rare and special occurrence,” said Eric Allison, co-producer of Jazz at the Lake.
But, despite his legendary status, Banks advice to budding musicians who love music just as he did when he was a teenager at Varsity Hall listening to the sounds of the big bands, is simple.
“Play at every opportunity. You will always learn something.”
Banks will headline the Aug. 17 evening performance of this year’s Jazz at the Lake Festival along with Cheryl Fisher, Eric Allison and John Stowell.