Moe Koffman memorial
Adored by many jazz fans for his penchant for making it more accessible to the masses, but shunned by true afficianados for the exact same reason, Toronto native Moe Koffman was born in 1928 into a musical family, and was a student of music early in life, embracing the violin at the age of nine, and the flute, clarinet, and trumpet within a few years after that.
After taking private flute lessons for several years from famed instructor Gordon Delamont, he won a jazz poll in Metronome Magazine in 1948, which opened the doors for a record deal with Mainstream Records in New York, who recorded him and released a pair of 78s.
He enrolled in the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto) and under the tutilage of Samuel Dolin (a founding member of the Canadian League of Composers), he studied several disciplines and instruments, but dropped out after two years when he was offered a job performing in dance bands around the Toronto area.
In 1950, he moved to New York, where he played the trumpet and alto sax in Sonny Dunham’s, and then Jimmy Dorsey’s bands. Even then, he was gaining a reputation as one of jazz’s most diverse artists, also working with the likes of Doc Severinson, Buddy Morrow, Ralph Flannagan, Tex Beneke, Don Rodney, and Charlie Barnet, as well as with Chico OFarrill and some of the other hottest Latin acts of the day.
But in ’55 he returned to Toronto, forming his own quartet that soon evolved into a five-piece band. They played the dinner club circuit for a few years, including a weekly gig at George’s Spaghetti House in Toronto. Two of his few live albums, 1967 and LIVE AT GEORGE’S in 1975, were both recorded there. And as the music director, he also booked other performers at the club, which he continued to do until 1990.
After signing a deal with American-based Jubilee Records, he released a pair of albums – HOT AND COOL SAX in 1957, and THE SHEPHERD SWINGS AGAIN a year later. The Koffman original “Swinging Shepherd Blues” (originally titled “Blues A La Canadiana” until a producer changed it) gained rave reviews for his mastery of the flute, and although many jazz purists didn’t appreciate his pop-flavoured approach, the song still reached #23 on the Billboard pop chart, making him one of the first Canadian jazz artists to achieve any real success in the US. The song has also been covered by others over 300 times.
He followed it up before the end of the year with another top 40 hit, “Little Pixie,” and then “Shepherd’s Hoedown.” Before the end of the decade, another pair of jazz singles were released – “Flootenanny,” and then “Shepherd’s Cha-Cha.” Throughout this period, he also began his nearly incomparable collection of works in commercials, TV, and film soundtracks. His compositions “Curried Soul” was used as the opening theme s respectively for the CBC radio show “As It Happens” for over 30 years. “Koff Drops” is still used as the show’s closing theme.
He continued working the clubs as a session player while touring North America with his own bands throughout the 1960s, releasing a string of albums on the Jubilee label, as well as ATCO and Ascot, and several smaller, independent companies, as well as one for the Canadian Talent Library. Some of the singles during this time were critically acclaimed for bringing jazz to a younger audience, including “Trains and Boats and Planes,” “Funky Monkey,” “Hi-Fiver,” and “Black Eye Peas,” among others. Part of the appeal to the kids was his innovating style, where he often played several instruments at once, which he adopted from Rahsaan Roland Kirk. His previous relationship with Doc Severinson also served him well as a way of playing in front of television audiences inthe ’60s. Severinson got the job as music director for “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, and Koffman was a featured soloist on several occasions.
During the ’70s, he aligned himself as a guest performer with a number of symphony orchestras, playing across Canada while still recording his own arrangements of works by classical composers including Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi. These too had a certain modern approach that opened up even the great time-honoured classics to a new audience, and were captured on vinyl on albums like 1971’s MOE KOFFMAN PLAYS BACH, THE FOUR SEASONS a year later, ROCK BACH TO ME in ’73, and BACK TO BACH in 1979. More traditional jazz pieces, including “Two Bourrees,” “Cavern of the Mountain Trolls,” and “Minstrel’s Hymn,” also became staples of his catalogue.
Although he recorded less in the 1980s, it didn’t stop him from bringing jazz to the masses by performing with an almost endless list of other performers, including the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Peter Appleyard, Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass, Doug Riley (who co-wrote much of Koffman’s material from the late ’70s through to the ’80s), Jimmy Dale, and Guido Basso, among many others.
Throughout his career, part of Koffman’s appeal to the younger audiences was his covers of mainstream pop, including putting his own spin on songs like Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman,” The Beatles’ “Norweigan Wood,” and Bob Dylan’s “Mighty Quinn,” as well as dozens of others.
By this point he’d recorded for Kama Sutra Records, Anthem, and GRT, among others. Signing with Duke Street Records before the end of the decade, the label re-issued many of his previous albums, and released several compilations and collections of previously unheard material. His 1991 album MUSIC FOR THE NIGHT: SYMPHONIC, CHAMPER AND POP INTERPRETATIONS OF THE MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBER is considered by many critics to be one of his masterpieces that again introduced one of the less conventional genres of music to the masses.
Koffman’s contributions to Canadian music and service to the performing arts were recognized in 1993, when he was appointed to the Order of Canada. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1997. Generally regarded as Canada’s greatest and most influential contribution to jazz next to Oscar Peterson, Koffman succumbed to cancer in 2001, at the age of 72, a couple of years after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. On the day of his death, it was also announced that he and Peterson were to be the first inductees into the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame.