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Music

Obituary: Phil Nimmons, The Dean of Canadian Jazz

The acclaimed jazz composer, educator and clarinetist died on April 5, at age 100, leaving behind a formidable legacy and inspiring musicians throughout multiple generations.

Phil Nimmons

Phil Nimmons

Bill King

Phil (Philip Rista) Nimmons, a Juno-winning and highly influential Canadian jazz composer, educator and clarinetist, died on April 5, at age 100.

Receiving honours that included the Order of Canada and the Governor General's Performing Arts Award testifies to the impact Nimmons (often dubbed the “Dean of Canadian Jazz”) had on Canadian jazz over a long and prolific career.


Fluent in both free jazz and mainstream styles, Nimmons was also adept in classical music. It is estimated he composed over 400 pieces of music in various genres, including film scores, music for radio and television, chamber music, music for large ensembles, concert band and symphony orchestras.

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The Kamloops-born Nimmons was raised in Vancouver, and his musical career started at a very young age. "I had two dear friends in Vancouver while I was growing up as a teenager and working at the CBC," he recalled in a 2005 interview with Billboard Canada's Bill King. "I worked with the Ray Norris Quintet when I first started and we had a comedian who played the piano while the late Barney Potts sang. We began lifting Nat Cole recordings."

"I was also in Vancouver's CBC Chamber Orchestra and two individuals, in particular, became great friends of mine – John Avison, who was the conductor and a great classical accompanist and Lawrence Wilson, who was a trumpet player who eventually became vice president of the CBC. We would do shows and afterwards, go to their homes and listen to recordings from Palestrina to Schoenberg. Here, I was 15 years old, hearing people talk about music all the time – I just soaked it up like a sponge."

Nimmons then studied at the University of British Columbia, on clarinet at the Juilliard School and composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. In its obituary, CBC reportsthat "it was at the Royal Conservatory of Music where he met his wife, Noreen Liëse Spencer Nimmons. They became part of a community of musicians who worked to preserve and promote Canadian music, including John Weinzweig, John Beckwith, R. Murray Schafer, Norma Beecroft and Harry Freedman. Nimmons was a founding member of the Canadian League of Composers."

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"During his long life, Nimmons influenced generations of musicians, music teachers and audiences through his recordings, concerts, band clinics, workshops, programs in universities and summer camps, and tours across the country. Nimmons was frequently heard on CBC Radio, leading his band on the program Nimmons 'N' Nine in the 1970s."

Nimmons formed the ensemble Nimmons 'N' Nine in 1953. Expanding to 16 musicians in 1965, the acclaimed ensemble remained active until 1980.

A renowned educator, Nimmons, along with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown, founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto in 1960 and he was a key figure in the development of the jazz performance programs at the University of Toronto, Western University, the University of New Brunswick and the Banff Centre for the Performing Arts.

When Nimmons turned 100 last year, CBC's Saturday Night Jazz celebrated by devoting four hours to Nimmons, with host Laila Biali taking listeners through his recordings, compositions, arrangements, his collaborations, and his classical side. Listen to that show here.

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Biali tells Billboard Canada "the impact he's had on musicians across the country – well beyond Jazz and adjacent genres – will resonate for generations to come. I have no doubt."

In 2002, Nimmons received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement. He received the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario in 1994; a Downbeat Achievement Award for jazz education in 2006, and the Jazz Report and National Jazz Award for clarinettist of the year for 13 consecutive years, from 1995 to 2008. In 2001, Nimmons was inducted into the International Jazz Educator’s Hall of Fame for his total dedication to jazz and jazz education. He also won the inaugural Juno Award for musical excellence in jazz for The Atlantic Suite in 1977.

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In recent years, Nimmons' legacy has been celebrated through the Nimmons Tribute, a jazz band led by Sean Nimmons-Paterson (Phil's grandson), bringing together Phil's colleagues, former students and friends. The Nimmons Tribute has released two albums: To the Nth (2020) and Generational (2023).

When To the Nth was released, Billboard Canada's Bill King wrote a feature based around his 2005 interview with Nimmons. King noted that "ToThe Nth is the brainchild of grandson, pianist/arranger Sean Nimmons-Paterson. The eight selections draw from a wealth of compositions that reflect the personal relationships Nimmons had with his beloved Canada and family. Younger Nimmons assembled a stellar cast – Kevin Turcotte, Tara Davidson, Mike Murley, William Carn, Perry White, Sean Nimmons, Jon Maharaj and Ethan Ardelli, and the sound is authentic Nimmons ‘N’ Nine."

Read King's feature here.

Upon hearing of his passing, Canadian jazz notables were quick to pay homage to Nimmons on social media. ACanadian Press obituary reported that "his daughter Holly Nimmons, who is CEO of the Canadian Music Centre, said news of her father’s death after 'a solid hundred years' had triggered a 'tsunami' of responses from fellow musicians, former students and teachers."

Holly Nimmons added that her father “has affected generations over the 60 years of his professional life and they’ve gone on to contribute to the fabric of the arts and culture in our country in ways that are deeply, deeply meaningful, not just as performers, but people who have taken on the characteristic that Phil has passed on and carried that into their teaching or their performing."

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On Facebook, Biali also posted this: "Phil Nimmons was a Canadian icon, and last year he (and we) celebrated his 100th birthday. The landscape of music in this country would be vastly different without Phil's indelible presence. We love you forever, Phil. Holly, Sean & family – you have our most sincere condolences as well as our gratitude for decades of service through music."

Toronto-based jazz vocalist Heather Bambrick studied with Nimmons in the mid-1990s at the University of Toronto. She told CP that “He was an endless supply of information, inspiration, motivation. I mean, there was no way you couldn’t learn from Phil because he always had a lesson. He just taught us integrity and character as well as performance skills and musical skills.”

Bambrick said she had the honour of writing lyrics to one of Nimmons’ compositions, a melodic lullaby he’d penned for his son Spencer, called “Night Night Smiley,” which she recorded 18 months ago. “I’m glad Phil had a chance to hear it,” she said. “It’s really nice to have that moment and, yeah, I don’t take it lightly. I feel really blessed to have had that experience.”

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Juno-winning Toronto saxophonist/composer/bandleader Tara Davidson offered this tribute to Billboard Canada: "Phil has been woven into my musical and personal life and philosophies since I met him at my audition for the U of T jazz program in 1998. When I arrived at my audition, I was extremely nervous and Phil (who, I'm sure, could sense my jitters) immediately tried to put me at ease by being his warm, respectful self and also by trying to make me laugh.

"It was, ultimately, Phil who called me at my home to tell me I'd been accepted into the program. Hearing Phil's baritone voice on the other end of that phone call, telling me this great news was an incredibly meaningful and memorable moment. And I believe this was also one of those 'Sliding Doors' moments: had I ended up accepting at another school, who knows how my life's events might have unfolded?

"I had the great privilege of playing in Phil's '11 O'Clock' big band for my first and second years at U of T and then being in his composition class in my fourth year. Performing in Phil's big band offered a multitude of lessons, musically and personally. His enthusiasm was infectious and his knowledge and experience was astounding. Phil also imparted the importance of taking care of your business, conducting yourself with poise and graciousness, and to always be respectful to the music.

"I graduated from U of T in June 2002 and that Nov., I had the immense honour of performing in the tribute band when Phil received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award. I remember Phil being the picture of calm, cool, and class during that ceremony. Now, approximately 20 years later, I have the extremely good fortune to perform in the Nimmons Tribute band, formed by his grandson, Sean Nimmons-Paterson.

"I think about Phil when I compose (I hear his baritone voice lowering to a bass when he talked about the importance of FORM), I think about Phil when I'm performing, when I'm teaching (now at U of T), when I'm paid a compliment (just say thank you!'), and when I sit in my backyard listening to the beautiful wind chimes Phil gave me and my husband, [jazz musician] William Carn, as a wedding gift in 2008. I will miss Phil immensely. But Phil is with me whenever I go...I will forever hear his voice in my head; imparting pearls of wisdom and urging me to Swing! Thank you for everything, Phil, and may you rest in peace."

Juno-winning saxophonist Mike Murley on Facebook: "Phil Nimmons’ generous spirit and passion for music profoundly influenced generations of musicians and listeners in this country. As a high school student, my first contact with Phil was when he came to Nova Scotia as a stage band festival adjudicator. I attended two of his summer jazz workshops in Fredericton, which has the first time I had the opportunity to learn from artists of this calibre. I know that many other musicians across this country have similar stories of being inspired by Phil in their formative years.

"He was undoubtedly the greatest contributor to jazz education in Canada through his early work with Oscar Peterson through to various summer workshops and finally his position at the University of Toronto. Heartfelt condolences to the Nimmons family, especially Holly and Sean, who poured so much energy into the wonderful Nimmons Tribute project in recent years. It has been an honour to be a part of that group. Thank you Phil for all you did for generations of musicians and jazz music in Canada. Yours was a century well-lived."

On Facebook, veteran radio and record producer Paul Mills posted this tribute: "I was very sad to hear that a dear friend and one of the most important people in my musical journey has passed away. Phil Nimmons was a revered Canadian musical icon who was often referred to as the dean of Canadian jazz. I met him back in 1972 when I was assigned to be the jazz producer for CBC Radio and Phil and his band Nimmons ‘n Nine Plus Six were regulars on the weekly show Jazz Canadiana, which I produced.

"Ironically, I knew very little about jazz but Phil took me under his wing and taught me a lot. He also taught me a lot about arranging music, lessons that would serve me well as I continued my life’s journey as a record producer. If you want to learn more about this amazing man, go to philnimmons.ca. Rest in peace dear friend."

James Bryan McCollum (Philosopher Kings, Prozzak) posted this salute on Facebook: "I had the privilege of playing in Phil Nimmons' big band at University of Toronto decades ago, but he has made a lasting impression on me as a musical inspiration and as someone with a huge enthusiasm and lots of love for life and everything in it. He made a huge contribution to Canadian jazz community and he'll always be in my heart. RIP Phil."

Toronto jazz composer/drummer/bandleader Ernesto Cervini (Myriad3, Turboprop) recalled that "Phil was the head of the program at the University of Toronto when I was a student, and I studied jazz composition and worked in a big band under him. He was an incredible musician, educator and human! I feel so blessed and honoured that I was able to study with and make music with him."

A legacy fund has been established at the Canadian Music Centre in Nimmons' honour.

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