Scott Wilson likes jazz so much, he was willing to commute to Whitehorse from Watson Lake once a week just to practise.
“While I was working in Watson Lake, I saw this ad in the paper to form a big band in Whitehorse,” he explained.
So, Wilson and his saxophone started making the weekly trek.
But after moving to Whitehorse, Wilson found that playing jazz just wasn’t enough.
“Sheila Dodd and I were just sitting around one day, and I said, ‘You know, there should be some live jazz in this place,’ and she said, ‘Let’s do it,’” said Wilson.
“And that’s really how (Jazz on the Wing) started — we just really wanted to listen to live jazz.”
This was in ’94, and Dodd was director of the Yukon Arts Centre when she and Wilson conceptualized the Jazz on the Wings series.
“She came up with this idea of an on-the-wing venue to give the jazz series a more intimate setting,” said Wilson.
So, they decided to put cabaret tables on the arts centre stage and move the audience up with the performers.
“We tried to basically provide a club-like atmosphere that was warmer and more intimate than sitting in a soft-seat theatre disengaged from a small jazz group playing on the stage,” said Wilson.
“Jazz players like to play really physically close and tight together, so you can imagine two, or four, or even five people just clustered on the stage with 30 to 100 people sitting in the theatre — it just wouldn’t work.
“We were trying to create the right atmosphere for jazz.”
They decided to hold the concerts on Sunday nights to avoid various Friday and Saturday commitments.
“When we started out, we had about 30 people showing up,” said Wilson.
But in the last two to three years, more than half the shows were sold-out, with derrieres filling each of the 137 seats.
Shortly after starting the jazz series, Wilson and Dodd discovered an existing jazz society in the Yukon, which had been dormant for years.
“They never really did anything,” said Wilson.
“So, we filed some zero financial statements and reinstated the jazz society, as Jazz Yukon.”
Once Dodd left the arts centre, Jazz Yukon took over the jazz series and introduced outreach sessions to accompany the performances.
“We offer various free sessions, including private lessons from the visiting musicians, school shows and some professional development workshops,” Wilson said.
Since 1998, Jazz Yukon has put on 70 shows in the territory — 51 in Whitehorse, eight in Dawson, two in Watson Lake, three in Atlin, five in Haines Junction and one in Old Crow.
This Sunday, the society will host Toronto’s Laila Biali Trio, its last show of the season.
“I was surfing the ‘net one day, looking at lineups for summer festivals, and I saw that (jazz pianist Laila Biali) had won the rising star award at the Toronto Distillery Jazz Festival,” said Wilson.
“So, I just went looking to find out more about her. And liked what I heard and liked the recommendations I had from people.”
Wilson is also excited, because saxophonist Phil Dwyer is touring with Biali.
“He’s a real heavy in the jazz scene and has been around a long time — he’s one of the major jazz players in Canada,” he said.
Dwyer also has a local connection; his cousin is Yukon New Democrat MLA Steve Cardiff.
Several years ago, Biali’s trio played for Dwyer’s going away party in Toronto; he was heading to Vancouver Island.
So, the following year, when the trio wanted to play the West Coast summer jazz festival circuit, Biali contacted him.
“And he agreed to play with us,” said 25-year-old Biali from Toronto.
Even though they still live on opposite sides of the country, when her trio performs with Dwyer, it sounds like they play together all the time, she said.
“He’s so good and so skilled at what he does, and he’s played in so many settings with so many different people, that he can sound like he’s been playing for years with anybody— he’s just that kind of player,” she said.
Biali and her bassist Brandi Disterheft met in high school. Attending Toronto’s Humber College music program together, they met their drummer Sly Juhas.
“I think the fact that we’re friends and have played together so much is really beneficial, because you have to really have a huge degree of trust in one another,” said Biali.
“And you have to know one another in terms of anticipating where someone is going with an idea, so you can play the right thing and interact with them in the right way.
“Jazz is so open that even if it doesn’t quite work as expected, it still works.
“But I find the energy becomes really electric when you have that synergy — when you have that intuition with one another, and that takes time to develop.”
Biali’s trio has a wide range of influences.
“I’m not somebody who sits down and just listens to jazz, I never have been,” she said.
“But I’ve always been inspired by jazz where you can hear other influences from other genres of music — world music, Latin American music, folk music, funk and icon musicians like Joni Mitchell.
“You hear a lot of jazz musicians covering people like Radiohead and Bjork and I love doing that kind of stuff too.
“And with my own writing you can hear the variety of influences that are there. So, you’ll get some really straight ahead jazz and you’ll get some stuff that’s a little bit more outside and pushes boundaries, and then you’ll get some stuff that’s could almost more appropriately fit into the category of classical — it’s a real mix.”
The Laila Biali Trio, with special guest Phil Dwyer, is performing at the Yukon Arts Centre on Sunday night at 7:30 p.m.
For further information call 633 – 3300 or visit www.jazzyukon.ca