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'Restless creative spirit': Tommy Banks remembered

Colin MacLean bubbles over with stories when talking of his close friend Tommy Banks. "Tommy led the way for all of us actually in almost any field," said MacLean. "He was many things. He lived many lives."

'He was many things. He lived many lives,' says longtime friend. 'We're much less because he's gone'

Beloved Canadian jazz icon and former senator Tommy Banks has died at 81. The Juno and Gemini winner hosted The Tommy Banks Show from 1968 to 1983. 0:51

Colin MacLean bubbles over with stories when talking about his close friend Tommy Banks, the renowned Edmonton jazz pianist and former Canadian senator who died Thursday.

"Tommy led the way for all of us actually, in almost any field," MacLean, a former CBC radio and television personality, said Friday. "He was many things. He lived many lives."

Banks was 81 when he died. His family issued a statement saying he died peacefully surrounded by family and staff at the Grey Nuns palliative care unit in Edmonton.

Banks and MacLean met in 1961, when the CBC's television station in Edmonton first went on the air.

Banks had already been working for CBC radio but was "involved in everything you could think of," MacLean recalled.

On a typical day, the two would work on a jazz program at 7 a.m., a radio special in the afternoon, and then begin planning an evening television show, he said.

"He was such a restless creative spirit," said MacLean. "He didn't sleep, I don't know how he did it."

In 1980, Wayne Gretzky was a guest on a variety show hosted by Tommy Banks on CBC television. (CBC)

'Passion for music'

Banks was among the original group to get "the dream" of Edmonton's downtown Winspear Centre for the performing arts up and running, said Annemarie Petrov, president and CEO of the centre and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, which calls the centre home.

"He was huge in the Winspear coming to be in 1997 when we opened," said Petrov.

Banks had an incredible passion for music that he wanted to share, she said. 

"As soon as Tommy would sit down at the keyboard you were just transported," said Petrov. "Tommy lived, breathed, he was music.

"He was a great arranger, conductor," she said. "There will never be another Tommy Banks."

As a tribute to him, and with his blessing, the ESO and Winspear together launched the Tommy Banks Institute for Musical Creativity in 2013, said Petrov.

Its purpose is to engage people with music, and provides a variety of programming for children and adults.

Banks was 'a walking museum'

Banks was a terrific mentor, said Chris Andrew, a jazz pianist who moved from Campbell River, B.C. to Edmonton after he graduated high school, hoping to study music under Banks.

While that formal education under Banks never happened, the two crossed paths as performers and became friends, Andrew said.

Tommy Banks at the keyboards during his live television show in 1980 on CBC television. (CBC)

"I'd call him and say 'Can we get together for lunch?' I had so many questions, and there was no hesitation," he said.

"This is a player, a musician, a personality that could have easily left Canada and been in one of the big scenes in L.A. or New York," said Andrew. "He was world class, on every level."

Banks was eloquent on the keyboard and with words, said Roger Levesque, who writes about music and the arts for the Edmonton Journal.

He would answer questions in excellent English and then add some historial context, said Levesque.

"The man was literally kind of a walking museum of musical and arts history from this part of the world," he said.

Banks was also a great promoter, bringing major artists to Edmonton including Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett and Lou Rawls, said Levesque.

"For Edmonton back in the 1970s that was a very unusual thing," he said. "It brought a lot of attention to our city."

'He was wonderful'

His generosity in sharing knowledge was well known during his time with CBC, said MacLean.

"They loved to have him come into meetings as he'd just fire ideas the entire time," said MacLean. "He'd work on programs that had nothing to do with music, he was such a great idea man."

Banks hosted a variety show for CBC television for more than a decade and came to the initial job by accident, MacLean said.

The show was looking for a host with an understanding of Edmonton and a wide knowledge of all sorts of things, he explained.

The producers couldn't find that specific kind of host, but the night before the show was to go to air for the first time they turned to the band leader, who was Banks.

"He was wonderful. He had a great sense of humour, he could ad-lib off the top of his head and he played a great piano", said MacLean, adding Banks was a great interviewer who could talk to anyone about anything. 

"He was a very close friend. We're much less because he's gone," said MacLean.

Beyond Edmonton, Banks served as the musical director for Expo 86 in Vancouver.

Sharman King, a musician in Vancouver, was a friend and colleague of Banks for more than four decades.

They played music together in the city, with King on the trombone, and later went on to found the discounted bookstore chain Book Warehouse.

"He's been very important in the musical history of Vancouver," King said. "Whatever he touched, he made better."