'Tommy Banks was magic': Jazz icon, former senator honoured in Edmonton

The legacy of Tommy Banks, a renowned jazz musician and former senator, was honoured Wednesday night at the Winspear Centre.

'He was a gentleman and a gentle man. He was my mentor and my friend'

Tommy Banks' memorial was held at the Winspear Centre Wednesday evening. (Kaylen Small/CBC)

The legacy of Tommy Banks, a renowned jazz musician and former senator, was honoured Wednesday night at the Winspear Centre.

Banks died on Jan. 25 at Edmonton's Grey Nuns Hospital after a brief battle with leukemia. He was 81.

Wednesday evening's emotional ceremony included performances by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, inside a building Banks was instrumental in making a reality more than 20 years ago.

More than 1,000 people, including friends and former colleagues from across Alberta and around the world, gathered to remember Banks as a community builder, an accomplished musician, a lively television personality and a dedicated family man.

Hollywood producer and 16-time Grammy Award winner David Foster, who befriended Banks more than 50 years ago, described him as caring, curious and humble.

"He had such a profound effect on my entire adult life that it's just difficult to put into words," Foster said.

"He empowered me and he taught me not just about music, but about life," he added.

"And he didn't do it with force… he led and taught by example. He didn't demand respect; he simply commanded it. He never needed the spotlight, because wherever he walked, the light shined so bright, it was blinding."

The Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta Sistema and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra perform "Hymn to Freedom" at the Tommy Banks' memorial Wednesday night. YONA Sistema is a program at the Tommy Banks Centre for Musical Creativity. (Kaylen Small/CBC)

Being on Banks's radar was like "winning the lottery," Foster said, calling him a "national treasure" and a "master at deflecting praise."

"He was a kind man and a one-of-a-kind man. He was a superman and a super man. He was a gentleman and a gentle man. He was my mentor and my friend," Foster said, welling up.

"Tommy Banks was magic."

'Ears like vacuum cleaners'

Banks started his life in Calgary, later moving to Edmonton, the city that would become his beloved home. Banks's passion for music took him out of school at a young age and put him on the road, making his jazz-playing debut in 1950 in the touring band of saxophonist Don Thompson. 

He would become revered around the world as a composer, pianist and conductor. He hosted a series of his own syndicated television shows — and serve in the Canadian Senate for 11 years.

He was the most important musical influence in my life.- Harry Pinchin

Harry Pinchin, who addressed the crowd at Wednesday's memorial, knew Banks in the early days of his musical career.

They played together in the Banknotes band, with Banks on the keys and Pinchin on the trumpet.

Banks pushed his players to be their best, and ensured the band kept a manic schedule on the road, said Pinchin.

They performed six nights a week, 52 weeks a year, only observing Good Friday and Christmas Eve as holidays.

Pinchin remembered Banks as a talented improviser with a great ear for recognizing melodies, rhythms, intervals and chords.

"We used to say that Tommy had ears like vacuum cleaners," Pinchin said.

He called Banks the "epitome of leadership by example" and said his music continues to withstand the test of time.

"We shall forever remember that smile and his expressions of encouragement," Pinchin said. "His music and the inspiration he provided, each of us will live on.

"He was the most important musical influence in my life, and my closest friend," Pinchin said, his voice faltering.

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

Not only was he a talented pianist, but also a "brilliant ideas man," friend Colin McLean said.

Banks was always happy to perform for the camera, even in the strangest of circumstances, recalled McLean.

For the TV program Somewhere There's Music, the Banknotes mimed musical performances at different locations across the city, including the airport tarmac.

"We had to clear off when the plane landed," McLean said.

"Tommy ended up in the middle of a field in his tux sitting at a grand piano all by himself. Noting the aircraft going by and never one to ignore an audience, he sat down at the piano, smiled his best smile, and started to play."

Passengers watching from the plane windows were "thunderstruck," McLean said.

Despite demand for his talents elsewhere, both Pinchin and McLean said Banks was adamant that he stay in Edmonton, the home that he loved.

After Wednesday's ceremony, the hum of violin strings and tinkling of piano keys continued as musicians poured out of the theatre to perform in an open jam session in the lobby — something Banks' granddaughter, Mallory Chipman, said Banks would have loved.

Mallory Chipman says when she misses her grandfather Tommy Banks, "he’s no more far away than pressing play.” (CBC)
"What better way to continue his legacy than to celebrate that with a jam session and have that sense of community be really embodied in that at the end of the night, because that's what he would want," Chipman said in an interview with CBC before the memorial.

"He always was one to say, 'The show must go on,' and would never want the music to stop."

He made you feel like you were the only person in the room.- Mallory Chipman

Chipman will remember her grandfather as someone who was tireless in his passion for music, and the people he loved.

The 24-year-old singer who teaches in MacEwan University's music program credits her grandfather for instilling in her a passion for music.

When Chipman was five, she attended Banks' Big Band concert at the Winspear. He dedicated the jazz standard Satin Doll to her.

"I had no idea that this is a song that everyone knows," Chipman said. "I thought, 'This is just for me.' And that's just the kind of person he is.

"He made you feel like you were the only person in the room."

As Chipman mourns the passing of her grandfather and greatest mentor, she will take solace in the memories and his music.

"He never slowed down and he never seemed old," she said. "He never seemed anything but bursting at the seams with energy and inspiration.

"I do feel so grateful that, even when I feel like he's not here, he's no more far away than pressing play."

About the Author

Kaylen Small

Journalist

Reporter and Associate Producer at CBC Edmonton // kaylen.small@cbc.ca // @KaylenSmall