Trumpeter and bandleader Denny Christianson has died at 78

He worked alongside Diana Krall, Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Carmen McRae and many others during his career.

He worked alongside Diana Krall, Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Carmen McRae and many others during his career

Jazz trumpeter and arranger Denny Christianson was a famed big band leader in Montreal in the '80s and '90s before moving to Toronto to lead the bachelor of music program at Humber College for 2 decades. (Supplied by Humber College)

Canada's jazz community is mourning the loss of trumpeter, bandleader and arranger Denny Christianson who died on Feb. 10 at the age of 78 of Parkinson's disease and complications from leukemia.

During a long and storied career that saw him move from Los Angeles to Montreal and finally Toronto, Christianson worked alongside a who's who of jazz and pop musicians: Guido Basso, Tony Bennett, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., Kenny Drew, the Jackson 5, Oliver Jones, Diana Krall, Ranee Lee, Carmen McRae, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder, to name only a few.

In 2018, Christianson retired from Toronto's Humber College, where he had been director of music studies for 17 years. There, he established the bachelor of music program while also attracting some of the leading figures in jazz to enrich the students' experience, including Kurt Elling, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette.

"We will always be grateful to Denny for his unwavering commitment to the students, faculty and staff at Humber, for being dedicated to world-class education, and for believing people should live their dreams, follow their passion, and share with the world," wrote Steve Bellamy, dean of Humber College's School of Creative and Performing Arts, at the time.

"Denny had a long history in music and brought his extensive experiences from touring and working in L.A. and Montreal to the Humber College music degree program," wrote jazz bassist Mike Downes, a Humber College colleague, to CBC Music. "He touched many people's lives and was a shining and deeply passionate advocate for music education. He brought that passion to all aspects of his life. His passing is a huge loss to Canada's music community."

Christianson's eloquent trumpet and flugelhorn were featured to great advantage on a 2000 quintet release, Goin' Places, with pianist Jan Jarczyk, tenor saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, bassist Alec Walkington and drummer Dave Laing.

"I had so much respect for Denny," reflected trombonist Kelsley Grant, who was Christianson's friend for more than 30 years, in an email to CBC Music. "I did my first work as a professional musician with Denny. He was kind, caring and extremely generous. When I met him in Montreal he was doing so many things yet never seemed to run out of energy for creating new musical projects. I can't even remember how many times he helped me with advice — he always helped me to remember what was important."

Jazz pianist/vocalist Laila Biali, host of CBC Music's Saturday Night Jazz, tweeted, "Denny Christianson was one of the most gentle and generous people I ever met. As a young woman in Jazz, he challenged me to really go for it, and he connected me with many significant opportunities along the way."

Christianson was born in 1942 in Rockford, Ill. Following studies at the U.S. Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C., he got work playing at a casino in Lake Tahoe, Nev., before moving to Los Angeles where his skills as a trumpeter and arranger were put to use in TV and film studios.

He moved to Montreal in 1980 and established the Denny Christianson Big Band, which played charts by leading arrangers as well as Christianson's own compositions. The band was an annual fixture at the Montreal International Jazz Festival for two decades, backing such soloists as Michel Legrand, Shirley Bassey and Diane Schuur in addition to putting its own high-energy, swinging performances on display.

The Denny Christianson Big Band's album Doomsday Machine was nominated for a Juno Award in 1986. Other titles include 1987's Suite Mingus and More Pepper, both featuring baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, and 1994's Shark Bait.

During his two decades in Montreal, Christianson taught at McGill University, Concordia University, Université de Montréal, and John Abbott College. He also served as head of music at Centennial Academy.

Christianson is survived by his wife, Rose, his son, Eric, and two grandchildren.


  • An earlier version of this blog post indicated Christianson's birth year and age as 1940 and 80, respectively. We regret the error.
    Feb 11, 2021 1:26 PM ET