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Jazz composer and educator Phil Nimmons dies at 100 after influencing generations

Prolific jazz composer, band leader Phil Nimmons dead at 100

Jazz musician Phil Nimmons is presented with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award by Gov.-Gen. Adrienne Clarkson during a ceremony at Rideau Hall Nov. 1, 2002. Nimmons died peacefully in his sleep on Friday at his Thornhill, Ontario home, his family says. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand



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By The Canadian Press

THORNHILL, ONTARIO, CANADA – Prolific Canadian jazz composer, educator and clarinetist Phil Nimmons has died at the age of 100 after a musical career that included Canada’s highest artistic honour.

His family said Wednesday that Nimmons died peacefully in his sleep on Friday at his Thornhill, Ontario home.

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.

A statement from the family says the Nimmons ‘N’ Nine Plus Six group was a mainstay on CBC radio in the 1970s. His work in free jazz and other genres cemented his legacy and he helped to start music programs at the University of Toronto, the University of New Brunswick and elsewhere, it said.

Holly Nimmons said in an interview her father’s accolades included the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2002 — Canada’s highest honour for an artist — the Order of Canada and a Juno Award.

She said his career took him around the world, his influence echoing among generations of players as he evolved his approach to music and education and started music programs from “coast to coast to coast.”

“He 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,” Nimmons said.

Phil Nimmons was born in Kamloops, B.C., in 1923 and raised in Vancouver.

The clarinetist’s education included stints at the University of British Columbia, the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

He’s survived by his three children and several grandchildren. His wife Noreen Nimmons died in 2002.

Holly Nimmons said her father’s spirit lives on through his namesake website and legacy fund, as well as through all the musicians he worked with and taught over his decades-long career.

Toronto-based jazz vocalist Heather Bambrick studied with Nimmons in the mid-1990s at the University of Toronto, where she said the composer had a profound effect on her as she honed her voice.

“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,” she said. “He just taught us integrity and character as well as performance skills and musical skills.”

Bambrick said Wednesday that she first met Nimmons at a music camp before going to university where she learned “Phil’s philosophy lessons.”

He had the camp attendees listen to “about 15 to 20 minutes of nature sounds and we were sitting there thinking, what is this?” Bambrick recalled.

Nimmons then asked the young crowd about what key signature a loon was singing in, what time signature the ocean waves were moving upon a shoreline. Bambrick said the lesson left an indelible mark.

“Basically what he was trying to say to us was there is music everywhere. Music surrounds us, but as artists we have to be open to hearing it and we have to always understand the possibility that music had for us,” she said. “That was probably one of the most profound lessons that I ever learned from Phil.”

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 only recorded about a year and half 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.”

Bambrick said she got a phone call from Holly Nimmons before the family went public with the news of her mentor’s death.

“We had him for 100 years,” Bambrick said. “How lucky is that?”

— By Darryl Greer in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2024.

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