On Rob McConnell

Occasionally, a Rifftides reader sends a message compelling enough that it demands posting not as a comment but as a full-fledged item. In the blog’s five years, there have been few. Jeff Sultanof’s recent recollection of Gene Lees was one. A few days later, we have Peter Kountz’s tribute to Rob McConnell.
Peter Kountz.jpgDr. Kountz is head of Philadelphia’s Charter High School For Architecture + Design, an independent tuition-free public school that is the first of its kind in the United States. His background includes leadership of K-12 schools in Pittsburgh and Brooklyn and positions on the faculties of the University of Rochester and the University of Chicago, where he earned his PhD. A musician, writer and consultant, he also coaches professional musicians.

On Rob McConnell
By Peter Kountz

I can’t say that I knew him well or that we were real friends. If I knew Rob McConnell at all, I knew him as a brilliant artist and musician, whose gifts were often rivaled by his complicated personal qualities and his battles with the demons of self-deprecation. I followed RMcC’s work for the last 25 years and I had the honor of producing in Pittsburgh in January of 1999, one of the last complete concerts the full Boss Brass did before RMcC downsized to the Tentet. Back to that concert in a moment.
The brilliance of Rob McConnell’s artistry, musicianship, and craft was not so much his charisma as a band leader or his underappreciated proficient and inventive valve trombone playing, but rather what he was able to hear and imagine as a composer and arranger and how these “sound ideas” were put together for the Boss Brass and the Tentet, and accompanying artists like the Hi Lo’s, Mel Tormé, or the Singers Unlimited.
There were other bands beside the Boss Brass, bands with marvelous sounds grounded in accessible melodies and harmonies, dressed in exciting arrangements and richly intricate rhythms, all with a delightful ease of listening. I am safe in saying, however, that there was never any band quite like the full Boss Brass with its additional brass (French Horn and sometimes tuba), woodwinds (clarinet, bass clarinet and flute) percussion (vibraphone, congas) and keyboards (organ); with its complex and daring arrangements, most with wry humor thrown in; with its extraordinary display of collective and individual virtuosity, with the power and precision of the ensemble itself; and withEven Canadians:Blues.jpg the unfailing delight and swing that came through even in the recordings. So is there one recording that gives all this–and more–to the listener, you ask? Yes there is, I say, and it is the penultimate Boss Brass recording, Even Canadians Get the Blues (Concord Jazz). It is all there.
Apart from his family and his oldest friends, I am not certain anyone knows the full answer as to who Rob McConnell was, assuming there is one. Here, I want to offer some impressions of who and how he was, based on my encounters and experiences with RMcC. I was always struck with how kind and thoughtful he could be, not necessarily how kind he always was. His standards were very high, so high, in fact, that most music students (undergraduate and graduate) could not easily get to where he wanted them to be; he was not a natural teacher and did not really like the act of teaching, so his music became his teaching instrument. Life for him may have seemed to others simple and full of fun, but it was always far from that in reality. He really did love his family, though enduring personal relationships came with great difficulty for him and one never knew how or why he/she made it to the RMcC persona-non-grata list.
Like Duke Ellington, he composed and arranged for people he knew who were artist-musicians and players and who could meet every musical challenge he put forward. He could be as grumpy as he was thoughtful. He was his own worst enemy and his impatience with mediocrity was as intense as his full-blown intolerance of certain people and certain facts and realities in the business; he may have been a twin of Gene Lees. Rob McConnell loved being Canadian and he got the blues a lot but he had a great time composing, arranging, and playing the blues. He took himself a lot more seriously than most people realized because he worked so hard to keep everyone thinking the opposite, sometimes to the point of embarrassing himself. Mostly he liked who he was though it wasn’t easy, especially when it came to being successful.
Thumbnail image for 800px-Pittsburgh_SS_Dusk_1.jpgSo now about that Pittsburgh concert and the lessons learned. A well-known physician and jazz musician whom I knew in Pittsburgh when I worked there died suddenly and my wife and I were asked to join a small group of friends and family to plan a public tribute to his work and his music. When it was decided to have a benefit concert in our friend’s honor to create an endowment with The Pittsburgh Foundation to fund a scholarship for a deserving young jazz musician, I was given the task of choosing the artists and producing the concert. The “Friends Group” joined hands in sponsorship with the Pittsburgh Jazz Society and jazz impresario Tony Mowod of WDUQ-FM and we were on our way. I knew instantly that the concert should be by Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass. I went to work selling the idea. That wasn’t as easy as it might appear. I bought CD’s and gave copies to “The Friends” and, through the music it seems, I was given the green light. All this was before I had contacted Mr. Boss Brass himself. In those days of RMcC’s pre-luddite tendencies, everything was done by letter fax, that is to say, the correspondent would write a letter and or a request, and then fax it to the McConnell home office which, to this day, I believe the saintly Margaret McConnell oversaw.
Without going back and reading the correspondence (all of which I have saved) I remember that my experience working with “His Tromboneness,” which I happily and perhaps naively called him, was easy, efficient, warm, business-like and very professional. We agreed on the date (January 26, 1999), the fee, the venue, the logistics, the cause, and even part of the program set list, though I had been warned that no one ever suggested to the Great One that he consider a suggested program. Okay, I thought, I trust this guy. And I really did. And, as it turned out, he trusted me. I asked him to open the program with his arrangement of Loonis McGlohan’s composition, “Songbird,”* and close the program with his arrangement of Gene Puerling’s, “Nightfall.”** Both of these arrangements are for winds only (no rhythm or keyboards) and both are fiercely difficult ensemble pieces in almost free rhythm, with no room for individual errors; every note for every part has to be right and fall in the right place at the right time.
His Tromboneness said, fine, we can do this. The bus arrived, I met it, and took things McConnell 3.jpgfrom there. While making sure that everything was in order -the show began at 8:00pm–I stayed behind the scenes. Much to my surprise, RMcC asked me to work with him on the sound check, which I did, and he listened carefully to my comments and suggestions and, to my amazement, responded to each one. We served an early dinner to the artist-musicians (and that they were) and gave them all room to relax. I put the check in His Tromboneness’s hands, and moved forward to show time.
The band walked on stage and we began on the dot at 8:00pm with “Songbird;” beautifully played, beautifully realized, and followed by a rich and full program. As I remember, there were at least 12 pieces on the set list (with introductions and comments from Mr. BB) and a generous intermission. RMcC used his final comments to thank the sold-out audience “for coming, for listening and for remembering Howard,” the physician/musician we honored that night. Then came “Nightfall.” Was there ever anything so beautiful, so perfectly played and so right? I don’t think so. And as the band got on the bus after packing up and putting down a Canadian brewski or two, His Tromboneness said to me, “Peter, this was the best produced, best managed, and most fun Boss Brass concert ever and we will always remember it.” As will I.
The Cheyenne Native Americans have a beautiful Prayer for the Dead: Go on into the Light and do not look back. We will take care of everything here. And, as “Nightfall” has come, so we will.
Rest in the Light, Your Royalness, and know how grateful we are for your life and music.
* “Songbird” — heard on All in Good Time (Sea Breeze CD-SB-105)
** “Nightfall” –heard on Our 25th Year (Concord Jazz-CCD-4559)
2-3 May 2010

In an auxiliary message, Peter Kountz added:

One important element for me in writing the piece is that there is likely to be very little extended recognition of RMcC on the American side, and in Canada he PO’d so many people, not many good folks are going to care.
I want people to realize some things about this amazing, gruff artist-musician in our midst who just kept making extraordinary music.

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  1. says

    Dear Peter, that was a great piece that you wrote. If it’s any consolation, Rob may have “PO’d” some people over the years, no one will likely argue that, but all the same his music, and his personality — is mercurial the right word? — will be fondly remembered by a great many fans, and probably at least as many musicians. I never had a chance to play in his band, but I told him once that I could probably play most of the book from memory, having listened to all the recordings so often. He just looked at me and said “you need to get a hobby”. He was probably right. Anyway, thanks again for the story Peter, and rest assured that Rob is being recognized, especially among his musical family, as the great artist he was.

  2. says

    Phil Dwyer’s right: Rob’s being well-recognized by those who matter. But gee, I must have had some kind of special relationship with Rob. I know he was grumpy, troublesome, difficult, but never — not over 45 years — did I have hard times with him. Maybe we had the same sense of humour, or disliked the same things or something: perhaps as a non-player I was immune. He generously (and unasked) wrote TWO (2!) theme songs for me, and dedicated a CD to me when I left the station where I had worked for 37 years.
    Over those years, I hired the band for a couple of radio concerts/recordings, including matching the BB with a symphony orchestra for commissioned works and a great event with Joe Williams; travelled a lot with the band across Canada, LA and the US west coast, even Finland (though not to Pittsburgh, regretfully) as sorta road manager, sound man, Rob-safety-valve-for-complaining-to; drove to the gigs with him; hung out in the clubs after hours when the music was so good he wanted to stay in the glow of it.
    I loved every moment of it, because he put everything he had into his music.
    And just as an aside to Peter, Margaret passed away a few years back, and Rob married Anne, a lovely lady who got to share too-few good, healthy years with Rob.

  3. Denis Ouellet says

    Thanks for this beautiful story. Somehow that’s the way I always saw him manage this business. That’s the feeling he gave me. A truly free spirit.
    Phil, you got me laughing there with that story about getting a hobby. (-:
    That’s hilarious.
    Thank you

  4. John M. Thomas says

    A wonderful piece on Rob McConnell–I probably had/have more Boss Brass/Rob McConnell albums/CD’s in my collection than any other musician.
    My first “live” experience was in the late 1980’s for a concert in Oakland, Michigan–followed by three visits to Toronto and the BB at “The Limelight”–a walkdown supperclub on the north end of town–the last time the Boss Brass played (at least “in public”) the 2003 IAJE convention in Toronto–Rob had arranged a 16 bar take “America The Beautiful” to start his segment of the Saturday evening concert–the band ended with his chart of “Oh Canada”–the entire three band concert was broadcast on Canadian radio–in stereo/FM–and I am fortunate enought to have the entire concert from a departed Canadian friend who had a contact at the radio network, and copied the concert off the master. Additional trips to Toronto and the “Ten”–at the “Top of the Senator”–a small venue on the second floor of a dinner spot, were always a musical joy.
    The “America The Beautiful” chart was so moving, I called Rob shortly after that–his home phone number was listed–and we had talked before–and he gratiously sent me a copy of the chart–which I still have to this day.
    A great musician–band leader–gentleman–he will be missed.

  5. Fred Napoli says

    By Fred Napoli on May 16, 2010 1.17 p.m
    I am indebted to a old friend for sending me this wonderful tribute to Rob McConnell.
    We were friends, but not buddies. He was open or closed, distant or very near, comfortable with silences, sometimes abrupt and often zany.
    I must have hours of taped interviews with him from my days as a radio host. I don’t suppose we missed more than a couple of his album debuts over the length of his recording years. As a songwriter/lyricist and aspiring singer I was privileged to be on the recording floor with him and the awesome members of his band, his fraternity of excellence. Rob even allowed me to write lyrics for several of his compositions.
    I couldn’t begin to count the hours, the days and years of watching and listening to his development and evolution in the formidable jazz clubs of Toronto from the late sixties until almost the turn of the last century.
    There is a saying that goes ”you can’t see the paradigm when you are in it.”
    With Rob McConnell’s passing so too ends an era. Thankfully his music and his influence will be with us and more valued with each passing year. I will miss him.

  6. says

    My perspective is purely that of a fan.
    I admired Rob McConnell very much for having the boldness to conceive of a great big ensemble like Boss Brass in the first place, and then for having the commitment to keep finding gigs for them over all those years. He may have been difficult (and he certainly emanated that from the stage) but he was surely dedicated and passionate.
    I believe his greatest gift to the world was (and will remain) the charts he created. Certainly the thing my husband and I will miss most is that imaginative, whimsical, powerful – and highly original – voice shining through those big-band arrangements.
    RIP to a great jazz spirit …

  7. Richard Clevenger says

    Dear Mr. Kountz,
    I know I’m a little late but just found your article on the web. I was a small town trumpet player who played in a dance band in the late 50’s and early 60’s, mostly stock charts of Miller, Shaw, Ellington, etc. Played in the the Army, also. Was just good enough to make the band.
    I only became acquainted with Boss Brass music about 20 years ago. On hearing them the first time I knew this was something great. I think it is difficult for non-jazz “lovers” to understand how good jazz carries us off to a different place. But it does and is one the joys in life. I was saddened by the deaths of Arnie and then Rob. In particular Arnie’s passing really hurt. He was like a family member (trumpet players, you know) although I knew nothing of his life except his fantastic lead trumpet playing. After his passing, it was nice to hear that he was a great guy.
    Regarding the Boss Brass, Rob, Arnie and the gang, an era has passed this way once and we were touched because of it.