Vancouver Island University is home to an accomplished and vibrant music program, complete with some of the best instructors Canada has to offer. Students come from across Canada to study music at VIU and to major in either Jazz or Classical Performance. I was personally attracted to VIU for two main reasons: I could live at home and cut down on my expenses, and I heard good things about the players who had come out of the music department. I didn’t know much about the faculty, and I was more than pleased to discover that our professors come from an educated, musically diverse, and well-traveled background.
Professors include guitarist Patrick Coleman, bassist Ken Lister, trumpeter Greg Bush, drummer Hans Verhoeven, saxophonist/ pianist Phil Dwyer, and last but certainly not least, bassist Bryan Stovell. All have a long list of accolades, but perhaps most prolific are Dwyer and Stovell.
“Stove,” as he’s known around the music building, has been teaching music for well over 45 years. He’s the chairman of MusicFest, Canada’s Concert Band division, as well as a MusicFest Canada Hall of Fame member. He has toured the world and was the former mentor of Nanaimo’s own legendary jazz vocalist and pianist, Diana Krall.
Dwyer, a Juno award-winning saxophonist/pianist/ composer/arranger, is one of Canada’s most in-demand saxophonists of his generation. His vast body of work and accomp l i shment s over the past three decades are more than impressive. Mr. Dwyer has played with Canadian jazz giants such as Don Thompson (a Powell River native), Kenny Wheeler, and Guido Basso, and with world renowned jazz musicians such as Dave Liebman, John Abercrombie, and Lee Konitz.
Professor Bush has taught and performed across North America. I asked him what makes VIU unique compared to other universities and music programs across Canada, he said our Summer Jazz Academy is what helps to make our institution stand out.
“We have such spectacular clinicians such as Hugh Fraser, Brad Turner, Don Thompson, and Phil Dwyer,” said Bush. “It is an amazing opportunity to work with renowned guest artists that you don’t find anywhere else.”
I asked Bush how he became involved in music and why he started playing jazz. He said he was originally interested in progressive rock types of music such as Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, King Crimson, and Jethro Tull, but he played in the jazz band in his final year of high school. He said the definitive moment was when a friend of his lent him some jazz records to listen to and he was instantly hooked. “It was really an overnight thing,” he says.
Music students come to VIU to study under the faculty so they can expand their knowledge of music and master their craft on their chosen instrument. Josh Agar is a fourth-year trumpet major in Jazz Studies who comes from Fort McMurray, Alberta. Agar says his love of music was instilled in him from his teachers at an early age, through elementary school and high school by way of band and choir programs. Agar studied classical trumpet performance at Keyano College in Fort McMurray, where he received his diploma but decided to change over to jazz music as his main area of focus.
“After studying classical music for two years I chose to switch my focus to a more modern and personally intriguing style,” Agar says. “Nothing against classical music, I just find all the different forms of jazz music to be far more accessible, entertaining, and enjoyable to study. I especially enjoy the freedoms provided through improvisation, of which there is very little room for in the classical realm.”
Agar went on to tell me that a major part of his decision to attend the VIU Jazz program was because of the helpful, and warm welcoming attitude he received from the staff. As with many other VIU students, Agar has considered pursuing the Education program after obtaining his degree.
The VIU music department has done amazingly well for a relatively small program. It has many alumni to boast about, including Ingrid Jensen, Pat Steward, and Bill Costin, and with the body of talented students studying under the great professors in the department today, there will no doubt be more to follow.
If you are interested in hearing what Jazz students are up to, there is an organized jam session that takes place from 7 p.m.–10 p.m. Thursday nights at the Driftwood Bistro, located at 22 Victoria Crescent. I strongly urge anyone interested in the Music program to come down for a bite to eat and listen to some great music.