Keystone of Nova Scotia’s jazz scene, saxophonist Don Palmer dies at 82


It’s hard to imagine what the history of jazz music would look like in Nova Scotia, or much of Canada for that matter, if Don Palmer hadn’t been there to foster the scene, cheer on his local musicians. more promising or take the stage with his saxophone and flute at any occasion.

The Sydney-born musician and educator passed away in Toronto at the age of 82 on Friday, and he is fondly remembered online as the news spread on social media by friends and fellow musicians.

As Director of the Jazz Program in the Music Department at Dalhousie University and as Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Atlantic (now Halifax) Jazz Festival, Palmer had the enviable position of being able to nurture young talent and talent. to provide a stage for musicians, while putting his considerable skills at the service of the region’s music scene as a soloist, ensemble member and sideman.

“He lived this life so deeply, completely and honestly. He was nobody other than who he was, that way, ”said former director of the Atlantic Jazz Festival Susan Hunter over the phone from New Brunswick. “The musician, the artist and a very generous guy.”

Coming from a musical family – his father (Chipper) Palmer was a popular dance orchestra singer in Cape Breton – the teenage musician honed his clarinet skills in the Royal Canadian Artillery Band before attending the Maritime Conservatory of Music in the late 1950s and playing viola saxophone at the Jazz Club at 777 Barrington Street.

Aiming even higher, Palmer moved to New York City in 1959, making the most of the city’s vibrant music scene, studying with jazz greats like saxophonist Lee Konitz and pianist Lennie Tristano, touring with orchestras. Latin legends Machito and Tito Puente, and performing in booth bands for Broadway shows like Grease.

He returned to Nova Scotia in the mid-1970s, becoming Artist in Residence at Cape Breton College, before taking on a brand new position in 1978 as Director of the Jazz Program in the Department of Music at Dalhousie, where he continued to teach until he moved to Toronto for family reasons in 2005.

“Don, who had followers, immediately began to bring all these high school saxophone students together,” Dal’s former music president Walter Kemp said on Monday. “And they have become a very large number of students within our student body.

“It was a pretty conservative music department, but they were all thoughtful people and they went there. With (modern composer and improviser) Steve Tittle already entrenched in the program as a full time teacher, Don came up with saxophone and jazz, and we built a program right away, and the rest is history. .

The East Coast <a class=jazz scene remembers the legacy of saxophonist and Atlantic Jazz Festival co-founder Don Palmer, who died in Toronto on Friday at the age of 82. – Eric Wyne” data-enhance=”true” data-src=”” data-srcset=”,, 847w,,, 1694w” style=”height: auto; width: auto;”/>
The East Coast jazz scene remembers the legacy of saxophonist and Atlantic Jazz Festival co-founder Don Palmer, who died in Toronto on Friday at the age of 82. – Eric Wyne

Palmer’s students included Juno Award winning musicians like Kirk MacDonald and Mike Murley, as well as members of groups that rose to prominence across Canada like the Johnny Favorite Swing Orchestra and Gypsophilia.

“He was a living jazz player, as opposed to studio musicians who get masters and doctorates in jazz and then turn around and teach it,” Kemp said.

“There is nothing wrong with that, so (their students) turn around and go and teach in schools, but by teaching jazz and saxophone, our children have taken to jazz by playing with their teacher, by playing and improvising with a performing musician bringing professional skills to an academic environment.

Lukas Pearse, double bass player and current artistic director of the Upstream Music Association, of which Palmer was a founding member, recalled on Facebook how the saxophonist helped him through a difficult Dal Music hearing, and launched him on his new path. as a jazz, improvisation and experimental musician.

“I learned so much from Donnie, about jazz of course and mostly improvisation, but also about being a musician more broadly,” Pearse said.

“It confirmed and encouraged my belief in how the boundaries between musical genres were imaginary and ultimately how being a musician should be an artist, with all that that entails. “

But to the general public, Palmer was best known as a performer with bands like the Benghazi Saxophone Quartet with Upstream co-founder Paul Cram, his jazz program successor Dal Chris Mitchell and Ken MacKay, and the star trio Alive. and Well with longtime friends, bassist Skip Beckwith and recently deceased drummer Jerry Granelli.

He also accompanied musicians who came to Halifax to perform at the Atlantic Jazz Festival, which began with musicians like Palmer, Russ Brannon and Carl (Sleepy) Thomas performing on a stage on the steps of TUNS (now DalTech) in 1987, but would grow up to welcome international stars of the genre such as Cuban-American trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, guitarist Bill Frisell and former teacher Palmer Konitz.

“You don’t see him as a leader, because I don’t think he takes on those roles or those reins, but he was a driving force,” Hunter said.

“And he didn’t go. A lot of people left, and he stayed, and if he hadn’t ended up in Dal, I guess we wouldn’t have half the jazz scene we have in Halifax at this point.


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