I thought writing my thoughts out in advance would help me keep it together at the Zoom celebration for Donnie yesterday. It did not work out that way but thank you to all who reached out to me during and afterwards. Some of these words echo one of my previous posts but in any case this is what I was attempting to read yesterday:
"I am originally from Windsor NS and I met Donnie in 1979, when I was 17 years old, and began studying with him off and on until I moved to Toronto in 1981. Donnie was about 40 when I met him, and he had recently returned from his years of living in New York. As we all know, he had incredible experiences there, witnessing first hand the iconic jazz groups led by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and many others, including those of his teachers, Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano. The fact that he had rubbed shoulders with these giants of the music (and had himself played at legendary venues like the Village Vanguard) made this world seem more real to music students living in NS. And Donnie was a great storyteller; many of us here are very familiar with his wonderful stories (and they never got old, even 40 years later).
Donnie was more than a teacher to me; he was a musical father figure. In the three summers from 1980 though 1982, he was the musical director of the Meet the Navy show, a musical revue that employed a small big band and toured all over Nova Scotia. What a blast it was for me and the other young musicians, including Brigham and Bruce Phillips, John Hollis, Danny Martin, Anil Sharma and others, to be with Donnie every day on the road. I learned so much from that experience and of course this is when I first heard so many of Donnie’s legendary NYC stories.
After I moved to Toronto I stayed connected to Don through my frequent trips back to NS to visit and/or work. We actually got to play a lot of music together over the years in both Halifax and Toronto. Even though he did not play publicly in his final years, he often told me how happy he was in Toronto, living close to his daughter Lee and her family, who he loved so much.
But getting back to Donnie the teacher, I can honestly say he came into my life at a perfect time. Donnie unlocked so many important musical principles for me. He helped me understand the artistry of being a jazz musician and showed me concrete ways to work on developing the artistic side of one’s playing. This was not abstract talk; he encouraged all of his students to learn from masters like Lester Young and Charlie Parker but also encouraged us to be ourselves. He wanted his students to become improvisers, rather than regurgitators of “hot licks”. This is of course easier said than done, but it was central to his teaching philosophy.
Much of this philosophy came from Tristano and Konitz but Donnie had his own unique way of conveying these ideas. I can’t say enough about the musical imprint this had on my life. I have tried to convey these principles to my own students over the years but I don’t know if I could ever express these ideas as passionately as Don did. It is not a stretch to say that this improvisational philosophy seemed to guide Donnie’s entire life, along with his huge heart. He was an amazing spirit; it has been wonderful to witness the outpouring of love for him over the past few weeks."