Jazz pioneer Morris “Moe” Koffman was one of Canada’s most celebrated multi-instrumentalists. It was the flute, however, that arguably became his best-known instrument, thanks to hits like “Curried Soul” and “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues.”
With more than 30 albums recorded over 40 years, Koffman explored a wide range of music genres with a fluidity born of the discipline of classical but the experimentation of jazz. Born in Toronto in 1928, he was called “one of Canada’s jazz institutions” by the New York Times upon his death by cancer in 2001.
As a youngster Koffman became infatuated with be-bop and took up the alto saxophone at age 13. He was named Best Alto Saxophonist in a 1948 CBC poll and made his first recordings shortly thereafter with Main Stem Recordings in Buffalo, New York. This led to a stint in the early ‘50s working as a featured soloist in a number of American big bands, including those fronted by Art Mooney and Jimmy Dorsey.
Koffman returned to Toronto in 1955 where he established a reputation as a studio musician capable of playing a wide variety of musical styles. He augmented studio work by playing live with his band (the Moe Koffman Quartet) and making regular appearances on CBC shows like Cross-Canada Hit Parade and Front Page Challenge. Koffman’s association with the CBC would forever be cemented in 1969 when his composition, “Curried Soul,” was selected as the theme music for the public broadcaster’s current affairs radio show, As It Happens. It continues to be used.
New York’s Jubilee Records released Koffman’s debut album, Cool and Hot Sax, in 1957. It featured the hit “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues” (originally entitled “Blues a la Canadiana”). It hit No. 23 on Billboard’s singles chart and has subsequently been re-recorded, with vocals, by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Natalie Cole. Koffman received a BMI award in the ‘90s commemorating its millionth performance.
Koffman would go on to record for a variety of other labels over the years, including GRT Records in the 1970s and Duke Street in the 1980s. His work with GRT often saw Koffman re-interpret classical compositions, including by Bach and Vivaldi, through jazz and pop filters. His Duke Street records, including One Moe Time, Oop-Pop-A-Da and Moe Koffman Quintet Plays, were straight-ahead jazz albums which helped reaffirm his reputation in that genre.
Koffman’s long career was recognized with a variety of honours and awards in the ’90s. In 1991 he was nominated for a JUNO in the Instrumental Artist of the Year category and won a Toronto Arts Award. Two years later, SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) honoured Koffman in the jazz category, and, at the Annual Canadian Jazz Reports Awards, he was voted Flutist of the Year. Koffman was named an Officer of the Order of Canada that same year and was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1997.
He spent much of the ’90s booking orchestral musicians for the Toronto runs of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Showboat and Ragtime. This led to Koffman producing Music for the Night (1991), an album of Webber favourites reimaged in jazz, symphonic and pop styles. Universal Music Canada released Koffman’s final album, Moe Koffman Project, in 2000.
Koffman passed away on March 28, 2001, at age 72, in Orangeville, Ontario.
Moe Koffman signed his first recording contract with Main Stem Records in Buffalo, N.Y.
Named Best Alto Saxophonist in CBC Jazz Unlimited poll
Given the Harold H. Moon Award for outstanding contribution to Canadian music
Received the Order of Canada
Voted Flutist of the Year at the Annual Canadian Jazz Reports Awards
Inducted into the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame