By James Sandham
It’s been a beautiful fall so far, so I’ve been out doing what I usually do in this kind of weather, which is digging through the bins of cheap vinyl outside the record shops. Sometimes you come across something good, and sometimes you don’t, but either way you’re pretty much guaranteed to discover some hilariously weird album art – which is exactly how I came across Moe Koffman. I had no idea who he was, but his album’s cover art was so funny I had to have it. Plus, it was only a buck. Turns out, however, that Koffman was one of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame’s 1997 inductees and, furthermore, he plays a pretty mean saxophone to boot.
Koffman was born in 1928. In addition to the sax he also played the flute (for which he’s most famous) and clarinet. He made his name as a jazzman, but a lot of the tracks on Turned On (the album of his on which I got such a good deal) seem a lot more on the funky side. In fact, they kind of reminded me of the soundtrack to a 1960s TV cop show. They were, in other words, pretty awesome.
Koffman grew up in Toronto and attended the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music), where he studied under Samuel Dolin, a founding member of the Canadian League of Composers. Koffman dropped out to perform in dance bands, and in 1950 moved to the United States. By 1955, after working with big bands, such as Jimmy Dorsey’s, he was back in Toronto to start a band of his own. Just three years later he released one of his first big singles, “Swinging Shepherd Blues,” a seriously smooth flute jam, which made it to No. 23 on the American Billboard chart.
From there Koffman went on to appear in countless commercials, background music, and film and TV soundtracks. He was a pretty famous session musician back in his time. In the ’70s he released several popular albums with arrangements of works by classical composers and was a guest performer with a number of symphony orchestras across Canada. At the same time, he was also booking performers at George’s Spaghetti House, which sounds like a total dive, but was actually a pretty well-known jazz place down on Sherbourne Street (though, as the name implies, it was also an Italian restaurant and apparently had some pretty garish lighting). Koffman himself performed a weekly gig there.
After a pretty rocking and jazz-filled life, during which he played with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Koffman succumbed to cancer at the age of 72, and died in Orangeville, Ontario. He was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 1993, and four years later was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. You can still hear his music as the opening and closing scores of CBC Radio’s “As It Happens.”
Yes, it’s crazy what you can find out about just by digging through boxes of old records.
Moe Koffman – “Funky Monkey”