Valve trombonist, bandleader, composer, arranger, and music educator Robert (Rob) McConnell was born on Valentine’s Day, 1935, in London, Ontario. The son of a travelling salesman, he grew up in Toronto. McConnell took up the valve trombone in high school, and, after a brief foray into finance, gave up his day job to pursue his true passion: music.
Although he started out as a pianist, McConnell quickly settled on the trombone as his instrument of choice. His musical career began for all intents and purposes in Edmonton in the early 1950s when he joined Don “D.T.” Thompson’s big band after cutting his teeth playing bar mitzvahs and bars with a trombone purchased with cash earned working on oil rigs.
After driving back to Toronto (and siphoning gas from parked cars along the way), McConnell became an in-demand session musician. He also studied arranging and composition with famous jazz educator Gordon Delamont, paying for those lessons with gigs in some of Toronto’s rowdier bars. His peripatetic ways eventually led him to New York where he played in the band of fellow Canadian Maynard Ferguson in 1964. He then spent four years back in Toronto with B.C. native Phil Nimmons’ band, Nimmons ‘n’ Nine Plus Six.
McConnell went on to form his own group, the Boss Brass Band, in 1968. A-list talent such as guitarist Ed Bickert, flutist Moe Koffman, trumpeter Guido Basso and tenor saxophonist Rick Wilkins passed through the big band’s ranks over the course of the next 32 years.
The Boss Brass Band’s stature grew through the ’70s, leading to appearances at the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. California club gigs were attended by jazz luminaries like Henry Mancini, Doc Severinsen, Woody Herman and Nelson Riddle. The band also recorded with the Velvet Fog himself, Mel Tormé.
McConnell and the band were recognized by their peers many times through the years, earning 17 Grammy nominations and three wins. At home they won three Best Jazz Album JUNOs, in 1978, 1981 and 1984. McConnell’s most memorable JUNO moment came during the 1981 broadcast when he had to scramble up the ladder out of the orchestra pit, where he was conducting, in order to accept the JUNO for the Boss Brass record Present Perfect.
McConnell was also feted personally. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1996 and named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1998.
The bandleader would continue to work with various Boss Brass alumni in various smaller configurations through the ’90s. He also performed solo, including a spot at the Concord Jazz Festival in 1990. The last gig by the “Best Damned Band in the Land” (McConnell’s description of the Boss Brass) came in 2000. The posthumously-released live album …One More Time! captures performances from three sold-out “Sound of Toronto” concerts by McConnell and members of the Boss Brass that took place in December 2008.
Rob McConnell passed away in Toronto on May 1, 2010.
He formed the Boss Brass
Played solo at the Concord Jazz Festival
Was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame
Named an Officer of the Order of Canada