Flutist, saxophonist, clarinetist
The much-loved and celebrated Canadian jazz flutist, clarinet player, and saxophonist Moe Koffman had a five-decade career during which he recorded 30 albums and performed for internationally influential audiences such as Princess Margaret, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and the chancellor of West Germany. He was a featured soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, as well as in the bands of jazz legends such as bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and big band leader Jimmy Dorsey. From 1968-2000, Koffman also played in Canada’s most renowned big band, Rob McConnell & the Boss Band. Unique in his ability to play across musical genres, he was a first-call musician for television soundtracks and commercials, and was known for his cool-toned bop music, as well as his inventive jazz interpretations of classical and pop. “It’s mind-boggling what Moe has done in his career. He’s a brilliant cross-musician who set standards that everybody has had to aim for,” keyboardist and longtime collaborator, Doug Riley, told Billboard.
Cited as “one of Canada’s jazz institutions” in his New York Times obituary, Koffman, who died from cancer at the age of 72, left behind a musical legacy. This inheritance includes the 1970s albums which sold more than 50,000 units—Moe Koffman Plays Bach and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons —as well as the 1958 international hit, “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues,” a composition which has been recorded by more than 100 artists, including jazz great Ella Fitzgerald. Among his long list of accomplishments, in 1993 Koffman received the Order of Canada, an award presented by the Governor General, in recognition of his great work and enormous contributions to the arts industry. A few years later, in 1997, the outstanding musician was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. On the day he died, Koffman was named—along with pianist Oscar Peterson—as one of the first inductees into the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame.
On December 28, 1928, Koffman was born to Polish parents in Toronto, Ontario. His musical schooling began at the early age of nine, when he took up the violin—an instrument that he claimed he was not good at playing. He started playing the alto saxophone at 13, and later studied clarinet and flute, laying the groundwork for the wide scope of musicianship he would demonstrate in the years to come. By the age of 15, he was attending the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and playing gigs with local dance bands on the weekends.
In the 1940s, the young Koffman became enchanted with a radical new style of jazz called bebop, which employed complicated harmonies and intense rhythms. Bebop founders Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington’s alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges, were his inspirations. “My first real true love was bebop. I just dug into it with a love and a passion,” Koffman told Billboard’s Larry LeBlanc. As a determined teenager, he often brought his saxophone around to various clubs, in search of visiting American jazz players. Once, he even talked his way backstage at Toronto’s Massey Hall in order to perform for saxophonist Illinois Jacquet. Koffman was asked to play a Charlie Parker tune—a request he was happy to oblige.
In 1948, at a mere 20 years of age, Koffman was named Best Alto Saxophonist in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Jazz Unlimited poll. As a result of this and other acknowledgements he received, Koffman was offered a record contract with Main Stem Records in Buffalo, New York. His first recordings, under the name Moe Koffman and the Main Stemmers, were two bebop 78-RPMs: “Bop Lop” and “Rocking with the Bop.”
During the early 1950s, Koffman worked in the United States as a featured soloist in big bands fronted by some of the most influential jazz musicians of the time, including Sonny Durham, Art Mooney, Jimmy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet. In 1955, Koffman returned to Toronto, where he made his first appearance at the music venue House of Hambourg. He quickly became known as a skilled studio musician with the ability to play across many genres. At the time, he split his career between performing in clubs with the Moe Koffman Quartet and appearing on top Canadian television series, such as CrossCanada Hit Parade and Front Page Challenge. In 1956, Koffman assumed the position of music director for George’s Spaghetti
Born Morris Koffman on December 28, 1928, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; died on March 28, 2001, in Orangeville, Ontario; married Gisele; children: Herbie, Larry, Elie, Ilya.
Signed first recording contract with Main Stem Records in Buffalo, NY, 1948; recorded two singles, “Bop Lop” and “Rocking with the Bop”; worked in U.S. as featured soloist in big bands led by Charlie Barnet and Jimmy Dorsey, among others, early 1950s; returned to Toronto, 1955; became musical director of George’s Spaghetti House, 1956; released debut album, Cool and Hot Sax, for Jubilee, 1957; “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues” became an international hit single, 1958; played with Duke Ellington on North of the Border, 1967; began playing with Rob McConnell & the Boss Band, 1968; recorded nine albums for GRT, including Moe Koffman Plays Bach, 1971-79; recorded straight-ahead jazz albums for Duke Street, 1980s; recorded Music for the Night, 1991; was musical contractor for Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals; released final album, Moe Koffman Project, 2000.
Awards: Toronto Arts Award, 1991; SOCAN Award for Songwriters, 1993; Order of Canada, 1993; Canadian Music Hall of Fame, 1997; Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame, 2001.
House, Toronto’s premier jazz club. His dedication helped many new musicians get their first break at the venue until its closure in 1998.
The time between 1957 and 1958 was a magic period during which Koffman got his band a deal with Jubilee Records in New York, and released the international hit composition, “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues” on his first album, Cool and Hot Sax. Koffman brought his group’s 1957 demo tape and a tape player all around the city, until Jubilee’s former producer, Morty Palitz, said he would record the group in a Toronto studio. Koffman’s signature piece, which later received a Broadcasting Music, Incorporated (BMI) award for more than one million performances logged, was originally entitled “Blues A La Canadiana,” but was retitled—for the sake of greater appeal—at the RCA Victor Studio in Toronto, during a recording session. The year 1958 saw “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues” reach number 23 on Billboard’s singles charts in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Despite Koffman’s initial hit, his subsequent recordings did not enjoy comparable success. He spent the next four decades recording for various labels, such as GRT Records of Canada and Duke Street, but supported himself mainly by doing concert tours and studio work. In the mid 1960s, he made more than six appearances as a soloist on the popular National Broadcasting Company’s (NBC) Tonight Show, and in 1967, Koffman played with pianist Duke Ellington on Decca’s North of the Border album, which featured compositions by well-known Canadian musicians. The following year, Koffman began his 32-year stint as a player in Canada’s top big band, fronted by Rob McConnell, who had previously been the trombonist for Koffman’s group. In 1969, CBC’s news show, As It Happens, adopted Koffman’s “Curried Soul” as its theme song—a tune which many Canadians still associate with him.
During an extremely productive time, from 1971-79, Koffman recorded nine albums for GRT. Only the 1975 album, Live at George’s, was straight-ahead jazz, the others being contemporary jazz and pop style interpretations of classical music. Although the first two recordings, Moe Koffman Plays Bach and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, went gold in Canada, Koffman’s reputation as a premier jazz musician was negatively impacted by his overlapping success with classical albums.
Koffman’s name as a top jazz musician was restored in the 1980s when he began recording for the independent, Toronto-based label, Duke Street. Among the albums released were One Moe Time, Moe-mentum, Oop-Pop-A-Da —with an appearance by Dizzy Gilles-pie—and Moe Koffman Quintet Plays.” The pendulum of opinion [against Koffman] swung the other way, because these recordings were magnificent, straight-ahead jazz albums,” CBC Radio Two’s After Hours host, Ross Porter, told Larry LeBlanc in Billboard. In 1981 he was given the Harold H. Moon Award for outstanding contribution to Canadian music.
Throughout the 1990s, Koffman was the musical contractor for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Toronto runs of the musical shows Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Showboat, and Sunset Boulevard. Webber’s compositions inspired Koffman to produce a 1991 album, Music for the Night; it was a blend of jazz, symphony, and pop style versions of nine Webber favorites. The album featured performances by some of Toronto’s best rhythm section players including Doug Riley, who had collaborated with Koffman on the previous Bach and Vivaldi albums. As the decade unfolded, awards and honors rained down upon Koffman. In 1991, the same year he was nominated for a Juno Award, he received a Toronto Arts Award. Then, in 1993, Koffman won the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) Award for Songwriters, as well as being voted Flutist of the Year at the Annual Canadian Jazz Reports Awards ceremony. In 1993, he was also named an Officer of the Order of Canada, one of the nation’s greatest honors.
Koffman’s thirtieth and last album, Moe Koffman Project, released by Universal in the spring of 2000, is representative of the stylistic blends and musical risks that Koffman’s work has become known for. The bluesy album was an ambitious collaboration for which Koffman employed a group of talented young musicians, one of whom is Riley’s son, Ben, a drummer whom Koffman had known since birth. The older Riley also worked on the project, and was quoted in the Canadian Press, “He [Koffman] was fantastic to work with; he was extremely demanding and a perfectionist, but encouraged total creative freedom from the people that he worked with…. It was like he was a kid again. It was almost as if he knew somehow inside that this was going to be it.” Indeed, shortly after finishing recording sessions for Moe Koffman Project, the musician was diagnosed with cancer. Despite the physical struggle he was undergoing, Koffman continued to make public appearances. His last was at the Toronto Jazz Festival in June of 2000. Koffman died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on March 28, 2001, leaving behind his wife, Gisele, his three sons, a stepdaughter, and a few grandchildren.
Hot and Cool Sax (includes “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues”), Jubilee, 1957.
The Shepherd Swings Again, Jubilee, 1958.
1967, Just A Memory (Canada), 1967.
Moe Koffman Plays Bach, GRT, 1971.
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, GRT, 1972.
Master Session, GRT, 1973.
One Moe Time, Duke Street, 1986.
Moe-Mentum, Duke Street, 1987.
Oop-Pop-A-Da, Duke Street, 1988.
Featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Soundwings, 1988.
Music for the Night, 1991.
(As sideman with Rob McConnell & the Boss Brass) Play the Jazz Classics, Concord, 1997.
Moe Koffman Project, Emarcy/Universal, 2000.
Billboard, February 24, 2001, p. 4.
New York Times, April 3, 2001, p. D1.
“Canada’s Swingin’ Shepherd of Jazz,” Canada Newswire, http://www.newswire.ca (July 9, 2001).
“Friends Fondly Recall Moe Koffman,” JamlMusic Canada Music News, http://www.canoe.ca (July 9, 2001).
"Moe Koffman." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/moe-koffman
"Moe Koffman." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/moe-koffman
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