The Littlebirds Junior and Senior Programs are designed to help the next generation of jazz performers hone their skills in a dynamic, 8-month-long program.
Now entering its 35th year and proudly sponsored by the Edmonton Jazz Society, past participants who went on to become professional musicians include Don Berner, Jim Brenan, Craig Brenan, Doug Berner, Jerrold Dubyk, Audrey Ochoa, Leah Johnson, Rubin de Toledo, Efa Etoroma, and many more.
Back in 1988, when instructor-founder, Gordon Towell approached the Edmonton Jazz Society to sponsor a big band program for student players from across the Edmonton region, no one guessed at the impact it might have on the local jazz scene. The Jazz Society agreed to offer partial funding and a free space for weekly rehearsals at the Yardbird Suite.
Gordon’s tenure was short-lived as he returned to school to start a doctoral degree. Dean McNeill was the next director of the Littlebirds, but he also heard the call of school and left the band to Jerrold Dubyk who directed the band for 2 years. In the fall of 1998, Craig Brenan took over the band and made a few changes related to rehearsal times. Local trumpeter, Joel Gray, took over as director in 2004, and he has more firmly established the group as one of Canada’s leading youth jazz programs.
The Littlebirds offers an elite opportunity for auditioned music students ages 14-21 to play in jazz-driven big band and small combos that crosses school divisions. It gives these students a chance to work and perform with other young musicians with the same passion, and it often leads to lifelong friendships and musical collaborations.
The big band performs high-level music that requires real commitment from the students. Saxophonists are encouraged to learn their “doubles”, such as clarinet and flute, and there is a focus on sight reading, intonation, balance, blend, and stylistic authenticity. The repertoire focuses on the roots of the artform, such as the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Mel Lewis, Thad Jones, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Woody Herman, all the way up to the more modern composers such as Rob McConnell, Bob Mintzer, Gordon Goodwin, and Maria Schneider. The Big Band does 4-6 concerts per year, and participates in the Edmonton International Jazz Festival, in addition to other local events, such as the City of Edmonton’s Swing N’ Skate, the Cantando Music Festival and the Jazzworks Non Competitive Music Festival.
In 2012, the Littlebirds added a jazz combo program. The combos also focus on authenticity and have a blend of learning jazz standards and doing original and creative music. All of the combo members learn to write and arrange music for their groups, and perform ten or more concerts per year.
The competition to get into the band reflects its high profile. In the last ten years, kids from as far away as Onoway, Camrose, and Devon come out for annual auditions, and even past-members have to re-audition to make the cut each year.
Each year, the Littlebirds will also have a number of workshops for the members, focusing on instrument specific skills, arranging, composing, improvising, and musicianship. Some of the more prominent national and international artists to work with the band in the last ten years include Tommy Banks, Bob Mintzer, Christine Jensen, PJ Perry, Jens Lindemann, Christian Scott, Elliot Mason, Marcus Printup, Brad Turner, Ingrid Jensen, Laila Biali, Tigran Hamasyan, Allen Vizzutti, George Colligan, Jodi Proznick, Gordon Towell, Rachel Therrien, Allen Jacobson, and Jeff Antoniuk.
The alumni of the band is a testament to the Littlebirds lasting results, including Jim Brenan, Chris Andrew, Kent Sangster, Lina Allemano, Lyle Moltzan, Carol Johnson, Curtis Henker, Mike Bairs, Jeff Campbell, Craig Brenan, Rubim DeToledo, Brock Campbell, Jeremiah McDade, Jerrold Dubyk, Don Berner, John-Ceri Jones, Jeff Hendrick, Hannah Gray, Doug Berner, Eric Weiden, Audrey Ochoa, Jared Greeve, Carsten Rubeling, Efa Etoroma, Jordan Mann, John Roggensack, Chris Covlin, Alden Lowrey, Marty Majorowicz, Paul Richey, Matt Michielin, Sean Bumstead, Silas Friesen, Heather Saumer, Bryan Qu, John Sweenie, Jeremy Maitland, Jonathan Deppisch, Fred Mack, Sahil Chugh, Keira Harmon, Leah Harmon, Kent Shores, Gareth Gilliland, Murray Smith, Peter Filice, Dean Kheroufi, Brendan McGrath, Stefane Krimms, Taylor Rault, Jacob Do, Kessler Douglas, and Nick Lang. In addition to these professional musicians, many alumni have become music teachers in the public and private education system.
The Littlebirds program is unique, and has made a significant impact not only on our local music scene and history, but at the national and international level. Few other programs feature the diversity of programming and experiences that our members get, from working with distinguished artists, recording CDs and DVDs, attending festivals and workshops, and live shows. Since 2020, the program has expanded and now has three combos, plus the big band, and over the summers of 2020/21 the combos performed over 50 outdoor concerts.