Hugh Fraser’s reputation as a jazz musician and educator was such that when he spoke, everyone listened intently. But when the pianist and trombone player performed, he could communicate volumes without saying a word.
Fraser, whose career spanned several decades and countries, died Wednesday at 61 after a long battle with cancer.
As news of the death of the Vancouver-based musician — who was born in Victoria and taught at the University of Victoria and Victoria Conservatory of Music — spreads through the jazz community, tributes have been pouring in from across North America.
“It’s really hard to quantify the impact he had on the music world,” Qualicum musician Phil Dwyer, a longtime friend and collaborator, told the Times Colonist. “He was somewhat of a rarity in terms of a Canadian musician who wasn’t from Toronto. He established himself wherever he went by creating his own reality. It was a remarkable gravitational force that he exuded, in being able to attract people simply by his enthusiasm and passion for music.”
The son of a percussionist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Fraser took up drums at the age of six before moving on to piano and trombone, for which he was best known. His talent as a composer was evident early on, and Fraser later turned that skill into several prestigious teaching appointments at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England and the Banff Centre of Fine Arts in Alberta.
Fraser also held key positions in the jazz departments at both the University of Victoria and the Victoria Conservatory of Music during the early 2000s. “Jazz musician is too limiting,” Dwyer said of Fraser’s creative range. “He was a musician. He was an educator. He was a mentor. And he was a dear friend to hundreds of musicians around the world.”
Dwyer started playing with Fraser in 1982, when he was 16. Fraser, who was 23 at the time, had already established himself as one of the foremost bandleaders and musicians in the country.
As “the new guy,” Dwyer said he made plenty of mistakes, but Fraser — in what would come to be his trademark as a bandleader — never stopped encouraging him.
Fraser had formed the Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation (VEJI), a 13-piece big band that functioned as a musical co-operative, in 1980. Out of that lineup came the Hugh Fraser Quintet, which won Fraser and his collaborators Juno Awards for jazz in 1989 and 1998.
Qualicum bassist Ken Lister, who met Fraser in 1979 when they were both students at Vancouver Community College, joined Fraser’s creative circle in 1995, and remembers his friend with fondness.
“He was the kind of guy who could enliven a room,” Lister told the Times Colonist. “Most of my memories are laughing my head off with this guy.”
Fraser’s group of collaborators and eccentrics resembled a gang more than a group — some of the first gigs VEJI played after forming were in East Vancouver lofts, with punk-rock types milling about.
During one early gig, they performed dressed in emergency-room scrubs lifted from a Vancouver hospital.
By the late 1990s, VEJI was known in jazz circles worldwide. Lloyd Axworthy, Canada’s minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, was an avowed fan, and Fraser shrewdly used that as an opportunity to secure “diplomatic tours” of Canadian embassies in the United Kingdom, South America, Central America and Australia. “I used to jokingly refer to VEJI as the Foreign Legion,” Lister said. “We would say: ‘Join up, and see the world!’ ”
Lister played with Fraser last summer at Frankie’s Jazz Club in Vancouver, in a show that was recorded for a potential new album. On the recording, which features new compositions from Fraser, the bandleader was in fine form, Lister said. “He sounds so strong. I remember he was struggling off the bandstand, but once he was sitting behind the piano, he looked and sounded great.”
Fraser talked occasionally about playing more gigs, but his health took a sudden and serious turn last week. He had been diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer in 2016, but was being treated with radiation and chemotherapy.
“I never heard him sound like he was giving up,” Lister said. “I was surprised when died. He had been fighting for a long time and was always keeping the sunny side up.”
Musician Nick La Riviere was in high school when Fraser took him on as one of his first jazz students at the Victoria Conservatory of Music.
In a statement provided to the Times Colonist, the multi-instrumentalist recalled Fraser’s “bombastic, energetic style of playing,” which inspired the young trombonist to emulate his teacher when he became a professional. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play a show where he wasn’t giving it everything he had, and he had a lot. His passion for music was contagious, and I know he’s inspired many other musicians to make it their career.”
Fraser was always adventurous — he led a 13-piece big band through treatments of Jimi Hendrix music in 2007 — and his desire to push the envelope of what jazz represents will be his lasting legacy, Dwyer said.
“There are certain people who create something where there was nothing before. He single-handedly created an entirely new music scene in Vancouver. He expanded the parameters of what was possible.
“If you were a young musician coming up in Canada prior to Hugh Fraser, you might have a certain view of what might be possible, in terms of having a career as a creative musician in this country. If you were coming up in the country after 1987, when he was touring internationally and making records, the scope of what he had proven to be possible was vastly larger and more exciting than what had existed before.”
Fraser is survived by his longtime partner, trumpeter Lorae Farrell, and his son, James.