September 30, 202110 Years of Jazz Jam at the RCA: Building Musical Community in the Central Okanagan

The Jazz Jam started in the late Spring of 2011. I had been looking around for permanent jam locations since 2006, since the jams at that time were mostly backyard affairs. I had grown up going to three jams a week when I was a kid growing up in Kelowna. One was at Kelly O’Bryan’s before they tore out the stage, another was at a restaurant in the mission called Cafe Safari, and another at the Mad Mango. Those jams pulled no punches at all: no books on stage, and they didn’t even announce the names of the tunes until you were standing in front of the crowd with your horn. Trial by fire!

I managed to get some one-offs over the years, and then a coffee shop by the parkade downtown brought us in more permanently. We ran for two months or so before they shut the place down. I was almost giving up hope when Shelly Vida, the Events & Communications Coordinator at the Rotary Centre for the Arts at the time, proposed the atrium as a venue. That was ideal since there was a real piano on-site. 

The original intention was to provide a spot for kids and pros to mix together and play music in front of a crowd. Having gone that route myself, I knew that no school program could hope to provide that kind of experience to a young player. A band program does two or three parent shows a year, a couple of festivals, and maybe a trip. Each kid might get two to four hours of stage time, and usually much less. A kid coming to our jam could potentially get two hours of stage time in a week, and would be over-prepared for things like university and honour band auditions. 

In one single year, my program filled a quarter of the chairs in the MusicFest Canada Honour Jazz Band (the national honour band). Through the experience granted by this jam and our excellent local instructors, Kelowna Jazz students became a national treasure. Any Canadian Jazz school wants them, and often recruits them with sizeable scholarships (some full-ride scholarships, too). Our university-bound students know more and have more performance experience than the national average by as much as 50 times over. That’s not hyperbole.

The end goal is to get kids really knowing some tunes, the language of improvisation, and to give them a good understanding of stage norms. We want them out gigging and making a little money at it. We want to represent the arts as being vibrant, attractive, and collaborative. We want the competition to be supportive; driving each other upwards instead of slandering them downwards. We want the community to be reciprocal: kids learn from us, go out into the greater world, and then come back to us with their new sound discoveries to share. Of course, I also wanted to provide an outlet and a place of real belonging for those kids for whom daily life is a struggle. For many of them, the jam was (or is) the best part of their week. 

After a time, I asked Stephen Buck to be the lead host of the event, since I was gigging a lot, running a busy high school band program, and coordinating the BC Interior Jazz Festival. He graciously accepted and has continued to keep the Jam going full force.

In the future, I hope to use a portion of the donations to set up a small scholarship fund for students who plan to study jazz. For me, that’s an important initiative that I fully intend to see through now that we’ve updated the majority of our stage gear (a good house bass would be nice, though!)

Thank you, Kelowna, for supporting Jazz Jam over the last decade. Here's to another ten years of the Jam. 


10 Years of Jazz Jam at the RCA: Building Musical Community in the Central Okanagan