Mount Royal University jazz teachers lament loss of vibrant jazz scene in Calgary

Jazz musiciansWhen it comes to jazz and blues, husband and wife Corinne Plomish and Ralf Buschmeyer don’t miss a beat. Every Thursday afternoon, toe-tapping melodies and complex rhythms reverberate around Ric’s Lounge and Grill on 2nd Avenue as Ralf strums away expertly on the guitar, while Corinne croons into the microphone.

The couple has been playing together for 10 years now, and both are music teachers at Mount Royal University. An instructor for the now defunct jazz studies program, Ralf said he was crushed by the budgetary decision to cut the highly recognized program, and mentioned his concerns about all the things that have “gone to the wayside in the past five years” in Calgary.

“There’s no jazz program, there’s no jazz festival, there’s no jazz club,” Ralf lamented. “The culture here is oil and gas. There are a lot of people that to them, the closest they’re going to get to indulging in the arts is going to a hockey game.”

Debra Rasmussen, president of the grassroots organization JazzYYC in Calgary, explained that with the many challenges Calgary’s jazz community has seen recently, it’s easy to “feel that it’s bleak.”

With the collapse of Calgary’s main jazz festival in 2010, the disappearance of Beat Niq Jazz & Social Club — Calgary’s only official jazz club — and the closure of Mount Royal’s jazz program, Rasmussen said it’s “a challenging environment, but it’s not all bad news.”

jazz musiciansHusband and wife Corinne Plomish and Ralf Buschmeyer have been playing music together for ten years. The couple entertains the crowd every Thursday evening with their house gig playing jazz at Ric’s Lounge and Grill downtown.

Photo by: Anna Brooks

“The city is not without jazz education,” said Rasmussen, referring to the four-year music program at Ambrose College. “We’ve also got a pretty rapidly growing program. Our membership is four times bigger than it was a year and a half ago, so there’s interest. I think there’s a pent up demand for jazz in Calgary.”

Although her position teaching voice and music theory at the Mount Royal Conservatory wasn’t affected by provincial budget cuts, Corinne Plomish expressed similar concerns as her husband’s about the lack of a jazz music scene in Calgary, especially when compared to cities like Toronto.

“There is no comparison,” Corinne said. “There’s a lot of really great people here, and there’s definitely an audience for it (music). It’s a shame.”

Toronto has at least 14 jazz-specific bars and clubs, while Calgary has none. Musicians like Corinne and Ralf who are looking to play jazz have to hunt down space to play at coffee shops, theatres or restaurants around the city.

“That’s why I like this gig,” Ralf said, referring to the couple’s regular appearance at Ric’s Lounge and Grill. “We’re actually catching some of the business crowd, and people who wouldn’t otherwise see live music are getting exposed to it.”

“And they really dig it!” Corinne added.

With their combined talents, the couple doesn’t have much trouble finding work in the city, but Ralf said he is still mourning in the wake of the decision to terminate the jazz studies program at Mount Royal.

“They’re cutting it at the height of its success,” Ralf said shaking his head. “I’ve been here for 15 years, and we’ve never had a better turnaround of professional quality graduate students. Teaching students at that level is inspiring, and I felt they were changing the music scene here for the better.”

JazzYYC’s Rasmussen commented that Calgary’s involvement in this year’s Jazz Appreciation Month could do a lot for bolstering the jazz scene in the city. With “Jazz Celebrations,” a mini festival coming up in June, as well as a smattering of jazz performances and events around the city for the month of April, Rasmussen said she’s optimistic about jazz in Calgary.

Calgary joins the global jazz party April 30 in celebration of the United Nations’ International Jazz Day. JazzYYC is hosting free events around the city, which include concerts, talks and dance performances.

“Jazz Appreciation Month is really outreach to try and make people more aware of jazz, and have an opportunity to hear and learn about it,” Rasmussen said. “We hope that over time, our baby festival will grow back into the kind of festival most people think about.”

Couple’s musical journey

Regardless of what may seem like a bleak jazz scene in Calgary, musicians Corinne and Ralf’s love for music has led them to success in an industry that’s arguably one of the most difficult ones to “make it” in.

Originally from Ontario, Corinne started her journey as a vocal artist at Grant Avenue Studios in Toronto under the direction of world-renowned producer Daniel Lanois. Thriving in Toronto’s vibrant music scene, Corinne went on to recording sessions and jingles for big names such as 7-Up, Royal Bank and the Molson Indy 500.

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She also toured extensively with singer-songwriter Dan Hill, and played on a string of TV shows in Los Angeles, which included The Arsenio Hall Show and American Bandstand. Corinne has also played with infamous bands such as The Beach Boys and Air Supply.

Her husband Ralf has been playing the guitar since he was 13, and has found his musical roots in rock, blues, R&B and jazz. Ralf is the proud father of seven albums with his most recent album, Jazzspeak, winning the Hamilton Music Awards Instrumental Recording of the Year in 2012.

Both Ralf and Corinne are from Ontario, and both studied music at Mohawk College in Hamilton, but the couple didn’t actually meet until they ended up in Calgary.

“We actually met through a student of Corinne’s,” Ralf said laughing.

“As soon as we hooked up, we started playing together,” Corinne added.

Even though the musical duo has had success freelancing and playing alongside many celebrated artists, the journey has been arduous. Both Ralf and Corinne described learning a lifetime of music as similar to learning a language.

“If you’re going to play music, master it,” Corinne said. “It shouldn’t be part time.”

“We both know what it takes to faithfully play,” Ralf said. “We both respect music, and we try to have that come across as much as we can.”

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