Sweet Memories of Tommy Banks and Diane Miller from Founder in Residence, Vicki Adams Willis
Sweet Memories of Tommy Banks and Diane Miller from DJD Founder in Residence
DJD’s current artistic voice and ever evolving view of jazz is the result of incalculable ongoing influences, not the least of which are those of the long list of talented musicians we have had the honour of working with over the years. Sadly, we have recently lost two of our most beloved music making friends – Tommy Banks and Diane Miller. My heart is heavy.
As so many have noted since his passing, Tommy was indeed a brilliant guiding light for Alberta musicians – an immensely talented man who was the ultimate doer – he was a master of making things happen and his musical impact on our province has been profound.
We had the pleasure of collaborating with Tommy on two creations – Stolen Moments in 1995 and Soul Jugglers in 1999. Stolen Moments featured jazz vocalist Mark Murphy with Tommy taking on the combined roles of composer, arranger, bandleader and musician for the production. His compositions for the act two “film noire” story were absolutely perfect for the genre and his playing, as always, was outstanding. He was completely tuned into the specific needs of dancers (such as consistent tempos) and as the ultimate pro he was brilliantly mindful of the importance of the pacing of the show. We were in good hands.
Soul Jugglers was our epic clown creation and Tommy not only wrote and arranged the remarkable marathon score but he also demonstrated his humble willingness to do whatever was best for the show and this included nightly clambering up a narrow ladder to the band’s tight perch high above the stage and then trying to wrap his head around the challenges of the unfamiliar buttons, knobs dials and settings on a newfangled electric keyboard used to create the circus sounds and effects. Of course, all the while he managed to skillfully stay on top of the overwhelming number of musical cues in this whirlwind of a show and of course he did this all with immense charm, dignity and good humour. I also remember that while we were developing the show he would calmly and respectfully listen to all of my wild and crazy visions and suggestions without once batting an eye – which was immensely liberating for me. Feeling his trust really buoyed me through the intense creative process of this immense project and once again, with Tommy, we were in good hands.
Yes, Tommy left his mark on our company through these collaborations but his impact went far beyond the rehearsal studio and the stage. As we all know, he was an incredibly active, enthusiastic and generous advocate for Alberta arts as well as a tireless community builder, and DJD was one of the many community organizations that he championed. He was always willing to lend an ear, give advice, write letters of support and generally sing our praises out there in the world, and for all of that we feel forever grateful.
You will always be with us, Mr Banks.
And yes, I have also lost my dear dear friend Diane Miller
My favourite jazz vocalists have always been those with deep and rich life experiences buried within their voices and Diane’s had one of those voices. In the late 70s, she left her successful television and singing career in Toronto to venture west and Toronto’s loss was our gain.
I first worked with her in 1980 (pre DJD) when I brought together a group of talented local jazz musicians and some of my U of C dance students (including Hannah Stilwell and Michèle Moss) to create a jazz evening that we performed nightly at Alberta Stage on the Stampede grounds (the swinging sounds being quite a contrast to the ubiquitous country vibe seeping out of every other corner of the Stampede). It was a glorious experience and Diane and I became fast lifetime friends. Throughout the 80s she sang in all the jazz haunts in the city from the big band afternoons at the Delta to joyous jazz celebrations at Café Calabash, often sharing the stage with her wonderful singing soul mate, Joyce Kelly, and on occasion with our beloved Big Miller – Oh they were indeed wonderful times.
In 1988, four years after creating DJD, it was time for us to take the leap into our first full evening, live music creation, Dancers and Other Musical Instruments – and Di bravely took the leap with us. It was a roaring success and since then we have been committed to creating a minimum of one live music dance show every season. Our next one with Diane was Summer Songs in 1990 – then came an unexpected feature in 1992 when the incomparable Big Miller died suddenly nine days before the opening of No Small Feets, an evening about his life that he was meant to sing and narrate. In a last minute scramble to turn the evening into a tribute, we managed to cobble together some rough rehearsal tapes of the show that we used for most segments, with the band playing along – but the segment about the women in his life was unsalvageable (other than Big singing My Funny Valentine) and it occurred to me that one way of dealing with the challenge might be to have a woman sing the other tunes. A late night call to Di and she was immediately on board. It was only a few days before opening but bless her, she boldly stepped into the breach and did a brilliant job of honouring our lost friend. Her last show with DJD was Classic Jam in 1998 but over the years our audiences were also able to get their Diane “hits” at our Black and White Balls either singing with the big band in the Palliser Ballroom or with a small combo in the “Jazz Lounge” in the Oval Room.
Diane taught me so much about jazz and jazz vocalists. We would spend entire evenings together indulging in Hank Jones Solo Piano or Carmen McRae Sings Monk – and I still remember the day when she marched into my house with a bottle of wine and presented me with my first Shirley Horne CD – again we spent the entire evening listening to it, sighing and smiling in all the same places.
About fifteen years ago my friend moved back to Toronto to care for her aging parents. Whenever I visited the city we would cherish our short bits of time together and of course we always listened to jazz and I would inevitably insist that she sing me a tune or two. To make the times between visits more bearable I would sometimes phone her and say “Sing me a wee tune, Di”. Dang, I miss that wonderful smoky voice and my beautiful and dearly loved pal.
Of course, Tommy and Diane will forever remain treasured members of the DJD family, but they have now been promoted to a new and elevated department of our organization – the department of music-making angels – and we trust they will continue their benevolent influence on and guidance of DJD from afar.
And onward we go with immense love and gratitude in our hearts…