Reginald Cornelis Egbert Schwager, CM, jazz guitarist, composer (born 7 May 1962 in Leiden, Netherlands). Reg Schwager is one of Canada’s most acclaimed jazz guitarists. Over the course of his 40-year career, he has played with such notable musicians as Peter Appleyard, Diana Krall, Mel Tormé, Chet Baker, Rob McConnell and Oliver Jones. Schwager was named Guitarist of the Year at the National Jazz Awards four years in a row (2005–08) and was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2021.
Education and Early Years
When he was three years old, Schwager’s family moved from the Netherlands to New Zealand. It was there that he picked up his first instrument and took his first music lessons, studying violin with the Suzuki method. Four years later, the family immigrated to North America and settled in Sudbury, Ontario. Schwager’s formal music education began in this mining town. He took lessons on recorder, flute and piano before he settled on the guitar.
While his record collection included everything from classical music to classic rock, jazz is what he fell in love with. His education outside the classroom included studying with many masters. Ed Bickert, Sonny Greenwich and free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor were among his earliest influences and mentors.
By the time he turned 15, Schwager was getting noticed. He performed duets with his sister Jeannette and played in various bands. After attending a pair of workshops conducted by Phil Nimmons at the University of Toronto and the Banff Centre, Schwager moved to Toronto in the late 1970s to further his career. During this period, Peter Appleyard added the teenaged guitarist to his ensemble. It played regularly at Toronto’s Chelsea Inn. Writing in the Globe and Mail, jazz historian and author Mark Miller wrote that Schwager “is a stylist unlike most others hereabouts combining the best of the Toronto and Montreal ‘schools’ — one harmonically advanced, and the other linearly daring,”
In 1993, Schwager sojourned in Amsterdam to continue his education in musical composition, thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. Over the past four and a half decades, Schwager has performed with such prominent jazz artists as Mel Tormé, Pepper Adams, Zoot Sims, Chet Baker, Diana Krall, Rob McConnell, Oliver Jones and Don Thompson.
Schwager has also released many albums, both as a soloist and as leader of various ensembles. He has appeared as a session player or guest artist on more than 100 commercially released recordings. He played regularly with British pianist George Shearing and with the Toronto-based Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra. Montreal independent record label Justin Time Records released Schwager’s debut album, Resonance (1986). A sampling of his many recordings include Border Town (1997), Trio Improvisations (2012), Songbook (2017), Trouble in Mind (2019) with the Dave Young Trio, and Genius Loci North (2021).
The Halifax Chronicle once wrote that “Schwager’s solos sprout like vines in the jungle, tangled and tough, and winding through everything. His fluency and jazz literacy are encyclopedic. And his tasteful elaborations of the changes seem to end all too soon.” AllMusic has called him “a distinctly singular voice on his instrument” and said that “Schwager’s playing reflects a thorough understanding of the entire history of the genre, from the pre-swing through the free jazz movements.”
Schwager’s wife, Karen “Kiki” Misumi, was a professional musician and composer who played cello and piano. She and Schwager performed together regularly over the years until she died in 2018 after a long battle with cancer. Schwager has also written many vocal jazz compositions with his sister, singer Jeannette Lambert. The siblings have performed jazz standards together frequently since childhood.
Awards and Honours
In 1997, Reg Schwager received an honourable mention in the category of Emerging Jazz Composer in the Dizzy Gillespie Commissions, presented jointly by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and the International Association of Jazz Educators. He was named Guitarist of the Year at the National Jazz Awards in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. In 2021, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada “for his indelible contributions to the Canadian jazz scene as a leading guitarist and composer.”