Ronald William Collier, OC, trombonist, composer, arranger, conductor, teacher (born 3 July 1930 in Coleman, AB; died 22 October 2003 in Toronto, ON). A versatile trombonist, composer and conductor, Ron Collier was a key member of the third-stream movement (a synthesis of classical music and jazz) in Canada. The first jazz composer to receive a Canada Council grant, his major compositions include The City (1960), Hear Me Talkin' To Ya (1964), Carneval (1969) and Humber Suite (1973), as well as his orchestration of Oscar Peterson's Canadiana Suite (1997). Collier also composed for film and television, and taught at Toronto’s Humber College for 20 years, but is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Duke Ellington in the 1960s and 1970s.
Education and Training
Collier received his early training from 1943–50 in Vancouver, where he played trombone in the Kitsilano Boys' Band. From 1951–54, he studied composition in Toronto with Gordon Delamont. With the help of the first Canada Council grant given to a jazz composer, he went to New York from 1961–62, where he studied orchestration with Hall Overton and the Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization with George Russell.
Groups and Orchestras
The versatile Collier played trombone in the 1950s with Toronto dance bands, such as Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen, as well as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the National Ballet and Canadian Opera Company orchestras, and for CBC Radio and Television programs. He also backed up Billie Holiday and played with Charles Mingus.
While a member of Norman Symonds' jazz octet, Collier led his own quartet (without piano) from 1954–57. In 1957 he expanded it to a quintet, which performed at the Stratford Festival and with various orchestras, including the CBC Symphony Orchestra’s premiere and recording of Symonds' Concerto Grosso for jazz quintet and symphony orchestra. Collier further expanded his group to a big band, which performed on occasion in the 1960s, including at Expo 67. (See also: Music at Expo 67.) He later re-formed his big band for specific occasions, such as the Ontario Place Jazz Festival in 1979 and an Ontario Science Centre concert in 1983.
During the late 1950s, Collier, like Symonds, was a central figure in the third-stream movement in Canada. In that idiom he composed such works as Sonata, which featured pianistNorm Amadio.
In the 1960s, Collier also worked with the spoken word. His composition The City (1960), for orchestra and narrator-singer, was an evocation of city life featuring readings by Don Francks. Another collaboration with Francks, Hear Me Talkin' To Ya (1964), for octet and narrator-singer, featured a libretto comprised of quotes by jazz musicians and writers expressing various philosophies about jazz. Carneval (1969), with libretto by Gwendolyn MacEwen and narration by Bruno Gerussi, was premiered by Collier's orchestra (featuring Fred Stone) at the Detroit-Windsor International Freedom Festival.
Collier's big band compositions include: Requiem for JFK (1964); Humber Suite (1973), in three movements, the first of which was recorded by the Humber College Big Band for the LP First Take (1977); Jupiter (1974), written for and recorded by Moe Koffman; and Never in Nevis (1983) and Four Kisses (1983), both of which were included on the album Humber at Expo 86 (1986). Collier composed many other pieces for jazz groups of varying sizes and instrumentation, and also arranged several jazz standards for big band, including a Duke Ellington medley (heard on Humber at Expo 86) and Scrapple from the Apple (played by the Boss Brass).
In the 1980s, Collier returned to the synthesis of jazz and classical music. Reflections on Three (1980), based on solos by alto saxophonists Paul Desmond, Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker, was commissioned for the University of Toronto Wind Symphony and eventually recorded in 1994. To Prussia with Love and a Little Bit of Jive (1988) was composed for Music at Sharon.
In 1997, Collier commenced a big-band arrangement of Oscar Peterson's Canadiana Suite. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Mark Miller praised Collier's accomplishment, saying “He has taken Peterson's sketches and given them colour, texture and atmosphere.” Collier's arrangement was premiered by Fred Stride's Big Band and subsequently performed by Collier's orchestra, which he continued to lead in occasional performances at jazz festivals until the early 2000s.
Collaborations with Duke Ellington
In 1967, Louis Applebaum arranged for Duke Ellington to play as solo pianist on a CAPAC-sponsored recording with Collier conducting a big band and string orchestra. The recording included Collier’s “Aurora Borealis” and “Silent Night, Lonely Night,” as well as two works each by Symonds and Delamont.
Collier subsequently collaborated with Ellington as an orchestrator (and, uncredited, as co-composer) on Celebration (1972), commissioned by the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Collier collaborated with Ellington on other works — including The River (1970), recorded by Elllington with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra — and occasionally conducted the Ellington orchestra. The LP Collages, a recording of Duke Ellington with the Ron Collier Orchestra that features “Aurora Borealis,” was released in 1973.
Film and Television
Collier wrote scores for the play The Mechanic (1965), the ballet Aurora Borealis (1966; broadcast on CBC TV in 1967), for several industrial films (1967–71), for CBC Radio and TV shows and for the feature films Face Off (1971), A Fan's Notes (1972) and Paperback Hero (1973). His Waterfront, Night Thoughts (1965) was recorded by Robert Aitken.
In 1972, Collier became composer-in-residence at Humber College in Toronto. He taught composition and arranging there from 1974 to 1994. His pupils included Pete Coulman, Scott MacMillan, Jim McGrath, John Roby, Ilmars Sermulis and Doug Wilde. He directed the college's stage band to victory at the Canadian Stage Band Festival (now MusicFest Canada) in 1975, 1982 and 1986. He led Humber ensembles in concert and TV appearances in the Toronto area, and recorded the albums First Take and Humber at Expo ’86 with the Humber College Big Band.
Collier was a member of the Canadian League of Composers and an associate of the Canadian Music Centre. He died of cancer in October 2003, and was posthumously made an Officer of the Order of Canada later that year.