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Edmonton's ambassador of jazz still killin' it

Though his accolades are many, PJ Perry says focusing on his personal well-being is his greatest accomplishment.

PJ Perry has won a Juno Award, received the Order of Canada and twice played with jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. But the renowned saxophone virtuoso says putting the brakes on an unhealthy habit tops his list of personal accomplishments.

"Quitting smoking was the greatest thing I've ever done," said Perry, bluntly adding "I'd be dead," if he hadn't stopped lighting up.

The Edmonton musician had been smoking a pack a day of unfiltered Camels for much of his life when he went cold turkey about 20 years ago.

"I pulled out of it before anything serious happened. I realized how important it was to breathe," said Perry, adding his lungs are in good shape now, after years of focusing on getting his health together.

Prolific in the pandemic

The 81-year-old, who recently released his 10th album, says butting out has paid off in countless ways.

"I have more energy and more self-confidence," said the master musician, who uses an inhaler to manage a mild case of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

On the heels of his latest CD, the COVID-19-influenced 'No Hugs', Perry says he is feeling good about everything, especially his music.

"I do feel I’m at the top of my game," said Perry, adding the pandemic created a work shortage that made it easier to bring together top musicians for the album.

"Everybody's work decreased. The pandemic, "gave me time to write music and practice."

Working with collaborator Neil Swainson out of Toronto, the pair composed eight songs, “under the most unusual circumstances, and it proved to be very rewarding.”

"It was the first time I was able to keep a band together long enough to rehearse and learn new material," said Perry, who quickly adds the same band featured on the album joins him every Wednesday at Edmonton's Rigoletto's Restaurant. (see more at

Destined for a career in music

Born Paul John Guloien in Calgary in 1941, Perry took to music at a tender age; playing the piano at age seven and the clarinet at nine before settling on the saxophone at age 11. By 14, he was performing on stage and had adopted the name PJ Perry, following in the footsteps of his saxophone-playing father, Paul Perry. (Perry is derived from Paul's mother's maiden's name.)

“My dad was a very good musician," said Perry, adding his father was the band leader for the orchestra at the Varsity Hall in Sylvan Lake, a live music venue that ran seven days a week during the summers from the late 1940s until the mid-1960s.

During the winters the family was back in Vancouver where PJ and his dad would play gigs at various venues. On one such evening, 15-year-old PJ was called on stage to join Dizzie Gillespie for a song at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

"Dizzy Gillespie and the guys were superb and funny and encouraging. What a loveable person he was," recalls Perry.

Several years later the young sax player had an even bigger thrill when he performed an entire concert with Gillespie and his band in Toronto.

In early April the veteran musician provided a similar reaction for wide-eyed youngsters as he brought his three saxophones - alto, tenor and soprano - along with his flute, clarinet and piccolo to his grandson's school.

“I took all the instruments to play for the kids," he said.

Perry moved to Edmonton and joined Tommy Banks' band in 1967, and has been married to wife Rhonda since the early 1980s. Rhonda was a double-bassist with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra when the couple fell in love.

In 1993, Perry won a Juno Award for Best Jazz Recording for his album 'My Ideal' and in 2016 he was awarded the Order of Canada.

Today he stays fit swimming, walking and cycling. “I also play golf. I like the outdoors," said Perry.

Edmonton broadcaster and music promoter Peter North says the remarkable octogenarian, "inspires everyone in his sphere."

"It's astonishing that he is currently creating some of his best recorded work and is playing with such fire and passion.”

When asked to describe the secret to his success, Perry said, "There is no way you can survive playing jazz if you aren't absolutely in love with the art form. I play with as much care and love as I ever did at any time in my career."

And if you think otherwise, no, Perry has no plans on slowing down. He and the band have a 10-stop tour of B.C. set for this summer.

Gary Poignant

About the Author: Gary Poignant

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