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Tommy Banks: A Frank Admirer

For a half century Frank Sinatra reinvented the big band jazz genre with his masterful interpretive singing and brought audiences to their knees.
Edmontonian Don Berner, tenor saxophonist and leader of the Don Berner Big Band.
Edmontonian Don Berner, tenor saxophonist and leader of the Don Berner Big Band.

For a half century Frank Sinatra reinvented the big band jazz genre with his masterful interpretive singing and brought audiences to their knees. With songs like "Fly Me to the Moon", "Strangers in the Night", "My Way" and "New York, New York," big band music became cool and hip. This past December three notable Albertan jazz musicians took to the stage at All Saints' Anglican Cathedral in Edmonton for "A Perfectly Frank Christmas Concert," to honour Ol' Blue Eyes' legacy.

Edmonton's own legendary bandleader Tommy Banks shared the stage with fellow Edmontonian Don Berner, a noted tenor saxophonist and bandleader of the Don Berner Big Band. They were joined by well-known trumpeter and singer Johnny Summers of Calgary. “I feel great about making this music. It makes anyone with a soul want to at least tap their toe,” says Berner. The trio played Christmas favorites and also paid tribute to the music and influence of other trailblazers like Harry Connick Jr., the New Orleans jazz contemporary who influenced both Summers and Berner. Performing for the first time together as a trio, their collaboration will be one of many tributes to the iconic singer as the world honors Sinatra's legacy. Sinatra passed on in 1998, at the age of 83, but this year marks what would have been his 100th birthday. Don Berner was a young teen when he first heard Sinatra and was captivated. Unlike his peers at McNally Composite High School, Berner longed for a chance to become a tenor saxophonist in a big band. One day, Tommy Banks asked Berner to sub for the young student's saxophone teacher in his band. It was his first musical gig ever, at 19, but Berner became a fixture in the Tommy Banks band until he struck out on his own. “I remember being featured soloist on a few (Duke) Ellington tunes, Mooch and Things Ain't the Way They Used to Be. I don't normally remember those kind of details about gigs but this one meant so much to me. Tommy Banks was definitely an influence on my love of this music. He's a pretty inspiring figure,” says Berner, who has been playing jazz and big band music for some 20 years now.

Jazz lyrics have always contained that universal message about relationship angst, love, risk, loss or happiness. Summers remembers as an 11-year-old getting a record of Harry Connick Jr. from a friend and a Louis Armstrong vinyl record from his mother and getting instantly hooked. “I really liked Louis Armstrong. I loved the music, I loved the life in it, the smile, the emotion and the happiness in it,” he says. When Summers was fresh out of university, he met Tommy Banks at one of Bank's University of Alberta summer jazz camps. “We stayed in touch through the years. Meeting him, writing with him, and playing with him has changed who I am as a person. He's a powerful influence, a genuine soul. He's a gift to Edmonton, and Alberta and Canada,” says Summers. The two protégés and their mentor “swung hard” and offered a special Christmas concert for their Edmonton audience. “It's jazz with a range of sound and Christmas music presented in a way they have not heard before,” said Summers. The Yardbird Suite has booked the trio again for Christmas 2016.