Denny Christianson (1942-2021) was a passionate musician and educator who devoted his life to developing the next generation of jazz musicians, producers, and composers.
Throughout his 17 years with Humber College’s Bachelor of Music program, he was known as a kind, supportive and generous educator and friend. He brought world-class performance artists to Humber, and his impact can be seen throughout the college community, especially in the Bachelor of Music program and in the wider jazz community. Following in the footsteps of Phil Nimmons, Guido Basso, Ranee Lee and Oscar Peterson, he remains one of Canada’s foremost jazz educators. In 2020, Denny was also nominated for the Order of Canada.
A multi-talented artist, Denny was a trumpeter, flugelhornist, arranger, composer, conductor, and bandleader. Over the course of his award-winning career, Denny performed with a generation of musical “who’s-who” and recorded more than 250 albums with legendary pop star greats including Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, and the Jackson 5. Spending several years on TV with Sammy Davis Jr., Denny also recorded numerous movie soundtracks and hundreds of commercials and served as producer for 15 albums. His own seven albums received eight Juno Award and Félix Award nominations. He was also a music director for numerous TV shows and telethons.
His lengthy career also includes performing and recording with many jazz greats, including Pepper Adams, Diane Shurr, Tony Bennett, Michel Legrand, Guido Basso, Ranee Lee, Bill Holman, Carmen McRae, Ed Shaughnessy, Oliver Jones, Hubert Laws, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Benny Carter, Steve Gadd, Sweets Edison, Kenny Drew, Mose Allison, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sarah Vaughn, Diana Krall and many others.
“Denny Christianson was one of the most gentle and generous people I’ve ever known,” said singer-songwriter Laila Biali. “As a young woman in jazz, he challenged me to really go for it, and he connected me with so many significant opportunities along the way. Denny, you’re forever in our hearts. Play on, friend. Play on.”
Born September 12, 1942, in Rockford, Ill., Denny first moved to Los Angeles and then to Montreal, before finally landing in Toronto. He became a Canadian citizen in 1991. Denny was best known for his leadership of the 18-piece Denny Christianson Big Band, which began in Montreal in 1981. The Big Band was an annual fixture at the Montreal International Jazz Festival for two decades.
Denny also led the TD Young Jazz Showcase, a highlight of the All-Canadian Jazz Festival since 2002, bringing five or six of the finest high-school jazz musicians to Port Hope, Ont., each year for intensive workshops, culminating in two sets on the festival’s main stage.
Prior to joining Humber College, Denny also taught at McGill University, Concordia University, Université de Montreal, and John Abbott College, and served as the head of music at Centennial Academy in Montreal for eight years. He led the CJAD All-City Big Band for 15 years, winning national titles at MusicFest Canada and awards from Jazz Report Magazine.
Denny was a driving force in the Canadian jazz music and education scene and his dedication to the craft has left an enduring mark on generations of students, colleagues, Humber staff and faculty and friends. As a role model, educator, and founding director of the Bachelor of Music Degree at Humber College, Denny collaborated with music faculty to create the most comprehensive undergraduate music program in Canada.
Denny also enriched the students’ experience by attracting world-class figures in jazz to Humber as visiting artists, including Kurt Elling, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Terence Blanchard, Christian McBride, Mike Stern, Laila Biali, John Scofield, and more. His work also helped to establish the program as one of the most dynamic and influential in the country and spearheaded the construction of a world-class recording studio at the Lakeshore campus. By combining the latest recording technologies and entrepreneurial business strategies with performance, production, songwriting, and composition in jazz, pop, R&B, Latin and world music, this program consistently produces many of the most successful and versatile musicians and music industry professionals in Canada and abroad.
Denny was also an instrumental figure in the culmination of Humber’s 50th Anniversary as the Musical Director of Humber at 50: A Celebration Through Music. The spectacular concert featured Humber Music faculty, alumni and friends, and was an unforgettable evening of music and celebration with proceeds supporting scholarships for Humber students.
"We will always be grateful to Denny for his unwavering commitment to the students, faculty and staff at Humber, for being dedicated to world-class education, and for believing people should live their dreams, follow their passion, and share with the world," wrote Steve Bellamy, former dean of Humber College's School of Creative and Performing Arts.
Denny passed away peacefully at 78 years old on February 10, 2021, and is survived by his wife Rose, his son, Eric and two grandchildren, Juliana and Elliot as well as his two brothers, Mark and Jeff. His passing was a tremendous loss for the Canadian music community.
In recognition of Denny’s generosity of time and mentorship to students The Denny Christianson Memorial Scholarship for Artistic Excellence will be established at Humber College.
To acknowledge Denny’s impact and his commitment to many generations of students, Humber paid tribute to Denny at the 50th Anniversary Spring Showcase on March 31st with the establishment of The Denny Christianson Memorial Scholarship for Artistic Excellence. The scholarship will support third- and fourth-year Bachelor of Music students who identify as a woman and display a commitment and passion for developing their own talent and artistry as musicians.
“With Denny having been a scholarship donor, it was only fitting that we continue his legacy and generosity to train young artists and support their development, said Guillermo Acosta, Senior Dean, Faculty of Media and Creative Arts.”
He added “With your support, and that of others, we hope to create a permanent memorial that will support the future generations of world-class jazz musicians that will leave a lasting legacy, commemorating the impact Denny had on music students, Humber and the Canadian music community.”