Canada Calling (2.1): Brad Barker (Music Director of Jazz.FM91, Toronto)

Canada Calling is new series from vocalist and composer Nicky Schrire. London-born and South African-bred, Schrire recently moved to Toronto, Canada, where she has been cultivating an appreciation for the many varieties of maple syrup. One of the first (and friendliest) people Nicky met was Brad Barker, Music Director of Jazz.FM91, Canada’s leading Jazz radio station.

Brad Barker hosts and programmes the bulk of the music on a station that is really at the heart of Toronto’s jazz community. This was never more apparent than during 2020.

When the pandemic led to the demise of live performances, Jazz.FM91 started hosting in-studio performances, paying musicians for their offerings, and streaming the concerts online. The studio’s performance hall also became one of the venues for the 2020 TD Toronto Jazz Festival’s Summer Concert Series, allowing the much-loved annual Toronto event to provide jazz to the masses, albeit virtually.

Barker’s knowledge of the Canadian jazz scene is vast and he is in awe of musicians and their commitment to the artform. This reverence is evident in his ability to juggle the music, the musicians, the listeners, and, literally, all that jazz.

LondonJazz News: How would you describe the Canadian jazz identity or sound? Does such a thing even exist or is the music, like the country itself, a tangle of different nationalities and cultures?

Brad Barker

Brad Barker: For a long time there was a distinctive “Canadian jazz” sound. It was driven from Toronto where jazz players were also studio players. Miles (Davis) never wore both those hats. But Toronto players, credible jazz musicians, were playing on commercial recordings during the day and then heading into clubs at night. That duality definitely affected the Toronto jazz sound. An example of this is Rob McConnell and The Boss Brass who define mid-20th century Canadian jazz. You still hear their influence on current Canadian arrangers who might have studied with those players.

However, if I think about someone like Larnell Lewis, who is one of the brightest lights in our scene, his stylistic traits have nothing to do with those players. His influences are from church and Caribbean sounds. So there’s less of a definitive Canadian trait in the current scene.

I think of Canada as being that midway place between Europe and America. There’s not generally a super high blues concentration in our jazz but it’s not eradicated from the Canadian style like it may be from, say, Scandinavian jazz.

LJN: Your answer certainly makes me reflect on the impact Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor and Norma Winstone’s have had on many Canadian musicians I’ve met.

BB: Absolutely. Those musicians always came to Canada to tour and perform so they’re a big part of the jazz community here.

LJN: Does Jazz.FM91 serve an industry or a community?

BB: I hope, in some way, we’re serving them both. We’re a radio station first so we have to make sure our listeners are enjoying the music. We’re not going to play music merely because it’s important and people are telling us it should be played. We’re looking for listenability and inclusivity in our listenership. Now that doesn’t mean the music can’t have edges or rhythmic diversity, but there is a line. I do think about our listener being in their car, in traffic, while they listen to our station. I don’t envision them being in a lounge chair, with a single malt scotch, headphones, being deeply affected by the music at any moment.

JazzFM offices in Liberty Village Toronto. Publicity Photo by Mary Kate Dall

That said, we have to serve our community and the musicians in our country otherwise we’re dead in the water. However, you can’t let the musicians run your radio station. I say that with all due respect. We’re in different businesses. Musicians are in the business of telling their story through their instrument and music. Whereas I’m thinking, “I hope this listener doesn’t switch over to the sports station and he stays with us a little longer” when I’m programming the music.

Hopefully there’s a balance. Ultimately, our focus is on musicians a lot of the time. I wake up and think, “How do we make musicians stars? How do we encourage people to buy their music and then want to see them live?” That’s the lens through which I tackle my role.

LJN: You went to university in Nova Scotia and earned a degree in jazz studies as a bass major, followed by a 10-year career as a professional musician. Does your jazz background help you as a broadcaster?

BB: My experience only makes me more in awe of musicians because I know how much commitment it takes to stay the course. I’m in awe of their dedication and I’m aware of how much I respect musicians when I’m interviewing them. I can also definitely appreciate technical aspects of the music – identifying when they’re trading fours or when the head returns. But I share that knowledge with a listener who happens to simply know about jazz without having ever played an instrument.

LJN: Can you tell us a bit about your approach to programming?

BB: We definitely have a consistency of sound at JazzFM but there’s variety in our specialty shows where the hosts programme the music. I also have a specific approach to programming individual artists. I make sure that multiple tracks from one musician are played over the course of several weeks during different time slots. I’m trying to create a level of familiarity for our listeners with the artists.

I also believe in playing much loved tunes that are often seen as over-played and therefore avoided. We’re never hipper than the room. Those “anchor songs” comfort the listener and enable them to feel more invested in what might follow. I try to create variety, familiarity, great sounds, a mix of vocal and instrumental, and a balance between classic and contemporary jazz. The goal is for people to stay for an hour and to experience a little trip through the history of the music to today’s offerings.

LINKS: You can listen to JazzFM91 (from anywhere in the world!) online HERE:
Brad Barker hosts Afternoon Drive weekdays from 2pm till 6pm.
Hear Brad’s interview with Jamie Cullum about his recent holiday album “The Pianoman at Christmas” HERE

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