Jazz legend Don Palmer, who mentored generations of N.S. musicians, dies at 82

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Don Palmer was a saxophonist and flutist from Sydney, N.S. (Submitted by Leanna Palmer - image credit)
Don Palmer was a saxophonist and flutist from Sydney, N.S. (Submitted by Leanna Palmer - image credit)

Don Palmer, a Canadian jazz legend who inspired and mentored generations of musicians in Nova Scotia, has died. He was 82.

Palmer, who was born in Sydney, died at a hospital in Toronto on Friday after a brief illness.

A saxophonist and flutist by trade, Palmer was known for his jazz trio Alive and Well with Jerry Granelli and Skip Beckwith and his work with Latin jazz musician Tito Puente, among countless other artists, bands and orchestras over the years.

Although he had found success in the industry, Palmer's daughter, Leanna Palmer, said he was best known for being a generous and kind teacher.

Submitted by Jeff Reilly
Submitted by Jeff Reilly

"He lived every single day of his life with love, with everything. It was love of music. It was love of his students. It was love of life," Leanna said from her home in Toronto.

"... When you hear people talk about his impact — of course, his music is important — but he had such an impact on his students as people, because he just wanted to share that love of music, but he also just wanted to cultivate that love in others."

As a young man, Palmer played clarinet in the Royal Canadian Artillery Band in Halifax, attended the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts and would often play alto saxophone at a jazz club on Barrington Street.

His love of jazz took him to New York in 1956, when legends like John Coltrane and Miles Davis were playing, and during his time there, he studied under several renowned musicians, including Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz.

"He just kind of absorbed it all and it came out in his playing," said Jeff Reilly, a CBC music producer and a longtime friend of Palmer. "He was totally committed to music."

Reilly said Palmer's style was informed by his teachers' fast and light, energetic playing, but he made it his own — more distinct and rhythmically aggressive.

Submitted by Leanna Palmer
Submitted by Leanna Palmer

He added that Palmer had an impressive ability to lead a loose rhythm quartet and transform the music into something cohesive "just by the strength of his own rhythmic integrity."

Contributed to The Hustle

Reilly and Leanna both said one of the more popular pieces where Palmer made a contribution was Van McKoy's 1970s disco-hit The Hustle.

Palmer was a multi-instrumentalist working as a freelance studio musician at the time, and during one recording session he was asked to play a line with his flute.

Little did he know that one line would become the iconic flute rhythm in the song.

"He was embarrassed of it at first. It was just a gig, right? He didn't know what it was when he was going in.

Submitted by Leanna Palmer
Submitted by Leanna Palmer

"He played this very simple, very small, little tune over and over again, got his paycheck and went home and then found out that it was quite the famous song," Leanna said with a laugh.

Leanna said her father even served as a member of Broadway pit bands for musicals, including Grease, during his time in New York.

'Gift of truly listening'

After spending two decades in New York, Palmer returned to Sydney to sit as the artist-in-residence at the College of Cape Breton, bringing a wealth of musical knowledge he was destined to share.

Not long after, in the late 1970s, he co-founded the Atlantic Jazz Festival — now the Halifax Jazz Festival — and subsequently became the artistic director.

He also became the director of jazz studies at Dalhousie University, where he taught generations of students, growing the jazz scene in Halifax.

Paul White, a music producer in Toronto and friend of Palmer's, said he first met Palmer while playing at a jazz festival in Dartmouth as a teenager.

Palmer was a guest adjudicator and was assessing the bands.

"I remember distinctly him adjudicating that day and I said, 'I'm going to study with him. I mean, I more or less went to Dalhousie, just to be with him," White said.

"He was my mentor and I'm lucky enough that he became such a good friend to me."

Reilly said he had a similar experience with Palmer, even as a fellow musician.

"Don had such a wealth of experience by the late '80s that he was really as much of a mentor as he was a colleague, but he never sort of treated me that way," Reilly said.

"[He taught] just by example and by telling me endless stories about his experiences in New York and sort of infusing me with the understanding of the legacy of jazz."

Submitted by Leanna Palmer
Submitted by Leanna Palmer

Reilly said Palmer instilled that legacy on every student he taught, including Juno-award-winning saxophonist, Kirk MacDonald, the current head of the jazz program at Dalhousie, Chris Mitchell, and Mike Murley, who is considered one of Canada's most celebrated jazz artists.

"He actually cared about other people and their musical development and would listen intensely to you as a player … he would give this gift of truly listening to what you were doing and [was] able to acknowledge your strengths and somehow be able to give you a sense of how to overcome your weaknesses without making you feel diminished.

"That's a real gift. He was a great teacher and that legacy lives on in so many players," Reilly said.

White said that legacy, and Palmer himself, will never be forgotten.

Submitted by Leanna Palmer
Submitted by Leanna Palmer

Leanna said her father will be greatly missed by many.

"His legacy is so much more than his music," she said.

"Yeah, his music is so important and it's important to him and it's important to many, but I think the person that we're missing right now is the man, not the music."

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