Retired legendary music teacher Bryan Stovell can still remember the first time he saw jazz musician Diana Krall play like it was yesterday.
“I was watching [local] TV one afternoon, because my colleague from the Woodlands school band got a slot on there like they do sometimes,” he says. “It was an ordinary junior high school band, and it was pretty good, until the piano solo. And I remember jumping up. ‘Who’s that?’ Like, two bars in. Because you can tell, that swing feel. You know, holy Christ.”
Stovell phoned the band’s director to ask who the teenage girl was that played the piano solo, and then realized he knew her mother Della Krall, because they had gone to high school together.
“I said, ‘Hi Della, it’s Brian from school. We’ve got to talk about your daughter.’ And she said, ‘Oh, what’s she done wrong?’” he laughs.
Krall soon started attending NDSS where Stovell was a teacher, and he then helped expose her talents to a wider audience.
“When she came along, I realized that I can’t keep her to myself. She’s got to be heard by some influential people, like back East. Toronto was still the big centre back then,” he says. “The truth is, I did not teach her anything about music. That’s the truth. I tried in the beginning to teach her about theory, a little bit, and she already knew it. Inherently, she knew it.”
Krall ended up being just one of many standout students — including Christine and Ingrid Jensen and Dave Gogo — that Stovell taught during his more than 50 years as a music teacher, from the elementary through secondary and into university level.
This Saturday, Sept. 16, the Homage to Bryan Stovell event at the Port Theatre celebrates Stovell’s community legacy, and features more than 40 musicians of all ages. The concert is part of this year’s Nanaimo International Jazz Festival.
An early inclination to music
Born in South London, England in 1940, Stovell says his early exposure to music was limited.
“When I was born, my parents and the neighbours were expecting Hitler to come clanking up Croydon Road from the coast at any moment,” says Stovell with a chuckle. “And the bombing started soon after. My mum was somewhat musical, but they couldn’t afford [lessons]. You know, she had a zither or something, and my dad had a Concertina squeezebox.”
His father played old English pub songs on the squeezebox, but the family couldn’t go out often and spent much of their time in the house with blackout curtains over the windows because of the war.
“A lot of time was spent sitting around a big old wooden radio,” recalls Stovell. “And they’re playing all the World War II things, White Cliffs of Dover. And I would listen to all that stuff. I could sing what we call now the American Songbook by the time I was three or four, because it was around us and it was all we had. There was no TV of course.”
By 1947, Stovell’s family took advantage of a British relocation program and had moved to Qualicum Beach. As a teenager, Stovell still had a curiosity about music, and after watching a film about American clarinetist and big band leader Benny Goodman, he decided to hitchhike to the Fletcher Brothers music store in Nanaimo to buy a clarinet.
After attending NDSS, and playing in bands through his high school years — he soon expanded his repertoire to include bass and saxophone —Stovell wanted to pursue a career in music but was pressured into seeking an engineering degree at the University of British Columbia, which was just what was expected in the mid-1950s, he says.
“That didn’t last long. I made it till Christmas” he says with a laugh. “But I was out playing gigs.”
But teachers were in high demand, so Stovell returned to UBC to get his teaching degree and was immediately offered a job at Harewood Elementary School. By 1968, he was the full time band teacher at Fairview Elementary School.
A prime time for musical education in Nanaimo
1972 is the year Stovell remembers everything changing for school band programs, when a provincial initiative to fund music education in all schools and for all grades prompted the school district to hire a music specialist — Alistair Hyatt — to coordinate the whole district.
It was Hyatt who asked Stovell to take on students at the high school level, and he ended up at NDSS, where he could nurture the talents of some of the more advanced students and became “the jazz guy.”
“It was relatively easy back then for me, because I was there, and it was going to be music in all the schools. So when the kids came to me, they had a pretty good background in music,” he says. “By the time I got them, they were pretty darn good. I just had to put them together. I get a lot of credit for it, but it sure wasn’t all me, it was that system and the other [instructors] too.”
Through the years, Stovell’s efforts to keep music alive in Nanaimo have garnered him numerous awards, including the Marshall McLuhan Distinguished Teacher Award, the City of Nanaimo’s Excellence in Culture award and the B.C. Professional Music Educators Award, which was awarded just prior to his retirement in 1997.
“His verve, energy, enthusiasm and love of music have transformed budding musicians into syncopated and synergized concert and jazz bands,” teacher Judy Palipowski told the Harbour City Star, just prior to Stovell’s retirement.
“What makes him all the more effective is his manner. Soft-spoken, ever tactful, he tells people why music is important, why it deserves to be important, what the district stands to lose if it cuts the program further or cuts the program period. He has been one of the district’s strongest voices for music education.”
Stovell’s legacy lives on
Stovell continued to teach at Vancouver Island University after his retirement, and today at 83 years old is still a staunch advocate for school band programs. As part of this ongoing legacy, some of the music students he has mentored have gone on to become groundbreaking teachers themselves.
Most notable is Wellington Secondary School’s music director Carmella Luvisotto, who has taken up Stovell’s torch to nurture the next generation of standout musicians with her internationally recognized and award-winning instructional program.
“It was so wonderful to learn from him, not just as a musician, but now I take those skills he taught us and use it as an educator,” says Luvisotto, who in 2021 won the Tommy Banks/National Arts Centre Orchestra Outstanding Jazz Director Award. “I really do a lot of his techniques, which led me to do my practicum with him. So I’m really a Bryan Stovell product, in that way.”
Luvisotto’s students in the Wellington Jazz Band combo will play in the Port Theatre lobby just prior to Saturday’s tribute event, which starts at 7 p.m. The concert will feature the New Orleans sounds of the Connor Stewart Sextet and guest performances from Decadence, NMA, the Wellington Jazz Band and other musicians from Nanaimo’s jazz community.
“We still chat, and he still comes in and works with my students, gives them clinics and helps me get them ready for festivals,” says Luvisotto. “To this day, he’s still a mentor to me.”