Vic Vogel 1935-2019

The beloved Canadian pianist and bandleader holds the record for most performances at the Montreal Jazz Festival

Vic Vogel
Vic Vogel (photo: Geraldo Pace)

Vic Vogel, a Canadian pianist and child of Hungarian immigrants who rose to become an indispensable figure in the jazz scenes of both his hometown of Montreal and his entire country, died on the morning of September 16 at his home in Montreal. He was 84.

His death was announced later that day in a press statement from Vogel’s family, which was also posted to his official Facebook page. The statement noted that Vogel passed away “beside his true love, his Steinway piano since he was 16.”

A cause of death has not been announced; however, Vogel was known to have had health problems for several years.

In addition to playing the piano, Vogel was a trombonist, composer, arranger, and conductor. He founded and led Le Jazz Big Band for five decades, making it a Montreal institution through which most of the city’s stalwart players passed at one time or another. Vogel also performed as a solo artist and at the head of trios, sextets, and other ensembles. He wrote and performed music for Expo 67, the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, and the 1985 Canada Games, as well as scoring for film and television.

Over his nearly 70-year career, Vogel worked with multitudinous jazz stars—including Oscar Peterson, Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Cannonball Adderley—and served as an accompanist for Mel Tormé, Paul Anka, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., and Celine Dion. In his own right, Vogel famously performed at every iteration of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (FIJM) from 1980 to 2015, a record for the festival.

“He was a great inspiration for us,” FIJM founder André Ménard told CBC radio. “A fantastic man with energy and attitude … his integrity could never be questioned.”

Victor Stefan Vogel was born August 3, 1935 in Montreal to parents who had immigrated to Canada from Hungary. As a youth he watched his older brother Frank play piano—and, more importantly, listened: By the time he was five, Frank had given up the instrument, but Vogel had already taught himself to play it by ear. In the coming years, he would also teach himself trombone, tuba, and vibraphone and would formally study composition. At age 12, Vogel dropped out of school to devote himself to music, sneaking into clubs to hear local players perform.

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At 14, Vogel performed solo piano on nationwide television, and within two years was a regular performer (on both piano and trombone) in jazz clubs around Montreal, using the money he made to buy his beloved Steinway. He also played in several orchestras, slowly formulating his own vision for a jazz big band. Finally, in 1960, he made his first appearance directing a jazz orchestra at Montreal’s Chez Parée cabaret.

After tours with the Double Six of Paris (in 1961) and the Radio-Canada Orchestra (in 1966), Vogel wrote music for Expo 67, the Montreal World’s Fair of that year, and in 1968 founded Le Jazz Big Band. In its 50-year tenure, the band—and Vogel along with it—became a keystone of jazz in Montreal, widely credited with maintaining the local scene’s vitality. Le Jazz Big Band never rested on its laurels, taking an adventurous course that saw it record an award-winning 1980 album in collaboration with Montreal blues-rock band Offenbach, Offenbach en Fusion. Their 1987 record, Vic Vogel and the Awesome Big Band, entered the charts in the United States.

Vogel gained truly international reach in 1976, when he arranged and performed “O Canada,” the Canadian national anthem, at the opening ceremony of that year’s Olympic Games in Montreal.

In 1993, Vogel released the Juno-award winning Piano Solo, the first of what would be many solo piano recordings. His success and acclaim continued into the 2000s: He was appointed composer, arranger, and conductor for the European Youth Jazz Orchestra in 2005, and two years later was the subject of a documentary film (The Brass Man). Concordia University awarded him an honorary doctorate in music in 2010.

Vogel’s 36-year headlining streak at the FIJM was almost broken early on; in 1984 his touring schedule ostensibly precluded him from being on the bill, but a last-minute cancellation found him performing anyway. In 2015, he was scheduled to appear at the festival’s closing concert, which was also a celebration of his 80th birthday. However, Vogel’s doctors told him to avoid strenuous activity.

Nevertheless, he continued working until the end of his life, holding rehearsals at his home every Monday night and sometimes popping into clubs for impromptu sets.

“It’s not a job,” Vogel told the CBC of his career in music. “It’s a privilege.”

Vogel is survived by his daughter Vanessa, son Sebastien, three grandchildren, and, per the family statement, “the great Canadian music family.”

A celebration of his life will be held in the coming days.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.