Rob McConnell dies at 75; valve trombonist who led the Boss Brass

Rob McConnell, a celebrated composer, arranger and valve trombonist who led the Boss Brass, one of Canada's best and best-known big bands, has died. He was 75.

McConnell, a three-time Grammy winner, died May 1 at a Toronto hospital, his family announced. He had cancer, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences said on its website.

Although he formed the band in 1968, it was almost unknown to American audiences until 1981, when McConnell brought the 21-man ensemble to California for a series of concerts, The Times reported in 1981.

By 1986, Times jazz critic Leonard Feather had declared it the jazz band of the year.

McConnell "paints in pastels," Feather wrote in The Times in 1984, but "for all its attention to shadings, the orchestra … never loses touch with the essence of swinging jazz."

Begun as a brass band that emphasized pop music, Boss Brass added a saxophone section in 1971 and started playing more jazz. Eventually, it grew into a big band with 22 musicians, many of them among Toronto's best, and released a steady lineup of albums.

McConnell won his first Grammy in 1984 as an artist for his recording "All in Good Time" and received two more in the 1990s for his work as an arranger. The group also won at least three Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy.

Many band members were freelance studio musicians who stayed with the Boss Brass for most of its nearly 30-year run. It was expensive to tour with such a large group, and when big-band work began drying up, McConnell reinvented the group in 1997 as a 10-piece all-star ensemble he called the Rob McConnell Tentet.

Born Feb. 14, 1935, in London, Canada, McConnell grew up in Toronto.

In high school, he took up the slide trombone but later switched to a trombone that has valves like a trumpet. He was one of the few modern masters of the valve trombone, according to Feather.

As a young man, McConnell worked on oil rigs and as a stockbroker before settling on music as a career.

After playing in Toronto for a few years, he moved to New York in 1963 and worked mainly in the orchestra of Maynard Ferguson. McConnell soon returned to Toronto and a productive life as a studio musician.

He lived in the U.S. one more time, in 1998, when he spent 16 months teaching at the Grove School of Music in Van Nuys.

"I played with all the great bands down there as I became the 'trombone sub' of the city," McConnell said in 1995 in Ontario's Hamilton Spectator newspaper.

Boss Brass broke up when McConnell moved to Los Angeles, but by 1991, it was back together.

Onstage, he was "a dryly funny announcer," whose infectious personality induced "a team spirit," Feather wrote in The Times in 1984, "that has few if any equals on today's big-band scene."

He was predeceased by his first wife, Margaret.

He is survived by his second wife, Anne Gibson; son Brian; daughters Jennifer and Robin; a brother and sister; and seven grandchildren.

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