Hugh Alexander Fraser, pianist, trombonist, composer, teacher (born 26 October 1958 in Victoria, BC; died 17 June 2020). Two-time Juno Award-winner Hugh Fraser enjoyed great success with his 13-piece big band Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation (VEJI, or “Veggie”) and with the Hugh Fraser Quintet. He composed over 200 jazz works, including many commissions, and taught at the Banff Centre for the Arts, the Royal Academy of Music in London, and the University of Victoria. He set up the diploma jazz program at the Victoria Conservatory of Music in 2001. Jazz Report named Fraser Canadian trombonist of the year in 1996 and 1998.
Family and Education
Hugh Fraser’s father, Ken, was a percussionist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in the late 1930s. The younger Fraser began playing drums at age six before taking up piano and the trombone. He studied at Vancouver Community College with Dave Robbins (1977–79) and at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York (1979–80).
In 1980, Hugh Fraser formed the 13-piece big band Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation (VEJI, or “Veggie”). It won the open class at the 1981 Canadian Stage Band Festival (MusicFest Canada) and did a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts the following winter.
In the 1980s, Fraser continued to study at the Banff Centre Jazz Workshop with Dave Holland, Dave Liebman, Don Thompson, Kenny Wheeler and others. In 1986, he began teaching trombone and arranging there; in 1991, he was appointed head of the jazz program. Fraser moved freely between Vancouver, Banff, New York and London, England. He also studied with Slide Hampton in New York and again with Wheeler in London (1987–88). He played trombone in a Wheeler orchestra that toured Europe in 1990.
Hugh Fraser Quintet
In 1987, Fraser formed a quintet from within the ranks of VEJI: Campbell Ryga (alto saxophone); Phil Dwyer (tenor saxophone and piano, replaced by Ross Taggart in 1989); Chris Nelson (bass, replaced by Ken Lister; and Buff Allen (drums, replaced by Blaine Wikjord in 1988 and later by Dave Robbins). Fraser himself performed on both piano and trombone. A vivacious hard-bop-based group, the Hugh Fraser Quintet won the Concours de jazz Alcan at the 1987 Festival international de jazz de Montréal (FIJM). The resulting album, Looking Up, received the Juno Award for Best Jazz Album in 1989.
The quintet appeared at the 1987 Paris Jazz Festival. It toured Great Britain and often in Europe, as well as appearing at New York’s Blue Note club. It travelled widely in Canada and in 1990 undertook its first US tour. Fraser counted Lloyd Axworthy, Canada’s minister of external affairs from 1990–93, as fan, and leveraged his support into a host of international gigs. Beginning in the late 1980s, the quintet began playing in Cuban and Central and South American venues annually. They undertook an Australian tour in 2004. Bassist Ken Lister jokingly referred to Fraser’s bands as the foreign legion: “We would say: ‘Join up and see the world!’”
VEJI, meanwhile, appeared regularly at Vancouver’s du Maurier (Ltd) International Jazz Festival, performed at Jazz City in 1982 and 1985, and travelled in 1986 to the du Maurier International Jazz Festival, Toronto, as well as the FIJM. It subsequently appeared at such Canadian festivals as the Ottawa International Jazz Festival. Fraser also appeared as trombonist individually or with other ensembles in Canada, the US, Cuba and Europe.
The Fraser bands’ repertoires were largely original. By the early 2000s, Fraser had composed over 200 jazz works, including many commissions (e.g., from the Canada Council, Toronto Jazz Orchestra and Montreal Jazz Ensemble). About half of his compositions have been recorded, including Concerto for Jazz Orchestra; Sanctus Agnus Dei; Irenerosnesity (dedicated to Renee Rosnes); Up for It (all for quintet); Looking Up (quintet and orchestra); and Mass in C Minor for Jazz Orchestra and The Freeabin Suite (both on VEJI Now!). A portion of the Sanctus, revised for big band, won the 1990 BBC/Mechanical Copyright Protection Society trophy for best jazz orchestra composition in the United Kingdom.
Additional Teaching Appointments
Fraser held a wide number of teaching appointments in Canada and abroad, including at the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1988 (where he was head of jazz composition 1993–99), and at the University of Ulster (1992–98). He became head of jazz studies at the University of Victoria in 2003. In 2001, he set up the diploma jazz program at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. He also led a wide range of workshops (e.g., at the Banff Centre).
Jazz Report named Fraser its Canadian trombonist of the year in 1996 and 1998. The recording In the Mean Time won a Juno Award in 1997, as did Looking Up in 1989. McMaster University presented Fraser with an honorary Doctorate of Laws in 2004. He died at age 61 after a years-long battle with cancer.