Ross Wooldridge at the Sanderson Centre, Brantford

Swing is His Thing 

BRANTFORD DOWNTOWN JAZZ: A Benny Goodman Tribute on April 21, 2010

Ross Wooldridge figures he's been a jazz musician at heart for almost his entire 48-year life. "I've always just really loved it," said Wooldridge, noting that his interest in swing music took root when he grew up in the Jerseyville- Ancaster area listening to his parents' records. "I've been involved in music all my life. I started playing piano as a toddler and took lessons at 3 or 4, getting a classic music education." Wooldridge, who headlines A Benny Goodman Tribute with a jazz sextet on April 21, as part of the Brantford Downtown Jazz Series at the Sanderson Centre, acknowledged that not all can turn their passion into a living. "I'm very lucky to have been able to do that," said Wooldridge, adding that he "had aspirations of being a record producer" in school. So, he attended Mohawk and Humber colleges in their applied music programs, then set out to the Toronto scene in the early 1980s. He started playing locally there with his own groups, he said, "and I did that until about 18 months ago. "So, I've been pursuing a career in Toronto for a number of years. For 22 years, I was involved in the pop music scene, as well." Now, he's back down the road from his old home, living in Brantford and doing a few shows here, too. Versatility is the key to his success. "I'm a multi-instrumentalist," he said. "I've played piano mostly here, but there's a contingent that knows me as a sax and clarinet player." Ten years ago, he hooked up with Jeff Healey and the Jazz Wizards, which he called a "tremendous" experience. Now, he continues to keep his finger in a number of musical pies. For one, there is the Galaxy All- Star Orchestra, a big band playing swing music from the 1930s and '40s as popularized by the great bandleaders such as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. "We have an enormous library of music to choose from." The band's performances have drawn great reviews. "That sort of got the attention of Jazz FM (91.1), who suggested I do a Toronto Jazz Series concert in 2005 with a tribute to Benny Goodman. "And that, in turn, has led to his current show of Goodman jazz, arranged for the famed clarinetist's smaller six-piece group. "We'll be playing all of the favourite Benny Goodman sextet material," he said. "It's strictly a tribute to the Benny Goodman Sextet recordings." Those looking for big-band covers won't find them at this show. "It's hard to do a tribute to Benny Goodman's big band if you don't have a big band." The sextet played into the 1950s, he said, and helped launch the careers of such jazz greats as Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, Mel Powell and Red Norvo. "So. these recordings were quite influential in jazz and they deserve to have a tribute on their own." Like Goodman, Wooldridge will be playing clarinet as part of a hand-picked team. "I've known all of these guys for a long time and I asked them to play with me," he said. They include: guitarist Jesse Barksdale, who he knows from the Jazz Wizards; drummer Glenn Anderson; pianist Dan McErlain, who played for many years with Henry Cuesta; Neil Swainson, "probably one of the best-known string bass players in the world; and Michael Davidson, "a phenom vibraphonist." Wooldridge also has several other projects on the go, including the Dixie Demons, which opened up last summer's Brantford International Jazz Festival. "That was my first official performance in Brantford as a band-leader," Wooldridge said. He's also performed here with the Galaxy All-Stars, the Jazz Wizards, with vocalist Alex Pangman's Alex and Her Alleycats show, and with Alfie Zappacosta, a former pop performer who is now enjoying his own jazz career. And Wooldridge has played with Denis Rondeau's trio at Al Dente restaurant. It's a versatile and varied resume. "One of the keys to making a career as a musician is diversification," he said, pointing out that he also works as an arranger, a writer, a producer, a copyist and much more. "You can be a specialist but, unless you're a sensation, you will starve." A Benny Goodman Tribute begins at 8 p.m. and will be performed in two sets. Tickets are $27, and can be reserved by calling 519- 756-8090 or 1-800-265-0710, or by e-mailing Following Wooldridge, only two performances remain in the Brantford Downtown Jazz Series for 2009-10. On May 26, Nancy DiFelice shows Brantford that her love of jazz extends far beyond promotion of this concert series with her husband, Frank. A gifted singer who has performed nationwide, Nancy will show off her vocal and piano talents at the Sanderson Centre that evening. The series wraps up on June 9 when Heather Bambrick, familiar to jazz fans as a radio host on Jazz FM91, displays her own great jazz voice. Bambrick has performed to standing-room-only crowds across the continent.