On a typical night, photos of 24 jazz stars light up the facade of one of the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s key venues, but recently just one portrait appeared there instead: that of legendary musician and bandleader Victor Stefan Vogel.
The visual tribute to Mr. Vogel – everyone called him Vic – followed his death at 84 at his Montreal home, just east of the Jacques Cartier Bridge, on Sept. 16. He shared his room with his Steinway piano, which his family called his “true love.” He played it when the members of his Le Jazz Big Band came by to rehearse.
Trombonist, pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader, Mr. Vogel was described by the festival’s co-founder André Ménard as “a monumental legend, a soldier in terms of preserving the idea of a strong band as a permanent institution. He really took it to heart.
“He will be remembered as a great leader, an obsessed musician who never let up. He was a monument of integrity. The only time he would be demanding was in the name of the music he wanted to defend and the band, and the musicians – because he had this very special place in his heart for the guys who surrounded him.”
It was not surprising that Mr. Vogel would become a professional musician. He was born in Montreal on Aug. 3, 1935, to Hungarian-born parents who were musically inclined. According to John Gilmore’s Who’s Who of Jazz in Montreal, his father played accordion and fiddle and his mother sang. His brother, Frank, got to play the $10 piano the family bought when they lived on de Bullion Street, just east of St. Laurent Boulevard on the Plateau Mont-Royal, then a hard-scrabble neighbourhood inhabited largely by immigrants. Young Vic taught himself to play by watching his brother take lessons.
Mr. Vogel quit school after Grade 6 and secured his first nightclub gig at 14. In 1954-55 he studied piano, analysis and theory with Michel Hirvy in Montreal. He also had some training with pianist Lennie Tristano in New York the following year.
As he told Mark Miller in the book Boogie, Pete & The Senator, “All I ever wanted to be was a good piano player – I wanted to wipe Oscar Peterson off the map. … The reason I became a leader is that I was thrown into it.”
Mr. Vogel taught himself to arrange and conducted a 60-piece orchestra for the opening in 1968 of Man and His World, at the former site of Expo 67. That experience opened broader employment avenues. He composed and directed the music for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
Andrew Homzy, a tuba player and retired Concordia University jazz-studies professor now living in Nanaimo, B.C., linked up with Mr. Vogel in 1967 for a studio rehearsal. “I couldn’t believe how good the band sounded. These were all the top studio players in 1967.”
Mr. Homzy performed with Mr. Vogel for the next 12 years. His last gig was with the Offenbach En Fusion concert in 1979 – a successful mix of jazz and the blues-rock of the Montreal band Offenbach that resulted in its most successful record.
“Vic had a reputation for being the person to call for big productions in the commercial world,” Mr. Homzy said. “When it came to the Summer Olympics in 1976, he got the gig because he could handle those large forces.”
With the money he made from large projects, Mr. Vogel created employment for such legendary players as trumpeter Herbie Spanier, saxophonist Brian Barley and bassist Michel Donato, Mr. Homzy said.
“Vic looked for talent, and much like Duke Ellington, he ended up with an incredible asylum of musicians – those incredibly talented people that joined him and overcame all their social awkwardness to play great music.”
Mr. Homzy was dazzled by Mr. Vogel’s talent. “He was a ferocious trombone player and could play brilliant piano solos that showed a wide range of appreciation of jazz music from all eras. He had perfect pitch and perfect rhythm.”
Mr. Homzy said that when Mr. Vogel was on stage “his unpretentious and gregarious nature endeared him to audiences, which he treated as though they were at his home. He would crack jokes. He seemed to know practically everyone in the audience.”
Trumpeter Ron Di Lauro, while still a student, met Mr. Vogel when he was asked by his teacher to substitute for him at a concert. He had not been told that the musicians were to wear black T-shirts.
To his great surprise, Mr. Di Lauro remembers that “Vic took off his T-shirt and gave it to me – I wore Vic Vogel’s black polo for my first gig with him.”
Mr. Di Lauro, who now directs jazz orchestras at McGill University and the University of Montreal, finished his exams, joined Le Jazz Big Band in December, 1980, and stayed for 39 years – among Montreal’s first-call musicians who held coveted chairs in Mr. Vogel’s 18-member band.
One night in 1980, Mr. Vogel arrived at a rehearsal “holding a wad of cash in his hand and asked, ‘Who wants to pay the band?’” Mr. Di Lauro volunteered, and from then on became “his contractor, secretary, roadie, almost like a manager.”
The success of Le Jazz Big Band, whose concerts became a regular and important segment of Montreal’s jazz festival, had a ripple effect on the careers of its main soloists, Mr. Di Lauro said. “We got a considerable amount of exposure and work out of having been associated with Vic.”
Working with him for the first sessions was daunting, recalled trumpeter Joe Sullivan, a composer, arranger and big-band leader, and associate professor of music at McGill.
“He’d say, ‘take out your horn, tell me a story.’
“He appreciated people who played with a lot of intensity, a lot of heart,” Mr. Sullivan said, adding that Mr. Vogel’s Le Jazz Big Band and the music it played reflected who he was.
“There is a lot of emotion and rawness to it. It’s not about everything being picture perfect and super clean. That was never important to Vic.”
He recalled Mr. Vogel’s advice on writing for large ensembles: “Get in, get out and go home.”
“What he meant was keep your arrangements to the point. Anything that doesn’t have to be in the chart shouldn’t be there.”
Bob Pover, who managed Mr. Vogel’s career for the past 23 years, renovated the ground floor of his duplex and installed a beam there to open up the space. When Mr. Vogel moved in 10 years ago, there was one big room for his couch, his piano and the band, who held Monday-night rehearsals there.
At the Notre Dame Hospital in June, Quebec Culture Minister Nathalie Roy presented Mr. Vogel with a medal for his “exceptional contribution to Quebec’s musical heritage” and a complimentary letter from Premier François Legault.
“It’s about time,” said Mr. Vogel, according to Mr. Pover and Mr. Ménard. His response reflected his long-expressed belief that creators in the jazz world were not getting the recognition they deserved.
In 2010, Mr. Vogel was awarded an honorary doctorate by Concordia University, credited with being a “premiere musician and key force in establishing Montreal as a world jazz capital.”
Among the musicians with whom he performed were singers Paul Anka, Édith Piaf and Céline Dion, Cuban big-band leader Chucho Valdés, pianist Oscar Peterson and in the 1980s, saxophonists Phil Woods and Zoot Sims, and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
Mr. Vogel leaves his daughter, Vanessa; son, Sébastien; grandsons, Mikkel and Viktor; and granddaughter, Alicia.
The Montreal International Jazz Festival is planning a music-filled party for the public this month, according to Mr. Ménard, to celebrate Mr. Vogel’s life.