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Tommy Banks - Canadian Icon

From the Past to the Present to the Future

An interview article by Rosemary Phillips, March 2008

Tommy Banks - Canadian Icon

Tommy Banks

UPDATE: On December 17, 2011 - Senator Tommy Banks, at age 75, stepped down from the Senate due to mandatory retirement rules. And life continued, until January 2019. Hopefully he's still playing music - on the Other Side of Life - and whispering in the ears of those who need to hear about the importance of the arts and education in Canada. Thank you Tommy for the chance to interview you - it was a real privilege!

He’s been everywhere, done just about everything, and articles galore have been written about him. So how does a Nanaimo writer create something new, different and interesting about Alberta’s Tommy Banks, Canadian icon, living music legend, TV and radio host of the syndicated Tommy Banks Show, jazz musician and band leader, Canadian Senator and recipient of the Order of Canada?

The past

Here is a man who has interviewed just about everyone in the North American “Who’s Who”, from Wayne Gretsky (and tied at a game of table hockey) to Milton Berle and Ralph Nader. So, maybe start with a simple question about Tommy Banks, human, around something common to us all – food? “I can’t cook at all,” he replied. “I’m a goat. I like everything. I like some things about every kind of food, but I really like a good steak.”

At the time of this interview Tommy Banks was about to conduct the musicians of the Vancouver Island Symphony in the cinematic pops show Magnificent Westerns featuring music from the great Hollywood movies, with actor, broadcaster and writer Colin MacLean providing expert narration. And, just like the reviews say, the concert was magnificent, rousing and uplifting! Thank you Tommy and Colin!

“I’ve worked with Colin since he came to Edmonton in 1959. We used to do an enormous amount of music, live and on radio. A lot of the radio programs were with pretty big orchestras, and they involved thematic ideas. We were asked to do Westerns for a pops concert. It went over extremely well so we expanded upon it to make it a whole evening. I’ve always liked Western movies. The music comes from themes of movies or television shows; many are pretty old, and some are relatively new. I arranged the section we called the Magnificent Westerns; the others are by well known composers like Bruce Broughton and his Themes from Silverado.”

The Magnificent Westerns includes music from The Magnificent Seven, How the West Was Won, Shenandoah, Riverboat, Raintree Country, The Big Country and The Virginian. Composers include Richard Rodgers with Oklahoma, John Barry with Dances with Wolves, and John Williams with The Cowboy and Star Wars. “There is one exception to the theme,” added Banks, “the Pops Hoedown by Richard Hayman at the beginning of the show. It’s got some great fiddle.”

While Banks likes Westerns and comes from Alberta, the obvious next question is, does he ride horse? “I used to, recreationally. I grew up in Calgary and was a city kid.”

It was in Edmonton that Banks began his musical career of 55 years in jazz , big band and orchestra, live and on radio and television. It was also in Edmonton that Banks hosted The Tommy Banks Show, first regionally, then nationally through CBC and out to syndication across North America.

Then he switched to politics. “The Senate station came completely out of the blue. It was a surprise. I have no idea how it happened or why but it was an interesting change. I have been able to make some slight inroads for the arts. It’s a very hard sell and always has been.”

The present - arts and cultural industry in Canada

Here Banks touches on a subject that is very dear to him. “I talk about it every chance I get. Most people don’t realize the extent to which the arts and cultural industry is a major contributor to our economy. Most people and politicians think that the arts are things that people do in their spare time. Really the arts are a huge contributor to the public purse; Canada has huge gains from the 800,000 people who work full time in the industry. I’m not only talking about singers and dancers, I’m also talking about people who print books, stage hands, promoters, and people who operate recording studios – people who are directly employed in the arts. There are very few industrial sectors in Canada that employ that number of people.”

The need for musical education

Banks is also a strong supporter of music in schools. “There are studies that show music at an early age is good for learning. Children can’t understand physics equations when they are five but they can understand musical patterns. Music makes them better students in other subjects.”

The future

His word of wisdom for the future: “Practice. But first, educate. We are not paying enough attention to education in general. I don’t mean that we should be training people to be pianists and actors, but to have them learning what those things are about and why they are important. These are the only things by which we are judged. If you are trying to convince someone to move to a city, it’s not about finding a piece of land, but finding a cultural establishment. The arts are the means by which we communicate our highest and most noble ideas. They’ll always be a major force in any civilized society. When man discovered fire, there was already painting and dance. The ancient Greeks wrote plays we still perform today. We listen to and rejoice in music performed to the ancient kings and queens.”

And Tommy’s vision for his future? “I don’t know; whatever happens next. I will retire from politics eventually, but musicians don’t ever stop playing.”

POSTSCRIPT: as said at the beginning of this article, hopefully Tommy is still playing on the Other Side of Life. As he said himself, "musicians don't ever stop playing."

NOTE: There are many more articles on this site about great musicians and artists - see Index of Articles.

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