How Hockey Dreams Sparked A Career In Jazz

Growing up in Canada, my childhood dreams all revolved around ice hockey. Like most Canadian boys, I aspired to play for the NHL (National Hockey League); and as serendipity would have it, my goal came true — by the age of 15! I played for the Winnipeg Jets from 1986-88, while still a high school student. But if you look up the team roster(s), you likely won’t see my name, because — I was the organist.

Winnipeg JetsPlaying hockey and starting music lessons happened around the same time, at age 5. Because my dad was an electronics buff and had built a Heathkit organ, I was signed up for weekly electronic organ lessons at the local Catholic church. There were about ten other kids enrolled in the class too. Initially I showed more promise in mischief making than playing music; but over time, I got pretty good on the organ. I could play tunes “by ear,” and even I won some local competitions.

Around the age of seven I went to my first professional hockey game. It was my buddy Chris Palahniuk’s birthday party, and the Jets were playing the Cincinnati Stingers. Besides taking in all the excitement on the ice, I was drawn to the organ, playing the national anthems and leading cheers. Immediately I thought, “I could do this! …AND it would be a great way to see ALL the home games.”

Shortly afterwards, I started recording the weekly episodes of “Hockey Night In Canada” with my parent’s trusty VHS. I’d hit record every time the game play stopped so I could capture what the organist was doing. During the week I’d go through the videotape and learn all of the little organ ditties by ear, and wrote them down. After a few years, I knew the repertoire and tricks of all the televised hockey organists from across Canada (Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver).

I decided to write a letter to the Winnipeg Jets’ head office, asking if I could audition for them, and miraculously, they gave me the chance and I got the gig! There I was, a high school student playing in an arena for 13,000 people twice each week. Oddly, I was never nervous; in fact, it was just the opposite. I was in my element.

Earl MacDonald playing the organ at a Winnipeg Jets game, circa 1987

Me, playing the organ at a Winnipeg Jets playoff game, circa 1987

It’s a strange feeling when you accomplish your life’s dream while only a teenager. Then what?! By this point it was becoming clear that music was “my thing,” but now I needed to branch out beyond hockey organ. I signed up for classical piano lessons and joined my school’s jazz band, in the same week — both of which transformed my life and opened many doors. More and more I found myself playing with others, and loving it. As I got better, so did the gigs. I was soon playing with musicians three or four times my age, doing weddings, political rallies, restaurant gigs, corporate events, etc. It sure beat flipping burgers like other kids my age.

Following high school, the “jazz bug” bit me hard. I went to McGill University in Montreal, enrolling in music school but not knowing my exact career path. Imagining film scoring could be lucrative, studying jazz seemed like good first step. It didn’t take long before jazz became my all-consuming passion. I was soon practicing piano most of my waking hours and going to jazz clubs on weekends. I’d take note of the songs the musicians were playing and would go home and learn them, while also copying recordings of my favorite pianists — Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly (all of the greats, really). I had a burning desire to one-day play with the best of the jazz world – to be ready when the opportunity presented itself.

Fast forward two decades, two JUNO-award nominations, tours with Maynard Ferguson, stacks of recordings on which I have played, performances with many leading jazz artists (Dianne Schuur, Aurturo Sandoval, Slide Hampton, Jerry Bergonzi, Tom Harrell etc.), and a million other musical experiences along the way… it’s been an interesting and gratifying musical journey. I’ve been blessed with a fulfilling career that doubles as my passion. It hasn’t been without it’s challenges and a whole lot of work, but I know how fortunate I am to have found “my thing” early on in life. To this day, I want to get even better and to continue creating.

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