Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Palmer, Donald (Don)

Palmer, Donald (Don), saxophonist, educator; b. Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada, 9 April 1939.

Introduced to music by his father, Chipper Palmer, who was both a popular singer and ardent jazz fan, Don joined the Canadian Army shortly after high school, serving as a clarinet player in the Royal Canadian Artillery Band. Among the founding members of 777 Barrington Street, an artist run jazz club, Palmer actively pursued jazz and studied at the Maritime Conservatory of Music while completing his three years military service. A seminal moment was reached when Palmer fell asleep at a friend's apartment while listening to Lee Konitz' 1957 album Very Cool. Deeply affected by Konitz' unique approach, and able when he awoke to sing every note on the record, Palmer arranged an introduction to Konitz through vibraphonist Warren Chiasson, who had left Halifax for New York in 1958. In 1959, Palmer followed suit, embarking on a storied career which has spanned some four decades.

While in New York, Palmer studied intensively with Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano, as well as with such notables as Joe Allard, Frank Strozier, Ray Beckinstein, Harold Bennett, Dick Meldonian, Wilhelm Doehn, Hall Overton, Al Grigg, and Harold Morris. In the early 1960s, Palmer gigged around New York and found work with many of the surviving big bands, such as those of Les and Larry Elgart, the Tommy Dorsey ghost band, Billy May and Claude Thornhill. With an acute sense of time and a tone sufficient to project from the dense brass and rhythmic thickets of Latin dance bands, Palmer found work with the orchestras of Emilio Rayes, Charlie Palmeri and Machito.

In 1966, Palmer was featured in the Howard McGhee Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival, a venue he also played in 1974 in a Teo Macero led group that included Stan Getz, Phil Woods, Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan. Following the Newport performance, this all-star group, with Pepper Adams on baritone in place of Gerry Mulligan, recorded an as yet unreleased session. In 1969 Palmer joined Tito Puente, with whom he recorded several albums and toured South America between 1969 - 1972. In 1971, a reviewer with the New York Times noted that "Don Palmer, a bearded alto saxophonist, is the most vitalizing of [Tito Puente's] soloists...". In the 1970s, Palmer was a member of the New York Jazz Composer's Orchestra, and the Thad Jones - Mel Lewis Orchestra, playing Monday nights at the Village Vanguard from 1972 - 1975. A founding member of the Manhattan Saxophone Quartet, Don Palmer spent seven years as a private instructor in New York, and in 1974 was appointed jazz instructor at the Turtle Bay Music School. A musician Mark Miller has seen fit to consider one of Canada's jazz aristocracy, Palmer has worked with the likes of Lee Konitz, Tito Puente, Machito, Stan Getz, Pepper Adams, Howard McGhee, Gerry Mulligan, Frank Foster, Phil Woods, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Charles Mingus and a host of others.

Returning to Cape Breton in 1975, Palmer was named the first artist in residence at the University College of Cape Breton, and in 1977, was appointed Director of Jazz Studies at Dalhousie University, a post he holds to this day. As instructor of saxophone, theory, improvisation and jazz history, Palmer's students have included Kirk MacDonald, Mike Murley, John Hollis, Brigham Phillips, David Parker, Dave Christensen and Daniel Oore.

Palmer is regularly employed as a jurist for the Juno Awards, the Nova Scotia Talent Trust and the Canada Council for the Arts, and has played at every major Canadian jazz festival including The Downtown Toronto Jazz Festival, Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Guelph Jazz Festival, Ottawa International Jazz Festival, Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, and the Atlantic Jazz Festival, which he co-founded in 1986.

Palmer continues to enjoy a remarkable career in music and is an active member of the Juno nominated trio Alive & Well (with Skip Beckwith and Jerry Granelli), the Benghazi Saxophone Quartet, The Don Palmer/Paul Simons Duo, the Doug Mallory Quartet, the new music ensemble Upstream and the innovative Paul Cram Orchestra.  An engaging and inspiring speaker, Don is in demand as a lecturer for cultural and educational outreach programs dedicated to the promotion of jazz.

Tito Puente: And His Concert Orchestra, El Rey De Timbal, Para Los Rumberos; Lee Konitz: Chicago & All That Jazz; Atlantic Jazz Sessions (producer and soloist); Sailin 'Home (with Joe Sealy, Skip Beckwith and Tim Cohoon); Maritime Jazz Orchestra featuring Kenny Wheeler: Who Are You?; Upstream: Open Waters; Alive & Well: In Concert, Way Out East; Benghazi Saxophone Quartet: Night Time Uptown, On The Lam; Paul Cram Orchestra: Campin 'Out; Don Palmer / Paul Simons (title pending, 2002)         
A great variety of CBC radio and television broadcasts since 1975 including, but not limited to Jazz Radio Canada, Jazz Beat, After Hours, Morningside, 90 Minutes Live, The Marg Osborne Show, CBC Nova Scotia, CBC Cape Breton, CBC Newfoundland, Music Maritmes and a variety of regional CBC broadcasts.
"Life Classes" dir. National Film Board of Canada

Don Palmer is featured in "Boogie Pete and the Senator - Canadian Musicians in Jazz: the Eighties," by Mark Miller (Nightwood Editions 1987);
"The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada and Canadians in Jazz," by Mark Miller (Mercury Press 2001).

Contact information:
Studio: 902.494.6394

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