Session musician Jack Zaza was wanted for his legendary improvisational skills

Jack Zaza.Courtesy of family

Jack Zaza: Husband. Dad. Music legend. Mentor. Born October 12, 1930 in Toronto; died June 24, 2022, in Toronto, of natural causes; 91 years old.

In a career spanning over 70 years, Jack Zaza has played mandolin, violin, saxophone (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone), clarinet, flute, alto flute, piccolo , bass clarinet, oboe, English horn, guitar and bass guitar. , harmonica (chromatic and blues), harmonium, mandocello, jew’s harp, accordion, banjo, ukulele, pennywhistle, recorders, spoons and piano. He hadn’t expected to play so many instruments; he just learned each one as the need and opportunity arose. Jack Zaza was a legend in the Canadian music industry, but he didn’t seek media attention for himself. For Jack, music was a way to provide a good life for his family.

The youngest of 10 children, Jack grew up in Toronto and learned to play the mandolin from his father. Recognizing his son’s talent, Jack’s father bought him a slag fiddle and a saxophone from a newspaper advertisement and found him teachers for both instruments. Jack also learned to play the accordion and was soon playing with his father’s quartet.

At age 11, Jack entered a radio talent show. He played Tico Tico on the mandolin, and also entered under the name of his brother-in-law, playing In the mood on the saxophone. The template was in place when Jack and his alias made it to the finals; in the end, Jack’s alias won the top prize.

Jack dropped out of high school to pursue his career in music. He played sax for his first professional gig at 14 but lied about his age because it was union work and he was too young.

At 19, Jack’s parents and older brother died six months apart. He was very grateful when his sister asked him to move in with her family.

Soon after, he ran into Cecilia Mainella at a church dance and asked her out. Again he lied about his age, as he was two years younger. They fell in love and married in 1951. Jack and Cece would have six children, Paul, Ann, John, Peter, Jackie and Christine.

Juggling work and family, Jack sought lessons from great teachers. He studied theory and composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music, and with children in tow, he and Cece would travel to Rochester, NY, for oboe lessons at the Eastman School of Music. (Jack liked the oboe the most because it involved the intricate art of making reeds.)

With a growing young family and bills to pay, Jack worked long hours performing in dance halls, restaurants and hotels. A turning point came when he was called up for a gig on CBC TV. At CBC, Jack performed on The Show Juliet, The Sympathetic Giant, Front Page Challenge, The Tommy Hunter Show and registration of the original Hockey Night in Canada theme, to name a few. He has also performed for live theatre, commercials, film soundtracks and on albums by Gordon Lightfoot, the Guess Who, Bruce Cockburn, Anne Murray and Sharon, Lois & Bram, among others.

It didn’t matter what key, key or instrument was involved, or even if there was printed music to play. Jack was highly sought after for his improvisational skills.

Jack Zaza and his clarinet in the 1950s.Courtesy of family

Jack liked to smoke a good cigar, watch the hockey game and get together with his family over a Chinese meal. He was a warm and dynamic man. His legacy includes his advocacy with the Toronto Musicians Association and the Recording Musicians Association.

In 2015, he became Cece’s loving carer for seven years, despite his own health issues. Much to the frustration of his children, he politely refused their help unless he was in the hospital. His optimism was often boundless to the point of fault. The couple lived at home until Cecilia’s death in April 2022. They devoted themselves for more than 70 years.

At 91, Jack was still honing his reed-making skills and solving puzzles. He took 4,000 steps a day with his walker and loved spending time with his family. Two months before his death, Jack taught his youngest grandson how to play modes on the bass guitar. In this last priceless music lesson, Jack played the bassline from the HNIC theme he recorded decades ago.

Jack Zaza will be remembered as a Canadian music legend, he was most proud of his legacy as a husband, father and grandfather.

Christine Zaza is Jack’s daughter.

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