Ron Westray appointed as Oscar Peterson Chair

Performer, composer and educator Ron Westray has been appointed as the Oscar Peterson Chair in Jazz Performance at York University.

“We’re excited and honoured to have an artist of Ron Westray’s calibre as the Chair,” said York University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri. “This Chair will enable us to further advance the quality of education for our fine arts students and carry on the legacy of Oscar Peterson at York University.”

Left: Ron Westray

Westray is best known for his work as lead trombonist with the legendary Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), and his collaborations with Wycliffe Gordon. He has appeared in concert with such luminaries as Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Benny Carter, Dewey Redman, Roy Haynes, Randy Brecker and a host of other pre-eminent artists.

A regular on the New York City club circuit, he has played premier jazz venues such as the Village Vanguard, Blue Note, Sweet Basil, Iridium, Jazz Standard and Smalls, and is a standing member of the acclaimed Mingus Band. In addition to his concerts and recordings with the JLCO, Westray has recorded as a sideman on such major labels as Columbia Records, Sony Classical and RCA Novus. His latest CD as leader, Medical Cures for the Chromatic Commands of the Inner City (Blue Canoe Records, 2008), garnered a No. 1 listening rating on

As a composer, Westray’s personal catalogue comprises dozens of original compositions and arrangements for big band and mixed ensembles. Among his numerous commissions for the JLCO is his monumental score, Chivalrous Misdemeanors – Select Tales from Don Quixote (2005), as well as arrangements of the works of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. His charts were recently published by Walrus Music. His bibliography includes reviews and citations in DownBeat, JazzTimes, The New York Times and The New Yorker.

The Oscar Peterson Chair in Jazz Performance was made possible by a $4-million endowment announced by the Ontario government in January 2008, along with $1 million to establish music scholarships for talented students from underprivileged backgrounds.

“I want to congratulate Ron Westray on this new appointment. He brings a wealth of talent and experience to the jazz performance program at York University and its students. Our government is happy to do its part to honour the memory of Oscar Peterson by helping gifted music students pursue their own dreams,” said Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Barbara Sellers-Young, dean of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, said the Chair, under Westray, will expand and strengthen the program Peterson championed throughout his tenure at York.

“We’re delighted to launch this important new academic initiative with Professor Westray,” said Sellers-Young. “As the Oscar Peterson Chair, he will be working with the jazz faculty in our music department to develop a special student outreach and support program named for Peterson, to encourage talented aspiring jazz artists who might not otherwise have the opportunity to pursue university studies.”

An adjunct professor in York’s Department of Music from 1984 to the late 1990s, Peterson was among Canada’s most celebrated jazz artists. He was committed to teaching young people and established several student awards in the jazz program. Recipient of an honorary doctor of letters from York in 1982, Peterson was installed as York’s eighth chancellor in September 1991 and served the University with distinction until February 1994. He was made an honorary governor of York in 1995 and was a Fellow of McLaughlin College. He died in Mississauga on Dec. 23, 2007.

“The appointment of Ron Westray as the Oscar Peterson Chair in Jazz Performance will give students and faculty in York’s outstanding jazz program the opportunity to learn from an extremely talented and prolific artist. It will also help to ensure that Oscar Peterson’s tremendous legacy lives on through the development of a new generation of jazz artists,” said John Milloy, minister of training, colleges & universities and minister of research & innovation.

York offers jazz at all levels of undergraduate and graduate study, including a master and PhD in the field. The curriculum includes instrumental and vocal performance, history, theory, composition and arranging. Performance studies centre on small ensembles, plus jazz choirs and the York University Jazz Orchestra. Repertoire spans jazz standards, big band, improvisation and contemporary jazz, enriched by world music traditions including Brazilian samba, Cuban jazz, gospel, West African drums, steel-pan and Afro-American music.

Westray joins colleagues at York who are among Canada’s pre-eminent jazz artists. Almost 40 full- and part-time faculty teach in the jazz program, including percussionist and music department chair Barry Elmes; bassist Al Henderson; saxophonists David Mott, Mike Murley and Kelly Jefferson; pianist Mark Eisenman; guitarist Lorne Lofsky; trumpeter Kevin Turcotte; multi-instrumentalist Sundar Viswanathan; and vocalists Bonnie Brett and Sacha Williamson.

Westray holds a BA in music from South Carolina State University and an MA from Eastern Illinois University. He comes to York University from the University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School of Music, where he was assistant professor in the Jazz Studies Program.