Jazz - Past Present and Future: Anson Cai

Sometimes, when things don't feel right, the best thing you can do is make a change. After over a decade of classical piano education, saxophonist Anson Cai found his outlet: jazz.

Cai was introduced to the genre in his first year of high school. Upon hearing a senior trumpeter in a practice room, he was immediately drawn to the sound. Through his newfound friend, Anson soon learned of the Humber Community Music School, a weekend jazz program for young players. He studied there for three years, playing the tenor saxophone.

“I enjoyed Humber. My peers were passionate there. You can tell that they actually practiced and dedicated themselves to the music.”

Cai recognizes that the meaning of jazz is broad. For him, getting new players engaged involves showing them the diversity of the genre. “I really gravitated towards hard bop at first, with players like Lee Morgan and Art Blakey. My peers are really into groups like Snarky Puppy. We find inspiration in different places, and I think it’s important to expose them to all facets of the music, and to learn what they like,” he says.

Anson has performed with Don Palmer, Kirk MacDonald and other prominent names on the Toronto jazz scene. Despite the years between them, Cai doesn’t see a big difference between his perspective and the perspective of older generations. “I don’t see myself as being very different,” says Cai. “I think the history and roots of this music are important to study, and to inform each coming generation of the language and vocabulary that the music was built upon.”

When performing, Anson enjoys playing with his peers just as much as with his elders. To him, age has nothing to do with it. “If they’re good players, they’re good players. It’s as simple as that. There are strong musicians at all ages.”

Just as Oliver Jones, Gregory Porter and numerous others have noted, Cai believes that the key to jazz’s success will be to continue pushing its boundaries. “It’s important to recognize and study the tradition. I hope musicians can use that foundation as a means to continuously push the music in different directions.” As Anson sees things, a large portion of the current jazzscape can be alienating to audiences. “It can be challenging music to listen to and I think the format that it’s often presented in – head, solo, solo… solo... trading… head out – can feel stale to the average listener.”

Despite these challenges, Anson Cai certainly sees a future for the genre. While standards are still in his repertoire, he actively seeks more obscure tunes to play. This both keeps his sound fresh and makes performances unique and interesting to audiences.

If Anson Cai’s experiences are any indication, jazz is still a fantastic art form for young people to explore. Toronto is blessed with numerous resources for jazzers of all ages to discover, explore and pursue their art. Through institutions like Humber’s music school, JAZZ.FM91 and the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, our city is a very nurturing environment.

The jazz scene is alive and well, especially in Toronto, and will only grow and develop over time. There will always be stories to tell, songs to sing, and rhythms to explore until the end of time. You can trust that Anson Cai and the next generation of musicians will be there to see it through.

This concludes Warren's three-part series called Jazz - Past, Present and Future. Read the full series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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