Campbell Ryga has a thing about saxophones. When he’s not playing them, chances are you’ll find him at a workbench repairing one, or conducting clinics to teach others to do it.
“Saxophones and clarinets always kind of interested me. I like to take them apart and I have an aptitude for the repairing of those instruments,” he says. “When I was in high school, I used to go down to the West Coast in the summer and help a wonderful guy named Bob Macdonald on repairs. I never wanted to make a career out of that, but I’m more ensconced in it these days than I have been over the past number of years.”
Ryga was born in Edmonton in 1951, but grew up in Summerland, in B.C.’s Okanagan area. His father was renowned playwright George Ryga, whose gritty 1967 work, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, was the first major Canadian play to shine a spotlight on the harsh treatment of First Nations people by the dominant culture. “I come from a family that really nurtured kind of artistic directions, so I pretty much felt solid that this was the direction I was going to go in.”
He also credits a “very supportive” band teacher with the fact that he’s not the only musician to emerge from his small-town high school. “There were a few people, even in my graduating class, who actually did the same thing. A couple of them I still play with today.”
That teacher was also affiliated with several professionals in the West Coast music scene of the 1970s. “At the time it was quite attractive on many levels to consider a career in music, because those guys are always so busy doing three or four things a day,” Ryga says. “When I went to university, if you had aspirations of becoming a musician, you could see a lot of directions that you could quite possibly go.”
Ryga was one of the few sax players in a sea of guitars at what was then Capilano College. He augmented his studies by working privately with some “great” area musicians. “I was fortunate to be able to study with Fraser McPherson and Jack Stafford and Roy Reynolds, among other wonderful players who were on the scene at the time.”
But his real learning started after he joined Bobby Hales Big Band. “I was 20 years younger than the next youngest guy in the band, and my training came from the most honest place, which was right on the bandstand. It was an incredible experience.” Another of Ryga’s early influences was PJ Perry. “I was really interested in surviving as a musician, and PJ showed me that specializing in the jazz aspect of being a musician was something incredibly special. I never did forget that and, of course, that’s the direction I ended up going.
In 2000, Ryga followed in the footsteps of Perry and the legendary Moe Koffman by receiving the Jazz Report magazine award as alto sax player of the year. “I felt kind of vindicated that the direction I was taking was being noticed, and I think that really helped my confidence. It just kind of inspired me to continue and really try different things.”
Ryga was also a founding member of the Hugh Fraser Quintet, with which he has toured and recorded extensively. On Sunday, March 29, Ryga will bring his own quartet to Whitehorse for a Jazz on the Wing performance at the Yukon Arts Centre.
Joining him will be drummer Craig Scott, bassist Miles Hill and pianist/composer Bob Murphy.
The concert, which starts at 8:30 p.m. will feature several compositions by both Murphy and Ryga, along with a variety of other numbers. Tickets range from $5 to $22, depending on your life experience. For more information, visit www.jazzyukon.ca.