In the summer of 1982, Mike Cox, a banjo player from England living in Canada, met with the manager of Vancouver’s thriving, six-nights-a-week Hot Jazz Club and suggested the formation of a band made up of musicians of Mike’s choosing. A date in mid-July was set for the first performance.
The musicians selected by Cox were Jim Armstrong (trombone) and Gerry Green (clarinet) from Vancouver’s Phoenix Jazzers, both British-born Canadians. The American members consisted of Bob Pelland (piano), leader of the Rainier Jazz Band; Bob Jackson (trumpet) and Mike Duffy (string bass) from the Excelsior Jazz Band; and Stephen Joseph (drums) from the Uptown Lowdown Jazz Band, all Seattle, Washington-based bands.
Referring to the group as “The Chosen Seven,” Mike named the ensemble the Grand Dominion Jazz Band after a pub on the banks of the Grand Union canal in England where he used to play. The band logo consisted of Britain’s Union Jack superimposed on the Stars and Stripes, signifying the international mix of the band personnel.
The Hot Jazz Club gig was a huge success, especially since all the musicians shared the same musical philosophy and objectives and were possessed with the innate ability to come together when it counted. A decision was made that first night to keep the band going whenever possible, given the musicians commitments to other bands, and the roughly 110 miles separating Vancouver and Seattle.
Initially the band’s engagements were limited to those two cities. But November 1986 saw the band’s first festival appearance at the San Diego Thanksgiving Jazz Festival. Two years later brought its first invitation to the Sacramento Jubilee over Memorial Day Weekend, a string that would continue for the next 20 years. That same year, the band went overseas for the first of three tours that included festivals in Edinburgh, Scotland; Marciac, France; and Brecon, Wales.
Bob Pelland called those foreign festivals “special,” along with performances at the Royal Festival Hall and the 100 Club in London. The band also took to the seas with Jazz Sea Cruises that encompassed 20 years.
The first change in the band personnel occurred in 1991 when Mike McCombe replaced Stephen Joseph on drums, Mike had emigrated to California from Merseyside, England, where he had played for many years with the Merseyside Jazz Band and also with Ken Colyer for a period of time.
In 1995, Mike Cox retired from teaching and moved back to his native Britain and was replaced by Jim Marsh, and Bob Pelland assumed the role of band leader. In 2000, Bob Jackson announced his retirement from the band for health reasons. For the rest of the year, Leon Oakley, Ev Farey, Tony Pringle, and Duke Heitger filled in temporarily on trumpet. The decision was finally made for Jim Armstrong to switch to trumpet, and for Jim Klippert to take over on trombone. A year later, Mike Fay replaced Mike Duffy on bass.
When Mike McCombe retired in 2003, Jeff Hamilton of Magnolia Jazz Band and Banu Gibson’s band became the GDJB drummer. Bob Jackson would later regain his health and rejoined the band enabling Jim Armstrong to resume playing the trombone.
The late banjoist Jim Marsh recalled his “best personal” memory while with the band, remembering “Doc” Cheatham joining the band on-stage in Chattanooga in 1996. At the age of 91, Cheatham required a stool for support, but “his trumpet still rang true, and he sang ‘Sweethearts on Parade’ without hesitation. At one point, Bob Jackson was looking closely at the rusty and battered tin mute Doc was using. Doc handed it to him, saying ‘King Oliver gave me that mute.’ Bob quickly pulled back his hand back as though he had just been offered the crown jewels, which in a sense, I suppose he had.”
Marsh further wrote, “It was obvious from the start that here was a group of musicians who were devoted to the jazz music of the streets and dance halls of New Orleans and Chicago, playing it with a feeling that comes from the heart, while rarely straying from the collective improvisation that is a key ingredient to this music.”
The Grand Dominion Jazz Band last played as a whole unit at festivals in San Diego in 2019 and Fresno in 2020 before being shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the invitation again went out to perform at the San Diego Thanksgiving Festival. As Bob Pelland reflected, “I can still play the piano, but I’m not sure I can handle eight to 10 sets over a four-day weekend.”
So with four of the members in their 80s and facing old age and health issues, the invitation was reluctantly declined, thus ending a 40-year run as one of the most popular classic jazz bands of the past 40 years.