Murray Ginsberg

It would be difficult to find a musician in Canada — or perhaps anywhere else whose experience has covered a broader range of musical genres than Murray Ginsberg. And although in retirement, he’s not through with music. He’s author of They Loved to Play, a fascinating memoir covering the Canadian music scene from World War One to the present day.

The Toronto-born musician took his first trombone lesson in 1937, when he was 14 years old. Within two years, he was playing professionally. Over the next 24 years he played with such diverse leaders as Trump Davidson (Dixieland), Bert Niosi (swing), Lucio Agostini, Howard Cable and Jack Kane in various studio orchestras. He took time out during World War Two to join up and played in the Royal Canadian Army Show, first across Canada and then in Britain and Europe.

In 1955, when the CBC Symphony was organized under Geoffrey Waddington, Murray Ginsberg was a charter member. He was still playing trombone in that orchestra when Igor Stravinsky conducted it in a performance of some of Stravinsky’s own works.

In 1961, Murray decided to audition for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He was to meet Walterusskind, the TSO’s urbane music director, at Massey Hall. Feeling a bit nervous, he stopped at the nearby Silver Rail for a bit of liquid fortification. It was there he ran into Susskind. The two had a couple of drinks together before making their way across the street to Massey Hall to proceed with the dreaded audition.

Ginsberg first played a standard trombone exercise, to demonstrate his basic abilities. “Fine”, said Susskind, at the conclusion of the piece. “Can you play Ravel’s Bolero?”
“No sir”, Murray was forced to admit.
“Good!” exclaimed Susskind. “You’ve got the job”.

Murray stayed with the TSO for the next 17 years. During that time, he played under three other conductors following Susskind’s departure in 1965: Seiji Ozawa, Karel Ancerl and Andrew Davis. With Ozawa, the Toronto Symphony toured Japan in 1969 and China in 1978. Ginsberg made both trips.

Then, in September 1978, he left the TSO, feeling he could no longer play his trombone well enough to meet his own high musical standards.

By the following spring, he was hired by the Toronto Musicians Association as its business representative, a position he held for 15 years. In 1995, he was elected secretary of the union, but by that summer, decided on retirement instead. Only Murray didn’t exactly retire. He spent the next few years working on a book, which came out about two years ago.

Murray’s book is called They Loved To Play. It’s an insider’s look at Canada’s musical history during most of the 20th century.

He touches on the career of The Dumbells, the World War One army show that entertained soldiers and, post-war, became a professional troupe.

Murray covers Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen, the flamboyant Horace Lapp, the incomparable Robert Farnon, and the gifted Percy Faith. He interviewed among others violinist Albert Pratz as well as Frank Bogart, who led the band at Toronto’s Granite Club for half a century.

He has a section on Cy McLean, who moved to Toronto from Sydney, N.S., at a time when Black musicians were barred from joining the Toronto Musicians’ Association. McLean played at the Club Top Hat for three years. It was pressure from the club’s owners that finally forced the union to open its membership rolls to Black players.

Murray also tells the poignant story of Ruth Lowe, the Toronto musician who played with Ina Ray Hutton’s All Girl Orchestra, and then wrote a haunting song about her lost love following her husband’s death in 1939. The song was recorded by Tommy Dorsey in 1940 and became one of Frank Sinatra’s early hits. The song was I’ll Never Smile Again.

Another section deals with the Casino Theatre, Toronto’s last burlesque house. Archie Stone, who led the theatre’s six-piece band, told Murray about one stripper “who complained she couldn’t walk in the key we played. We played too high for her.”

Ginsberg’s book also touches on his private life, including the story of a young lady he met in London during the war. Their brief romance ended with the war, but 40 years later, they re-established contact and rekindled the embers. He now spends much of his time in London with Myra, returning to Canada periodically to visit a daughter and a few old friends.

Fortunately, the soft-spoken, genial musician is as dextrous with the pen as he was with the trombone. In his entertaining book, he views the music makers of what he calls “the golden age of Canadian music” with admiration, affection and respect. His title tells it all — and he tells it all intelligently, movingly, stylishly and gracefully.

Hail Murray, full of grace.