500 and Counting: The adventures of Damon and his ProArts Society

ProArts Society in the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer. Image courtesy of the ProArts Society.

by Carey Rutherford

Well, now we know why Damon Johnston of the ProArts Society resonates so much with the work MUSICAlive! does: he’s been involved in many of the projects that have helped form the Calgary arts scene in the last 30 years. He’s part of our musical DNA, from Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, Dancers’ Studio West, the seminal 10 Foot Henry’s nightclub (from which today’s restaurant takes its name), to involvement with Calgary’s FolkFest, WordFest, and the Canada Council and Alberta Foundation for the Arts. He has variously acted as Director, Programmer, Manager, Jury Member, Consultant or Co-founder: there’s a reason why Damon gets such a broad spectrum of performers demonstrating their craft in the lunchtime Cathedral Church of the redeemer shows.

And now, staple onto that resume not 50, not 250, but 500 programmed arts presentations while Artistically Directing the ProArts Society since 2008! That’s achieved by presenting a live performance every Wednesday of the year for the lunchtime crowd’s gratification:

Kat Danser, blues artist. Image courtesy of the artist.

“(50 shows a year is) a bit onerous: people go ‘Well, I hope you had a good summer break! What about this coming season?’ (And I say) ‘There is no season! It just goes on, like some strange Freudian play!’ (much laughter) But you know, I’ve got it down to a minor science. I do spend a lot of time in clubs, out there looking at stuff. And I LIKE doing that: I’ve ALWAYS liked doing that!”

MUSICAlive! asks if he’s ever programmed shows after seeing something here where we’re lunching at the Palomino, which has 2 stages going several times a week.

Tim Pyper, Organist & Instructor. Photo by John Boccabella.

“Nooo, this is mostly rock, and as close as I’ve got to rock was a Highlife band from Guinea. They were here for the Afrikadey event, and it was WAY too loud for that space! After that I started requesting, like, the kora player, and stuff like that.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve got about 30% of them that are stock: I use them every year. I have a standing relationship with them, and I’ve used them to build interest in the series. I keep a lot of (other performers) as total wildcards: who knows how it’s going to go? I really believe in that.

Faust, music by Robert Bruce. Image courtesy of the artist.

“(More spaces) sHOULD do that: people should be given chances even if they fall flat on their face! This is as good a place as any to get a sense of whether it works. Because no-one knows better than the performer how it went . . . They can feel the audience.”

Perhaps this artistic sense of adventure was germinated by the childhood he spent portaging and canoeing around northern Saskatchewan, passing First Nations families moving their homes by canoe, travelling the same route as early explorers had done on the Churchill river.

Rosanna Terracciano, flamenco artist. Photo by Brian Sew.

“My father . . . said that all of his contemporaries went to places like Waskesiu and Emma Lake and Candle Lake and golfed and drank all weekend, and didn’t see their kids at all! He said he wanted to be able to go on these canoe trips, and God knows there were canoe trips: some real epic canoe trips! (more laughter)

“We used to travel for DAYS sometimes, to go to places like Stanley Mission, which is the oldest standing building in Saskatchewan! It was wild!”

Calgary Opera. Photo by Trudie Lee

Such a sense of adventure seems like it would be snuffed out when programming music in the sanctuary of an historic church in the heart of Calgary’s downtown, but the reverse is actually true: damon finds his audiences prefer the variety which he has developed into a working kaleidoscope. Just look at the performers who have appeared over the past 9 months in the space the ProArts Society rents from the Anglican diocese:

21 Nov, German Canadian Male Chorus of Calgary ; 14 Nov, Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artist Program Ensemble; 07 Nov, Mount Royal KANTOREI CHOIR; 31 Oct, “Women on the Verge” trio; 24 Oct, Morag Northey, cello; 17 Oct, Caitlyn O’Connor & Alixandra Cowman, singer_songwriters; 10 Oct, Wordfest Authors Tim Cook and Benjamin Hertwig; 03 Oct; Jeremy Gignoux Trio; 26 Sep, Anastassiia La Musa, Flamenco; 19 Sep, Nansee Hughes, soprano with Claire Butler, piano; 12 Sep, Sheldon Zandboer, piano; 05 Sep, Impasto Duo; 29 Aug, Calgary Concert Opera Company; 22 Aug, Allen Reiser, chopin piano; 15 Aug, Jesse Plessis, classical piano; 08 Aug, Czarkologie, piano violin duo; 01 Aug, Rooster Davis, blues piano; 25 Jul, Eileen Kosasih, violin; 18 Jul, John Reid, saxophone/flute & Denis Nassar, piano – Brazil Project; 11 Jul, William Friedson, jazz piano; 04 Jul, Valerie Hall, organ with guest Kerry-Anne Kutz, soprano; 27 Jun, Phyllis Wheaton – Green Songs; 20 Jun, Irish Cultural Society of Calgary Choir; 13 Jun, Repsol Choir; 06 Jun, Kathleen Morrison, soprano; 30 May, Notas de 4; 23 May, Flint & Feather; 16 May, MRU Conservatory Vocal Academy students recital; 09 May, Vocal Latitudes Choir; 02 May, Lorna MacLachlan jazz trio; 25 Apr, Brian Buchanan, jazz piano with special guest vocalist Cindy McLeod; 18 Apr, Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artist Program Ensemble; 11 Apr, C.A.S.S.A. piano recitals; 04 Apr, Collegium Musicum, early music ensemble; 21 Mar, Calum Lykan, Edinburgh storyteller with Erin Dingle, Calgary poet; 14 Mar, Penny Sanborn trio; 07 Mar, Wild Rose Trio

“I don’t think anyone’s ever going to push me up against a wall about my definitions (of programmable arts events). I actually pretty much shoot from the hip, to tell you the honest-to-God truth . . . For me it’s all about giving artist exposure in a recital sort of format: I want to try and keep it as absolutely casual as possible; people coming and going is perfectly fine by me; if you want something more precious than that, then maybe this isn’t the place for you.”

This is where Damon holsters his six-shooters and tips back his wide-brimmed Smithbilt hat, turning on his booted heel to scan the wide Alberta musical horizons . . . Coyotes sing in the distance . . .

Come celebrate Damon’s 500th on the 21st of November: it’ll be a party!