EDMONTON -- For the first time in decades the Alberta government updated its K-6 curriculum draft on Monday - and one new lesson that creeped onto a page of the Grade 6 music section has been raising some eyebrows online.

Mart Kenney was a big band performer, most popular in the 1940s for his swing sound. 

According to the Canadian Communications Foundation, Kenney began his professional career as a saxophonist in Vancouver in 1928, and went on to front Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen in the early 1940s.  

The band toured around Canada and was a staple in popular music of its day. 

Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen's 'When I Get to Calgary' is earmarked to be included in the Grade 6 music program in Alberta as one of two examples of how big bands expanded the sound of jazz. The other example being Glenn Miller.


Now, as Mart Kenney's name finds its way into Alberta classrooms, another notable detail of his life hasn't been lost on numerous Twitter enthusiasts. That detail being his grandson - who many in Alberta also refer to as "premier."

"No Black artists on the AB curriculum guide about jazz but we get Glen Miller and Jason Kenney's grandpa Mart Kenney who 'gave jazz a much larger sound.' You can't make it up," one tweeter wrote.

There are perhaps no Black artists represented in the big band ensembles section of the curriculum draft, but further down the page you do find names of Black jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, two contributors to the Harlem Renaissance.

"Strangely not once during my 10+ years of jazz band and music education did I once hear about or play any music by Mart Kenney," said another Twitter-poster.


Prof. Raymond Baril is the head of woodwinds and brass at MacEwan University and has been director of the university's Big Band in Edmonton for 35 years.

He tells CTV News Edmonton that while Mart Kenney's name is an important one to note when teaching jazz, swing and the big band sound, the optics of not also including other notable musical names in the Grade 6 curriculum might make the addition easy to criticize.

"I'm happy that the curriculum recognizes a style of music that was taking place in the 1930s and 1940s," said Baril. "I think it's important that we make our youth aware of some of these things that were going on, that have sort of built what we have in terms of our cultural society now."


The former Tommy Banks Big Band saxophonist says the music of Mart Kenney mirrored a lot of what was going on in other parts of Canada in the 1940s. Coupled with the fact that Kenney's music was recorded and released, and is now a tangible representation of his genre during that era, Baril says it does make sense to include it in today's curriculum.

"I think we can't overlook the importance of that," he said. "He had recording contracts, where let's say maybe other people didn't at the time."

Baril, who also worked as a public school music teacher until 2004, points out that the curriculum draft that was released by the province Monday, is a "guiding document" and does not necessarily confine a music teacher solely to the suggested lesson.  

"In the arts it tends to be a little more fluid," he said, "because you're not tied to say a provincial exam that you might have in the area of math, science, or social, or one of those.

"I think that the names point us in a direction, and I think then that the responsibility is up to the teacher at that point to sort of understand their subject matter a little bit better."

Ask Baril point blank whether Mart Kenney belongs in Alberta's curriculum "yes or no," and he'll tell you it's an unfair question.

"I think it's unfortunate that we kind of politicize the music," he said. "In some ways, if they were going to put his name in there, I think it would have been probably a great thing to also put in a couple other people.

"If it can start to bring us a little bit more of a conversation about where this music came from - African American, Black music – it was their indigenous music, it was connected with their culture. If we can start to raise that lens, that to me is an important thing."  


During his successful bid to become Alberta's next premier in 2019, Jason Kenney sat down with CTV News Edmonton's Erin Isfeld and spoke about – among other things – the influence his grandfather had on him.

"My grandpa, Mart Kenney, was Canada's most famous musician in the 30s and 40s," Kenney told Isfeld in April of that year.

When Isfeld asked Jason Kenney how he first became interested in politics, the now-premier credited his grandfather, Mart. 

"He was involved in the Liberal Party then," said Kenney. "In fact he ran for Lester Pearson in 1968."

He added that he was introduced to many political figures of the day thanks to his grandfather.

"I ended up getting involved in the young liberals. A lot of people don't know that." 

In a written response to CTV News Edmonton, Jerrica Goodwin, press secretary for the premier, said Jason Kenney was unaware that his late grandfather had been added to the new curriculum draft until Tuesday.

"He is glad that the rich Canadian history of notable Canadian musicians will be explored by Alberta students," Goodwin wrote.

Justin Marshall, press secretary for Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, told CTV News Edmonton in a written statement that Grade 6 students "will analyze musical structure to extend understanding of melody, rhythm and harmony. 

"Big band ensembles give jazz music a large sound, as heard in Glenn Miller: in the mood, and Mart Kenney: When I get back to Calgary. The idea is these are just examples that teachers may use when teaching about big band ensembles and jazz music."