Nov. 10, 2020
Morris Eisenstadt (Nov. 6, 1926 – Nov. 21, 1991) – Saxophonist, Clarinetist, Flautist, Composer, Teacher
By DAVID EISENSTADT
Earlier this year, Toronto lawyer Michael Fraleigh’s generous acknowledgment of one of my columns inspired me to write about my woodwind player and composer uncle, Morris Eisenstadt.
“Your tribute to Ben Steinberg (CJR, June 15, 2020) was really appreciated,” he wrote. “As an active Temple Sinai lay leader, it was nice to see Ben get the recognition he deserves. Speaking of recognition, as a teenager, I took up clarinet in senior public and high school. At the same time, my parents thought it would be good for me to take private lessons, which were arranged through the Royal Conservatory. I was taught by Morris Eisenstadt. I remember him to be a kind, compassionate, very accomplished player. He had endless patience, which I suppose was important for someone teaching teenagers. I look back on those years fondly and while I stopped pursuing the instrument after I entered university, his passion for music was something that I have carried with me throughout my life.”
Morris Eisenstadt taught saxophone at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto for three decades, starting in 1959. From 1966 to 1968, he also taught at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. Uncle Moe called these his “pin money gigs.”
The youngest of my grandparents’ Harry and Toba (Frankel) Eisenstadt’s four sons, Morris (Moe) studied the saxophone and in 1941, at age 15, joined the Calgary Musicians Local 547.
In 1950, he moved to Toronto. His career took off as a tenor and alto saxophonist, playing both for well-known band leaders. He continued studying and working on his clarinet skills with Herb Pye, on composition, and orchestration with Sam Dolin, John Weinzweig and others.
On Oct. 15, 1953, a string quartet by Morris Eisenstadt was performed at the Composers Festival at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. More of his works were performed on CBC Radio.
He played tenor and alto sax under the iconic Moxie Whitney, leader of Canada’s then-gold standard dance band, based at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel during the 1950s and 60s. They played all the CN and CP railway hotels’ ballrooms, including the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, the Palliser Hotel in Calgary, Banff Springs Hotel, and the Chateau Lake Louise.
During this time, he came to a career crossroads. His friend, the renowned flautist Moe Koffman, urged my Uncle Moe to consider playing on jingles and commercials, at a time when work for studio musicians was growing.
But he declined, choosing instead to pursue orchestral composition. He composed the Suite of Three Canadian Dances in 1952, “which includes one movement of Indigenous and one of Inuit-based music,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
I’ll never forget how proud our family was when he sent us sets of his three vinyl LPs. We listened for hours to his orchestral music on my grandparents’ RCA Victor record player.
From 1950 to 1960, he joined the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps Band under Lieut. J. Alan Wood in Toronto. During that decade, he also played theatre and artistic performer engagements at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Ice Capades at Maple Leaf Gardens, and the Canadian National Exhibition.
That led to landing a permanent woodwind chair in 1961 under O’Keefe Centre Musical Director Dr. William McCauley. For 26 years, he was one of the longest tenured members of that orchestra. He faced some challenges and explained that when McCauley retired, buget cuts meant the new conductor was tasked with downsizing a number of musicians.
“I was told that if I wanted to keep my chair, I’d have to learn to play the flute,” he recalled. So like the pro he was, he did, at age 62, and kept his chair until health issues forced his retirement just before he died.
Before enrolling at grad school in Ottawa, I spent a week in Toronto in September 1966 with Uncle Moe. I watched him perform in the O’Keefe Centre’s orchestra pit, met the fellow who made his saxophone and clarinet reeds, and got to see Moe Koffman at George’s Spaghetti House. He also took me to Honest Ed’s and to two musicians’ haunts for lunch and dinner: Mars on College St. and Bassels on Yonge St.
My dad, Max Eisenstadt, unable to attend his brother’s funeral because of his own health battles, wrote a eulogy. “I remember how Morris’ lifelong dream was to play with a big band and how one of his first gigs was with a four-piece group about a block and a half from where he lived in Calgary. I recall the pride he had after coming home with a $5 pay cheque for three hours work.”
A passionate and respected woodwind musician, somewhat under the radar, he is remembered as a “nice guy” who never fussed over that sometimes elusive big payday. In our family, Uncle Moe will never be forgotten.
David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com and Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communications. He’s a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.