A fitting legacy for lives filled with music

Arts, Culture & Heritage

Fund celebrates Howard Swan’s 100th birthday by giving children the gift of music.

Howie and Hazel Swan met in Winnipeg’s thriving vaudeville scene in 1939 and built a life filled with music. The Howie and Hazel Swan Music Fund, established in celebration of Howie’s 100th birthday in 2021, is supporting young musicians in Winnipeg.

Howard “Howie” Swan and his band The Haymakers, and Hazel Dale and her dance team The Dale Sisters, performed in theatres such as the Playhouse, Beacon and Bijoux. Performers would at times play three or four shows at different theatres during the course of a single night.

“After these shows, the hot spot to get together was the Shanghai restaurant,” says the couple’s son, Kevin Swan. “We still have my mom’s little autograph book that she used to carry and get autographs from all the other people on the show. I think [the Shanghai is] where [Mom and Dad] started talking and got to know each other.”

“As a musician, your biggest thrill is to give the gift of music to people. In this case, Howie can still give that gift, through helping children.”

Kevin Swan

During World War II, Howie enlisted with the RCAF and was stationed with the Medical Corps in Jericho Beach, B.C. The couple continued to write and were married in January 1944, when Howie got leave.

After the war, the couple settled in Winnipeg. Hazel stopped dancing shortly after their first child Brian was born. Brother Dale was born soon after, and Kevin came along about 10 years later.

While Howie worked as an electroencephalographic (EEG) technician at Deer Lodge Hospital for 38 years, he continued to perform throughout his life. A member of the Winnipeg Musicians Union, he played music nearly every weekend and sometimes during the week, including with 12-piece orchestras. Some of the groups he played in included the Lew Dickson Orchestra and Band, and the Bud McIntosh Orchestra.

He also played on CBC Radio, including with a show called Red River Barn Dance; he still has the first fan letter he ever got, Kevin says. For more than 30 years Howie and Hazel wintered in Arizona, where Howie played in several groups, including The Desert Sun Combo.

Howie and Hazel instilled their love of music and performing in Kevin. The couple celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a dinner at the Beachcomber restaurant, followed by a party at a friend’s house that included a live band. A 10-year-old Kevin asked if he could sit behind drummer Roy Jenner.

“I was interested in watching the drums. I went and sat on a bar stool behind him and there was a set of maracas. He passed them to me, and I’d seen him play the song before, so I just kind of emulated that. I played maracas all night long, until three in the morning probably!”

Afterwards, Jenner told Howie that Kevin had impeccable rhythm, and that Kevin should have drum lessons. He got a set of drums the following Christmas.

Kevin has fond memories of jamming with his dad and uncle John, including performing at The Good Neighbours, an old soup kitchen downtown. Today, Kevin is a musician who has played with bands such as Streetheart and Playgound X. He is currently on tour with Michael Bublé as a drum technician.

At the age of 93, Howie recorded his debut album, “Now and Then,” a compilation of many of Hazel’s favourite songs. Hazel passed away in 2009, just shy of their 65th anniversary. Howie continues to play music to this day, including weekly ukulele jam sessions held via Zoom from Lindenwood Terrace, an assisted-living facility.

“He says it’s kind of hilarious because of the audio lag, you get a cacophony of ukuleles playing at once. But they have a great time,” Kevin says.

To celebrate Howie’s 100th birthday, Kevin decided to establish a fund in honour of Howie and Hazel. The fund supports young musicians in Winnipeg through Manitoba Conservatory’s Music Equals program, a fitting legacy for two lives filled with music.

“As a musician, your biggest thrill is to give the gift of music to people. In this case, Howie can still give that gift, through helping children.”

Kevin knows not everyone is as lucky as he was to come from a musical family.

“It is because someone put those [drumsticks] in my hand and encouraged me and helped me, that music is with me in my life… So many children lose these opportunities because their parents can’t afford it.”

Fund: The Howie and Hazel Music Fund

Cause: Arts, Culture and Heritage

Supports: Manitoba Conservatory’s “Music Equals” Program

All photos courtesy of Kevin Swan.

Commemorating lives well lived through song

Howie Swan was recently celebrated in song through the Stories to Songs Project, a Crescent Arts Centre initiative that teams songwriters up with seniors to create original music. Howie worked with musician Jaxon Haldane, who wrote a song called “A Lifetime Upon the Stage.”

Learn more about Stories to Songs and listen to the lives captured in song: facebook.com/stories2songs/

This story is featured in the Fall 2021 issue of our Working Together magazine. Download or view the full issue on our Publications page.

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