“Well, it’s a marvelous night for a moondance,
With the stars up above in your eyes.”
The words are from singer/songwriter Van Morrison’s Moondance, which was often at the top of Bob LaBonte’s playlist.
“That was one of Bob’s signature songs that he used to always play,” says Helen, his wife of 14 years. “But he loved all music. He was one of those guys that he’d hear a tune once and he could play it.”
That unbridled musical talent and passion will be celebrated next week at a tribute concert at Frank Hurt Secondary to honour LaBonte, who taught in the Surrey School District for 38 years prior to his death in August.
“It’s really for the students,” said Helen, noting Bob’s summer memorial service was limited to family and close friends. “The students just really want to say thank you.”
La Bonte got his musical start playing accordion as a small child. And while piano and keyboard became his specialty, he had a broad knowledge of instruments.
“Of course, he played most instruments because he felt if he was teaching, he should be proficient on them,” said Helen. “He was totally dedicated to his teaching.”
And while he enjoyed all music, conducting groups such as the Whalley Legion Junior Community Band and the Pacificaires, jazz was his forté. That was apparent even as a student at UBC, where he started the university’s first jazz band. He went on to found the Envision Jazz Festival 30 years ago in Surrey, which now attracts thousands of high school students from across the Pacific Northwest annually.
He was also president of the Surrey Music Educators Association and was inducted into the MusicFest Canada Hall of Fame in 2005.
“Anything music, that was Bob. He never said no,” said Helen, adding he was particularly proud of his hall of fame honour.
LaBonte had actually retired after 35 years of teaching, but came out of retirement to teach at Frank Hurt for the past three years. His students will play at the concert.
Helping to organize the tribute is Franz Weisinger, a band teacher at Kwantlen Park Secondary in Surrey. While he’s been teaching for 14 or so years, his passion for music links directly back to LaBonte, who was Weisinger’s high school band teacher in the late ’80s at Guildford Park Secondary.
Weisinger insists he wouldn’t have a career or much of a future if it wasn’t for LaBonte.
“He touched so many students’ lives,” says Weisinger, recalling many students who had difficult home lives and backgrounds. “He really made coming to school bearable.”
Weisinger will be leading a concert and jazz band for next week’s concert, with current and past teachers, as well students, performing.
In preparation, Weisinger returned to Guildford Park to help him remember what some of LaBonte’s favourite pieces were.
“I went through the archives and pulled out old music that had Bob’s handwriting on it. It was quite nostalgic.”
The tribute concert takes place Oct. 24 at Frank Hurt Secondary (77 Avenue and 139 Street). Doors open at 6 p.m., concert starts at 7 p.m. The Frank Hurt senior jazz band (pictured above) will be among those performing.
Helen said there will be a collection of LaBonte’s awards and musical paraphernalia on display as well as a selection of photos at the celebration. Anyone who knew LaBonte is welcome to attend.
“He certainly had an impact on many people,” Helen says. “He left a great legacy behind.”
A music scholarship has also been set up – The Bob LaBonte Scholarship Fund. Donations may be made to the Surrey School District, care of Frank Hurt Secondary, 13940 77 Ave., Surrey, B.C. V3W 5Z4.