Local jazz pianist Egor Ukoloff left his hometown in Russia to pursue a career as a full-time musician and, despite the challenges of being self-employed, remains passionate about the work he does.
“It's a tough life,” he revealed. “Especially nowadays when [there’s] a lot of software and DJs and pre-recorded music and the internet full of backing tracks... it's getting to be harder to get work.”
Born in Rostov-on-Don, Ukoloff has been playing the piano since the age of four. His mother, a conservatory trained pianist and teacher, introduced him to the instrument.
“She invited her former teacher who was a professor of piano players... to come to our apartment and get me started on the piano.”
Ukoloff continued to practice everyday, training in both music and regular school, and in the classical genre. In his teen years, he developed an interest in jazz. He knew then that that was what he wanted to study in college.
In 1988, Ukoloff and his trio at the time received a scholarship at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, where they would stay for a couple of months.
“Our college was listed in an international directory of jazz colleges in the world,” said Ukoloff. “Apparently [they] had access to this directory, so they sent invitations all over the world to come and join the program.”
Two years later, Ukoloff decided that he wanted to return to Canada, this time to stay.
“I applied for another scholarship, and Mr. Dave Holland, the famous bass player who was [the] artistic director, personally sent me that scholarship, and that's when I came back.”
Al Muirhead, Juno-nominated trumpeter and close friend and mentor of Ukoloff, described their time in Banff, where they first met. He, along with Ukoloff and another Russian drummer named Michael Levin, would play together at the Banff Springs Hotel, where Ukoloff and Levin learned to adapt to the culture and music of Canada.
“It was quite different, I think, for the Russian boys because we have a different musical background than what's going to be happening in Russia, and it became necessary for them to [learn] what it is you need to know in this country and the tunes that you would have to know and how we do things.”
Though Ukoloff now loves living in Canada, leaving his home in Russia, then the Soviet Union, was a culture shock.
“Everything was totally different; from what you can buy in the stores, what you see on TV, the architecture, everything,” he recalled.“But I was looking forward to going to America. For us, Canada was America, and it was a great experience.”
Now, Ukoloff lives in Calgary, where he is making a living as a jazz pianist and raising a family of his own. To make money, he performs at all kinds of events, from corporate to private.
“I'm self-employed right now,” said Ukoloff, when describing what an average day of work looks like. “I get ready for gigs if I have any, if I don't have any... there is always work here at the piano for me.”
Describing his favourite style of jazz as old-school, he seeks inspiration from renowned composers like George Gershwin, Vernon Duke, and Cole Porter.
"Performing for me is being alive, especially if I perform for a live audience concert... when you get inspired by how the public reacts and they are inspired by you.” - Egor Ukoloff
Barry Shaw, a vocalist in Calgary, has performed with Ukoloff since 2007. One of their main gigs includes the New Year’s Eve Gala at the Banff Springs Hotel.
“We've done that for a long time, you know, those are great shows,” said Shaw. “He’s a good guy.”
Ukoloff also makes his living teaching piano on the side. Though it is not his main passion, he enjoys teaching those who are invested and passionate about playing the piano.
“If I get someone who is very interested, who's committed, I have fun also teaching this person… when you see that whatever you tell them actually goes through his ears and doesn't go out,” he explained.
Although making a living in music can be difficult, Ukoloff is managing to make it work.
“Of course, a little bit more money would be great... But like I said, it's challenging, and I'm doing okay supporting my family.”
Being a live musician has its pros and cons, especially with the rise and popularity of digital music, but his family supports his passion for music, and he is happy with the way his life has turned out. No matter how hard it can get, Ukoloff still loves his job, perhaps more than ever.
“I love the saying ‘[music] is not what I do. It's who I am.’ Performing for me is being alive, especially if I perform for a live audience concert... when you get inspired by how the public reacts and they are inspired by you.”
Choosing any other career path was something Ukoloff never considered.
“I'm a full-time musician and that's all I wanted. That's all I did. That's what I want to do,” he said.
His lifelong dream of becoming a full-time musician has been realized, and he’s not planning on quitting anytime soon.
“Do you ever stop being a human being? Do you ever stop being a musician? You never stop. Even if I’m old and can't move, I will still be supporting and listening and caring about this.”
- By Solaya Huang