Ottawa Jazz Festival: Michael Hanna gives voice to his musical passion

Michael Curtis Hanna

Michael Curtis Hanna is getting together with some of his musical friends June 29 on a stage at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. It’s something the Ottawa-area singer likes to do. And in many ways, this show is part of the fulfillment of a lifelong connection to music.

“In this particular case, I have reached back to music that I don’t get a chance to hear a lot. I enjoy vocalese and I enjoy listening to Eddie Jefferson and the work that he does. And Jon Hendricks, I touch on him. I’m also a fan of people like Frank Zappa and Steely Dan and of bands like Tower of Power, Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears.”

And he likes to pay tribute to his late father Sir Roland Hanna, who remains a larger than life figure in Michael’s life. Roland Hanna was a well-known jazz pianist and band leader.

“He represents quite of bit why I enjoy music,” Michael said in an interview. “Music was present in the family home. He made it a point, as we got older, that he would take one of his boys with him whenever he went on tour. I went to places like Rhode Island and Paris, France. My brother went to  Japan.

“It started young. I would go with him to New York and he’d be at the (Village) Vanguard and places like that. I’d be able to go back stage.”

Roland also worked with the legendary Sarah Vaughan for about eight years.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to call her aunt Sarah,” Michael said. “I spent quite few days in her wonderfully large split level home.

“She was a graceful  lady. Teaneck, New Jersey, was kind of a critical mass or a perfect storm for musicians. They could afford to live there. It was a place where they could get out of New York City which was pretty daunting in those days. If they had a family, they could get them outside the city.”

It was quite a neighbourhood that the Hannas lived in. The trumpeter “Thad Jones lived nearby. His kids played with me and my brother.”

Life in the Hanna home revolved around music and Roland.

“Roland loved his family. He loved his wife. He loved his boys, but then he also had a mistress. He had 88 keys.

“I was just talking to my wife about it recently. As far back as I can remember he had his own studio. A lot of his practicing was done in the studio. It really wasn’t done at home. Although I do remember him practicing at home and we did have pianos there. He was a ferocious practicer… he’d do it seven, eight hours a day and then he would have gig at night. The road was his mistress.”

His father’s powerful persona, however, deterred Michael from embarking on a musical journey as an instrumentalist, he said.

“Roland was a force to reckon with and I was a bit intimidated. I must have tried about six or seven instruments but I really think I couldn’t cut the mustard to practice the way he practiced. My mother recognized that and steered me in a different direction.”

That direction was into engineering.

“I’m an automotive engineer. I got a degree in mechanical engineering and a Masters in engineering management. I’m an auto guy. I like mechanical design. I have always had a love for cars.”

Despite his day job, Hanna has been singing on the side for 30 years.

“I have been literally singing — I’m 63 — on somebody’s stage since I was 13. I started singing doo-wop.” That evolved into boy bands and he did that right until he went to university.

At about age 21, at the end of his junior year, he turned to God and had a conversion experience. He also got married then.

At church he was encouraged by his pastor to keep singing.

“He was very accepting. He wasn’t turning you away from worldly things. His perspective was that God was in everything.”

With that encouragement, Hanna started singing in choirs and in six-man vocal groups.

“I did not give up engineering to become a singer, however. I spent 31 years in the industry and I did well enough.” At a certain point his employer Chrysler started putting the idea of a buyout before Hanna and eventually the deal got sweet enough that he said yes.

“I knew going forward that I would regret not singing. I was giving myself an opportunity to exercise my musical side.”

But that doesn’t explain how he got to Ottawa, where he now lives.

“The long story is that I got transferred to Delaware in 1996. I moved my family there and my wife was a stay-at-home mom and she wound up kind of feeling abandoned. She had her own wrestling match with God and God sent her to the Princeton Theological Seminary.”

The Rev. Cheryle Renee Chapman Hanna moved her family back to Detroit where she became the associate pastor of a large church.

In 2009, the Hannas were both out of work. He had left Chrysler and her assignment with another church ended. She got a job offer in Toronto and down the 401, the Hannas went.

In 2013 she was hired by Fourth Avenue Baptist Church in Ottawa where she has been the senior pastor since 2013.

He, on the other hand, is singing for his supper.

“I am seeking more opportunities. It is a growing process for me.”

He is also learning a lot about the business side of the music business from his mentor and friend Roxanne Goodman who leads the Big Soul Project in Ottawa and who is a teacher at Carleton.

“I’ll be very frank because of my last name I have been able to connect to musicians pretty easily. It does open the door. I’m trying to do my part and be true to what I have been given.

His four children have all followed what Hanna calls right-brain professions and his oldest, Michael Anthony Hanna is singing with a group in the U.S.

And he feels he is a lucky man.

“I’m happy. I have a good life, a wonderful life. I’m 63 and I still have a voice.”

Michael Hanna and Friends
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: OLG Ontario Stage
When: June 29 at 5 p.m.
This is a free show. 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.