Meet the jazz man 

Arnold Schwisberg orchestrated Jazz on the Mountain…in his spare time


Arnold Schwisberg doesn't sleep much. And no wonder. Between running his law firm in Toronto and organizing the inaugural Jazz on the Mountain at Whistler there is precious little time for beauty rest.

Compound that with the latest news that the Liquor Control Licensing Branch's decision to not approve the special occasion license Schwisberg had applied for back in May and the man will be long overdue for a vacation.

But for now, all focus is on the jazz festival, running this weekend from Sept. 2 to 4 - the first ticketed event at Olympic Plaza and the event by which all future festivals in town will be measured.

And still, yet, he has high hopes. He says: "I don't want to exaggerate but I truly believe that this event has the potential to be recognized as a world class signature event in the sense that people get in the plane and come here. It has ingredients that you won't find anywhere in North America."

By Monday he hopes it will be recognized as one of the top 100 festivals in North America. Within five years, he's aiming for it to be in the top 20.

This says as much about the festival's potential as it does about the man himself. These sweeping proclamations are common in his regular dialogue. He brings to each conversation the verbal buoyancy of a radio personality. To hear him speak about the injustices of the LCLB is like hearing an inflamed Kennedy railing against the Russians - only this isn't a battle of ideology, it is a battle of rationality.

"It's not complicated," he says. "It's not something to analyze. It's something that Europeans take for granted. Why shouldn't a 35-year-old guy be able to take a beer and a pizza with his kids, drink the beer, watch the jazz?"

At 50, the Montreal-born jazz enthusiast has done more than most people in a lifetime. He was part of the team that established both the Toronto and the Montreal jazz festivals. He had his own radio show from 1988 to 1992 that was broadcast across 65 stations nationwide. He produced 200 records for Universal throughout the 1990s. Somehow he found the time to get married and, 20 years ago, he had a kid. And then another, three years later. The man is a machine. A successful, flesh and blood, jazz-loving machine that has also been the counsel for two major corporations. For the past decade, he has run his own practice in Toronto specializing in liquor and jewelery law.

"I'm very lucky, but it's hard. Being a lawyer sucks, I'll be blunt," he says. "And if anybody tells you that they like it, you have to wonder about what the hell kind of person you're dealing with. How can you like this? There's not much to like."

To escape the hustle and hassles, he came to Whistler for a holiday in 2004. He stood in the village and thought it was the best pedestrian-designed space he had ever seen. It got that brain of his sizzling with activity. Neurons fired. The creative side, compensating for the litigious, lawyerly side, dreamt up a plan for a festival that would bring in world class musicians and international travellers to mix and mingle throughout the village.

"This guy is like nothing Whistler has ever seen before," says friend and colleague Shauna Hardy Mishaw, who struck up a friendship with Schwisberg in 2005 and has been instrumental in lifting the festival off the ground. She's now serving as festival director.

"He's had a vision that he's been crafting for a long time. He's put a lot of care and thought and purpose into this. He's an incredible asset and friend to the community right now and I really hope that Whistler comes out and supports him," she says.

It was through Hardy Mishaw that Schwisberg met everyone he needed to know so that by August 2010, after the Olympics had wound down, he was given the opportunity to discuss his plans for Jazz on the Mountain with all the major stakeholders in Whistler He'd prepared for this for years. He had spreadsheets and graphs. He had all angles covered, so that when he sat down with the heads of Tourism Whistler, the RMOW, Whistler Blackcomb and so on, he was ready for anything they could sling at him.

And still, he says, "I faced one of the toughest audiences I have ever faced in my life. Bear in mind I've argued at the Supreme Court. That was a tough audience."

The presentation lasted three hours. They all asked penetrative, difficult questions, all of which he was prepared for. Then, all the players issued a unanimous endorsement.

"And my life hasn't been the same ever since," Schwisberg says, half joking. "It's been a lot of work but it's gratifying."




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