Herbert Martin Kenney was a well-known and much-loved musician and volunteer. His birthplace is listed variously as either Tweed or Toronto, Ontario. Mart played alto and baritone saxophone and clarinet in the 1920s and taught saxophone. He also played with the CJOR radio orchestra and at the Hotel Vancouver. By 1929, with 60 students, he took a position as a music teacher in Regina while working as a travelling musical instrument salesman. He augmented his income by playing saxophone two nights a week at the Hotel Saskatchewan. In 1930 in Regina, he married Rosetta Smillie, and the couple had two sons, John and Robert, before Rosetta died in 1936. He subsequently married Madge, Rosetta’s sister, although this marriage ended in divorce in the 1950s.
Mart formed his own band in 1931, “Mart Kenney and the Western Gentlemen”, soon leading them as the first Canadian band to tour Canada and to record for RCA Victor. In 1934 the band began broadcasting on the radio from Alberta’s Alexandra Ballroom and quickly became Canada’s foremost dance band throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Eventually their broadcasts were heard throughout the USA and Britain.
During the 1930s, Mart and his band entertained at many CPR hotels, including Hotel Vancouver where they began a new CBC entertainment show “Sweet and Low” in 1935. Recording for RCA started in 1938 and continued through 1951 by which time the band had made about 25 recordings including two for the Dominion Company label. Mart and his band also played for the Armed Forces throughout Canada in the 1940’s, making four Canadian tours from 1943 to 1945, and broadcasting their radio show from army camps and war plants.
In 1952 Mart married his band’s singer, Norma “Beth” Locke, and in 1940 they moved to Toronto, where the band carried on with their “Sweet and Low” show until 1949. That year, Mart opened The Ranch, an open-air dance hall outside of Toronto in Woodbridge, which also hosted their CBC broadcasts and other dance bands. This continued until 1969 with the closing of The Ranch and the band went their separate ways.
In 1969 Mart retired and relocated to Mission with Norma. Mart continued to bring together orchestras for special CBC engagements in Vancouver through the 1970s and ‘80’s. Coming out of retirement and bringing together the “Mart Kenney Big Band”, they were a special part of Expo ’86 for the 50th Anniversary celebration of Air Canada and spent the summer performing at venues including the Toronto Board of Trade, Jasper Park Lodge, the CNE and the PNE. Mart continued his musical engagements through the 1990’s, and in 1995 was part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the end of World War II, leading a dance band at Victoria’s Bay Street Armoury. That year, he also performed with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. In 1998, he continued his musical activities with appearances at the St. Lawrence Center for the Arts, the Royal York Hotel, the Boris Brott Summer Music Festival inHamilton,Ontario, and a Big Band Showcase.
In the Mission community, Mart and Norma were vital and active participants. Mart devoted himself to service in many organizations. He was president of the Chamber of Commerce, first Chairman of the Industrial Development Committee, and member of the Board of Directors of the BC Lions Society for Crippled Children as well as being their spokesperson on the Canadian Rehabilitation Council for the Disabled. Within the corrections services, he served on the Citizens Advisory Committee forMission’s Medium Institution and was a regional board member for the community on the National Parole Board. Mart was honoured with many awards both for his musical career and contributions as well as his community service, including in 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal. In 1976, Mart was bestowed Freeman status, Mission District’s highest distinction. In 1980 he was appointed a member of the Order of Canada and in 1985, given an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Lethbridge. While living in Toronto in 1968, Mart attempted to run for office, but was not successful in gaining the Liberal nomination for North York, and lost to Barney Danson.
In 1993, the musical community honoured Mart, “Canada’s Big Band King”, with the “Musician of Distinction”, awarded by the Toronto Musicians’ Association, and he was inducted into British Columbia’s Entertainment Hall of Fame. In 2000 Mart released a CD which included some original musical compositions to honour his almost 70 years in music.
Vancouver Sun, February 24, 2006
Mission City Record, June 6, 1976
BC Radio History
The Canadian Encyclopedia
The Canadian Pop Encyclopedia