Nimmons was raised in Vancouver and began playing clarinet in high school, leading a small band in his Point Grey neighbourhood. While studying 1940-4 at the University of British Columbia in preparation for a career in medicine, he played in local dance bands (Sandy DeSantis, Stan Patton, Barney Potts, Wilf Wylie, and Dal Richards) and joined the jazz quintet of the guitarist Ray Norris, heard on CBC Vancouver radio's "Serenade in Rhythm." Nimmons wrote many arrangements for Norris's group and composed incidental music for the CBC Radio drama series "Anthology." He subsequently studied clarinet 1945-7 at the Juilliard School with Arthur Christmann and composition 1948-50 at the Royal Conservatory of Music with Richard Johnston, Arnold Walter, and John Weinzweig.
In 1953 Nimmons formed his own jazz band, which, after some CBC broadcasts, made its concert debut in 1956 at the Stratford Festival. In December of that year it played with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In 1957 the band took the name Nimmons 'N' Nine. Nimmons enlarged the band to 16 - Nimmons 'N' Nine Plus Six - in 1965, and in 1974 he was forced by his musicians' studio commitments to reorganize its personnel with several younger players. In its day, his big band performed and gave clinics in many Canadian schools, the concert portions often recorded for broadcast by the CBC. Nimmons was one of the first jazz musicians to find a sympathetic ear in the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council; and both, along with the CBC, helped to sustain his band and support its tours. It toured widely in Canada and twice travelled in the 1960s to Canadian Armed Forces bases in Europe. His large group disbanded in the early 1980s, but Nimmons continued to play occasionally with smaller ensembles.
Nimmons was a founding member of the Canadian League of Composers and an associate of the Canadian Music Centre. He also founded jazz programs at several schools and universities, including the Banff School of Fine Arts (1970), the University of Toronto (1973), the University of Western Ontario (1978), the Courtney Youth Music Centre (1982), and the InterProvincial Music Camp, near Parry Sound, Ontario (1987).
Nimmons's early compositions included Sonatina (1948, for flute), Toccata (1949), String Quartet (1950), and, for orchestra, Scherzo (1950) and Suite for Spring (1951). Nimmons's writing style in the 1950s was influenced by the US "West Coast cool" school. His band's four-man reed section, topped by his clarinet (both unusual features in big band instrumentation), gave it a thinner and dryer sound than that of similar organizations. With his later, major works, Nimmons moved into bolder orchestration; his Invocations has been described as being "full of large, vivid, almost visible chunks of sound, suggesting a prayer at times, then an anthem, then a symphony" (Jack Batten, Toronto Globe and Mail, 31 Jul 1976).
Nimmons's other major jazz compositions include Suite PEI (1973); the five-movement Transformations (1975, commissioned by the Ontario Arts Council and the CBC for World Music Week); the three-movement Invocation (1976, comprising "Gold - The Challenger," "Silver - The Prayer," and "Bronze - The Contest," and commissioned by the Ontario Arts Council and the Olympics Organizing Committee in honour of the Olympics in Montreal); and The Torch (1988, premiered by the Olympic Jazz Band under Rob McConnell at the Calgary Winter Olympics).
With his band's demise in the early 1980s, Nimmons wrote several commissioned works that took him full circle as a composer. Among them: Duologue and PS42JS (1984 and 1985 respectively, for James Campbell and Joseph Macerollo); Images Entre Nous (1988, a clarinet sonata for Campbell); Plateaux: Caribou Country Tone Poem (1986, premiered at Expo 86 and recorded by the CBC Vancouver Orchestra); Skyscape: Sleeping Beauty and the Lions (1986, premiered by the Northdale Concert Band at Expo 86); a trumpet concerto (1988, premiered by Dan Warren with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra); Bach in My Own Back Yard (1988, premiered at Music at Sharon); and TWOSUM (1989, a concerto for piano and vibraphone premiered by Pendulum).
Radio, Television, and Film Work
In 1950 Nimmons began writing incidental music for programs broadcast on "CBC Wednesday Night" (and its successors) and "Stage," and for the CBC series "Affectionately Jenny," "Dr. Dogbody's Leg," "High Adventures," and "The Fantastic Emperor." He was the orchestrator for several CBC-TV programs produced by Norman Campbell and directed by Norman Jewison, and he wrote the score for Paul Almond's CBC TV film Power by Proxy (1961). In 1957, Nimmons 'N' Nine began a 23-year association with CBC Radio, appearing first on a weekly show of the same name and subsequently for more than 20 years as a regular feature on "Jazz Workshop" (alternating with Dave Robbins), "Jazz Canadiana," and "Jazz Radio-Canada." The band recorded Nimmons's music for the films A Dangerous Age (1957) and A Cool Sound from Hell (1959), and was seen 1958-9 as the house band on CBC-TV's "The Barris Beat."
The Phil Nimmons Group made its recording debut, The Canadian Scene via the Phil Nimmons Group (Clef), in 1956. As Nimmons 'N' Nine, with varying personnel, the band also recorded Nimmons 'N' Nine (Verve, 1959), Take 10 (RCA Victor, 1963), Mary Poppins Swings (RCA Victor, 1964), Strictly Nimmons (RCA Victor, 1965) which included some tracks with his 15-piece orchestra, and Nimmons Now (CBC, 1970). With Nimmons as featured soloist, a band led by Guido Basso recorded Suite PEI (Sackville) in 1973. Also in 1973, augmented by bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Nimmons' big band supported Oscar Peterson in a CBC broadcast recording of Peterson's Canadiana Suite. Nimmons 'N' Nine Plus Six recorded The Atlantic Suite (Sackville) in 1975, and a year later, Transformations/Invocation (CBC). In 1997 the Sackville label combined Suite PEI and The Atlantic Suite with previously unissued recordings by Nimmons 'N' Nine Plus Six from 1979, as Atlantic Suite/Suite PEI/Tributes. Nimmons's quartet recorded Sands of Time (Sackville) in 2000. In 2003 Sackville released Vintage Nimmons 'N' Nine: CBC Air Checks '59-'64, a collection of 21 studio recordings.
Nimmons's interest in the development of educational facilities for jazz and related music took shape first in the Advanced School of Contemporary Music, which he operated 1960-3 with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown in Toronto. He was director of jazz studies 1969-82 at the University of New Brunswick Chamber Music and Jazz Festival and 1970-81 at the Banff CA. He began teaching at the University of Toronto in 1973 (becoming director emeritus of the newly organized degree program in jazz studies there in 1991) and at the University of Western Ontario in 1978.
Nimmons won the inaugural Juno Award for best jazz album (The Atlantic Suite) in 1977. In 1986 he received the inaugural Toronto Arts Award in the music category. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1993. He won National Jazz Awards in the clarinetist of the year category in 2002, 2003, and 2004.
The Canadian Scene Via Phil Nimmons. Erich Traugott trumpet, Ross Culley trombone, J. Toth alto saxophone, Julian Filianowski tenor saxophone, Karam bar saxophone, Vic Centro accordion, R. Toth piano, Murray Lauder double-bass, Jack McQuade drums. 1956. Verve MGV-8025
Nimmons 'N' Nine. As on Canadian Scene, but Roy Smith for Filianowski, Bickert guitar for R. Toth. 1963. Verve MGV-8376
Take 10. As on Canadian Scene, but Ron Rully for McQuade. 1963. RCA LCPS-1066
Mary Poppins Swings. As on Canadian Scene, but Jiro 'Butch' Watanabe for Culley, Jack Taylor for Karam. 1964. RCA PCS-1005
Nimmons Now. As on Canadian Scene, but Bob Day for Basso, Alvinn Pall for J. Toth, Wilkins for Smith. 1970. CBC LM-74
The Atlantic Suite. Darryl Eaton, Mike Malone, Bram Smith III and Spanier trumpet and flhn, Terry Lukiwski, Dave McMurdo, Rick Stepton trombone, John Capon b trombone and tuba, Keith Jollimore alto saxophone, Ellefson tenor saxophone, T. Toth bar saxophone, Tom Szczesniak el pno and piano, Andy Krehm guitar, David Field double-bass and (electric) bass guitar, Stan Perry drums. 1975. Sack 2008
Transformations/Invocation. As on Atlantic Suite, but Jerry Johnson for Stepton, Gary Williamson for Szczesniak. 1976. 2-CBC LM 452
See also Oscar Peterson, Canadiana Suite, 1973