She’s with the Band

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Jeff Kirk

After being called to the bar, Nina Richmond (LLB ’86) now sings in bars – belting out standards from the Great American Songbook while backed by musicians who, like her, came out of York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. Her voice is sensual and powerful, on that I do swear.

Full disclosure: I was her roommate at university, and I can still remember the thrills of her trills, which she used to let loose while taming her dark mane of hair in front of our shared room’s dresser-top mirror. 

Hamming it up, she would turn her brush into a microphone. Drowning out the birds chirping outside the residence window, she would sing, sing, sing on her way to class – waking up the dorm in more ways than one. “I have always sung,” she says. “It takes me away.” 

Away from her worries, she means. And, lately, away from the successful career she built over 24 years as a Toronto lawyer. Richmond recently made the leap to full time singing (as well as voice-over work) after decades of keeping it as her passion on the side. 

Growing up in London, Ont., she trained as a classical pianist. At university in Toronto, while an undergraduate pursuing a general arts degree, she headlined late-night coffee houses, singing covers of Carole King and her favourite songs from Broadway musicals. 

Everyone believed that she would one day be a professional performer. 

But law – as everyone and their uncle never fail to tell you – was (and still is) the more practical choice, as the profession that pays the bills and puts food on the table. 

For Richmond it did that and more, allowing her a chance to run her own practice for 21 years and work from home while raising two daughters with her husband of 31 years, fellow Osgoode grad Martin Ross (LLB ’87). 

But, in her case, the law was also a family legacy. It was what her father, Alec Richmond, another Osgoode alum, had done after being called to the bar in 1948. Nina wanted to follow in his footsteps. She ended up doing that in more ways than even she had anticipated.

Her dad had also been an amateur performer, acting at university and later at London Little Theatre, even while working as a prominent real estate lawyer. He sang too, participating in intimate concerts with similarly tuneful friends at London-area restaurants like La Casa Ristorante and Marienbad.

So, like father, like daughter? A rhetorical question.   

When Ninatchkala, to call her by her nickname, came to Osgoode in the late 1980s, she signed up to sing and act in the school’s annual Mock Trial musical. She did the shows for three consecutive years. She couldn’t help herself. Performing was in her blood and it made her realize that she did have what it takes to make it on the stage. 

“It was a turning point for me,” she says. As it was for other Osgoode students also performing in those amateur productions. 

Mock Trial was where other would-be lawyers whose love of music would run like a bass line throughout their studies and legal careers came to play, socialize and stay connected with the arts. Department of Justice Canada general counsel Henry Gluch (LLB ’87) remembers it well. 

“Brian Fukuzawa (LLB ’87) was the musical director of Mock Trial. Nina sang. I played saxophone. Stewart Cruickshank (LLB ’87) played trombone. Steven Leitl (LLB ’86) played bass. James Brender (LLB ’87) and Avi Slodovnick (LLB ’87) played drums. Roger Rowe (BA ’82, LLB ’87) played guitar,” says Gluch, speaking from Ottawa. “We performed jazz in the JCR and after law school formed the Advocats and Tokyo Giants, groups still in existence to this day. We all continue to perform, and my life has been enriched by it.” 

More than 30 years later, R & B band Tokyo Giants remains predominately made up of lawyers, with four of the nine current members being Osgoode grads. 

The 17-piece Advocats Big Band, meanwhile, has lost some of its original lawyer players but it still retains a strong connection to York University now that grads Jonnie Bakan (BFA ’87, MA ’99, PhD ’04) and Mike Lewis (BA ’91), professional musicians both, have joined the fold. 

Richmond, the only Osgoode grad left standing in the Advocats, regularly performs at Toronto venues like the Rex Hotel, the Old Mill and the Duke Live.

Now that JAZZ.FM91, Canada’s premier jazz station, has started giving the band airtime, word of Richmond’s vocal prowess is spreading. After all these years, she’s becoming the star we always thought she would be. 

“I love Nina’s voice, otherwise I wouldn’t play her records,” says JAZZ.FM91’s big-band jazz authority, Glen Woodcock. “She sounds pretty good – for a lawyer.”  ■

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