The Musician’s Musician

By Tiffany Jarva

Those who knew drummer Jim Differ knew that he had a vibrant curiosity for life, seemingly boundless energy, and a positive willingness to help out whenever and whomever he could. As fellow musician and longtime friend Danny Johnson stated during a musical tribute he organized in December: “Jim would help you out without reservation. His passing will have a huge impact on the city, leaving a hole that is a mile-wide—not just in the music community, but the entire community.”

Differ’s generosity combined with his love of life and music contributed to him being one of those special human beings who you feel lucky to have known, whether he was a fellow musician, a work colleague, friend, family member or simply helped you out a few times a year as the service manager at Marostica Subaru (he was my car-guy for about 15 years and always went above and beyond). Differ was an early fan of The Walleye and would enthusiastically talk not just about music, but the overall growing arts and culture scene in the city. He would often pitch stories about other artists before ever promoting himself.

“He definitely left us too early,” says producer and friend Rob Nickerson. “But if there’s anyone who could pack a lot into life, it was Jim.”

Differ was a self-taught musician, starting to play the drums when he was ten. At age 17, he began playing professionally in his hometown of Toronto. He moved to Thunder Bay about 20 years ago and was well known for playing with a variety of bands throughout the years, including 21 Gun Fun, The Chain, The Danny Johnson Trio, Sharp 9, The Matt Sellick Trio, Ti Amo, The Knackers, Rodney Brown, Mood Indigo, and of course, Flamenco Caravan, along with his talented singer-songwriter wife Susanna Di Giuseppe.

Nickerson adds, “He was the most versatile. He could play anything: jazz, rock, country. He was a student of music—always learning, always trying to do more.” Differ was known for always bringing something new to a session, including intriguing hand-held percussion instruments. “He brought in instruments I had never heard of before,” laughs Nickerson. On his lunch breaks, Nickerson says Differ would often go home and practice his drums, striving to be better. In 2005, Differ and his brother John, along with Nickerson, received a Juno nomination for their work on one of John’s children’s albums.

At the tribute, a talented roster of local musicians, including Differ’s children Lauren and Mat, performed to a full house at Lakehead University’s Outpost. They played some of Differ’s favourite music—an eclectic mix that ranged from Van Morrison’s otherworldly “Astral Weeks” to Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven.” It was especially moving when Pierre Schryer started playing his fiddle via a video with Lauren and Mat, with Differ’s niece Olivia Korkola taking over on the live stage. “We ended the night with over 40 musicians on stage singing Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young,’” says Johnson. “The first concert that Jim attended was Dylan and the Band at Maple Leaf Gardens on the ‘Before the Flood’ tour, and that’s the song they closed with. This concert really inspired him to become a musician and take it seriously.” There were moments when it felt like Differ was there, thanks to videos featuring him playing his impressive and mesmerizing drum solos edited together from different concerts. The music lasted more than two hours, with too many performers to name.