At 24, Karl Schwonik is the youngest of this year’s Top 40 Under 40, but for the highly accomplished jazz drummer, that’s no big deal. “I’m old!” Schwonik says. “Most musical prodigies are between 15 and 21.”
Whatever his personal opinion may be, Schwonik has accomplished more than most in his age group. By age 20, Schwonik was the youngest person ever accepted into the Banff Centre for the Performing Arts’ long-term career residency program.
Starting out with violin, which he eventually got bored of, Schwonik made the switch to drums in the eighth grade and has been comfortable behind a kit ever since. “I love what I do,” he says.
“Even though a career in music can be a bit difficult at times, I have made it work for me by branching out.”
Schwonik has toured Canada four times over, is the president of the Wetaskiwin Jazz Society, has accompanied many jazz greats on stage and on record including Tommy Banks and Dave Douglas and has performed at both Carnegie Hall and The Kennedy Center.
All of these accomplishments are made more impressive by the fact that Schwonik is legally blind. Born with a rare degenerative eye condition called Achromatopsia, his vision is less than 10 percent, and he is completely colour blind, has no depth perception and is severely sensitive to light, because his pupils are always fully dilated.
“I can’t drive, which is a major disadvantage in Calgary,” Schwonik says. “Simple things like walking up stairs can be extremely difficult due to my lack of depth perception.”
But what Schwonik lacks in eyesight he makes up for in creative vision.
Schwonik has been actively involved in developing young jazz musicians by helping to establish and teach at two jazz camps. The first camp runs alongside the Calgary Jazz Festival and gives 15- to 25-year-old students the chance to participate in various workshops conducted by the festival’s jazz musicians.
The other camp is run by the Wetaskiwin Jazz Society and sees about 15 students from central Alberta participating, with a chance to perform for hundreds of people at the end of it all.
Schwonik is also involved in fundraising for the Wataskiwin Jazz Society to give some of the students scholarships to return to the jazz camp next summer.
Schwonik’s attitude toward community involvement is on par with how he views his life — with an easygoing positivity.
“Giving back should be a priority for people who are in a position to do it. If you can, you should,” he says. “I have received amazing support and I want to give that to others. I love to do it.
Why he’s the top: He has a highly successful career as a jazz drummer and is proving that following your passions pays off — and that being blind is no reason to slow down.
The key to his success: “In music, especially in jazz music, success is being accepted by your peers as a good musician and also being satisfied with what you are doing.”