Bill Coon
interviewed by Karin Plato
Karin Plato and Bill Coon in concert, Toronto, October 2001
Photo by Bill King

Karin Plato is a Vancouver-based jazz vocalist with four wonderful CD's to her credit, including 1999's Juno-nominated There's Beauty in the Rain. Her latest recording, Blue Again, also sure to be nominated, features Karin in duos with bass and duos with guitar, including several with the great Bill Coon, with whom she recently completed her first national tour.

The following interview appears on Karin's web site at karinplato.com

What follows is a type of interview that I had with Bill Coon, a musician who I admire deeply and who I do so love to sing with. What I did find out while on tour with Bill is that he was born in Etobicoke, Ontario and soon after moved to North York. As a child Bill actually played the piano before he fell in love with the guitar. He remembers that the first piece he ever memorized was "My Little Red Pony" and that he took piano lessons for about five years. During that time he learned to play pieces such as "Für Elise" and "Spinning Song". He picked up his brother's guitar one day and began to teach himself how to play with a guitar method book that his brother had. Much has happened to Bill since those days of playing "Für Elise" on the piano and strumming out tunes on his brother's guitar. He went on to make the guitar his instrument in every way and everyone is glad that he did. Before moving to Vancouver Bill lived in Montreal for several years where he was a faculty member at Concordia University. He currently teaches jazz guitar and composition at Capilano College in North Vancouver. Perhaps Bill has become best known for his work with vocalist Denzal Sinclaire. Together they have played jazz festivals across Canada and appeared with several Canadian Symphony Orchestras. This past year they received a Juno nomination for their recording "I Found Love". He is in great demand and all I can say is I know why and so do all the musicians that have the opportunity to work with him. Here is what Bill had to say when I asked him some questions about his life as a musician:

K: Bill, who today are some of the guitarists who you enjoy listening to? Has your list of favorites changed over the years or have the same names remained on your list over the years?

B: Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Raney, Grant Green, Ed Bickert, Kurt Rosenwinkle, Barney Kessel, Oliver Gannon, Joe Pass and Lenny Breau. I've gone through phases over the years starting with George Benson, then Wes and Charlie Christian. I was really knocked out the first time I heard Sonny Greenwich play and I was recently impressed with what Lorne Lofsky is doing on the guitar, having just heard him in Toronto. I'm just getting into Kurt Rosenwinkle. I think he's doing some very good stuff as a guitarist and as a composer.

K: What is it about the jazz genre specifically that compels you to play jazz?

B: Everything about it except the hours and the pay... I became hooked because of the totally fun challenge involved in making up music on the spot. I also was drawn to the sound of jazz chords. I had never heard sounds like that listening to blues players and so I had to learn what was going on. Also, I've always loved making music with other people. It's like an amazing conversation but better and you get to share the musical interaction with the audience as well. If I had to nail down one thing though, it would be the freedom I feel when I play improvised music and the knowledge that learning this music is a never ending journey.

K: Do you enjoy recording and live performing or is one more enjoyable to you than the other?

B: Totally different experiences. It's like comparing analog and digital...hmmm, let me rephrase that. I think nothing beats playing live with people you love playing with, and to an audience that is into it. I do however enjoy the amount of control you can have in the studio, especially when you have some input in the project.

K: What is it about being a professional musician that you enjoy the most?

B: Being able to sleep in. Staying up late. Hanging out with the band after the gig, (especially on the road ). I'm being mostly serious here. To sum it up: playing music and getting paid for it. I was hooked the first time I ever got paid at a club. We made $20.00 each and then I got a traffic ticket on the way home!

K: What do you most dislike about your role as a professional musician?

B: I don't enjoy dealing with less than honorable club owners (luckily I have met only a few who have been real jerks). I'm not really fond of the "business" part of the music biz because it takes me away from what I want to be doing. You know, listening, practising and writing. However, I do believe that it's important to acquire a certain amount of business chops if you're going to pursue your own projects.

K: Are there certain things in your life that inspire you to create your own compositions?

B: In no particular order: Unsolved questions, beautiful women, musicians I have played with or heard, the beauty of nature. Then again, sometimes a deadline is the best inspiration of all. My wife Jill (a trombonist and arranger/composer in her own right) is a constant source of inspiration and support to me.

K: Other than jazz are there other forms of music that you are drawn towards?

B: I have a soft spot for a lot of classical music, including Prokofiev, Tchaikowsky, Bach, Ravel, Shostakovich, Barber, Ives and Stravinsky. Now that it's the 21st century, I'm just getting into composers of the 20th century. I've always loved the Beatles and guitarist Eric Clapton as well.

K: If you were to create a dream group of hotshot musicians, who would be some of the people in that group?

B: This may sound corny but the musicians in my trio are my dream band; Darren Radtke, Dave Robbins as well as those that I like to feature with the trio; Ross Taggart, Campbell Ryga, Mike Allen and Brad Turner. They are all hotshots in the best sense of the word.

K: What is one of the most memorable concerts that you were ever able to attend?

B: In recent memory 3 concerts come to mind. The Dave Douglas concert at this years' Vancouver jazz fest, the Dave Holland concert the last time they were in town and the Joe Lovano-Jim hall concert at this year's Port Townsend jazz festival. They were all extremely inspiring concerts.

K: What is one of the most memorable concerts that you ever performed?

B: The concert I did last month with Oliver Gannon as part of the White Rock jazz series "Jazz on the Peninsula". It was a blast from start to finish but I haven't heard the tape yet so perhaps I should reserve judgment. There have been others as well that are not as fresh in my mind. The Nat King Cole tribute I did with Denzal Sinclaire was fun every single night we performed (for three weeks at the Stanley Theater).

K: Do you have a favorite composer or composers?

B: Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Lennon and McCartney. Wes Montgomery writes great tunes that sit well on the guitar. Also Shannon Thomson who is not well known around here (she lives in Montreal) is an amazing composer. I'd have to include Bach and Ravel in there as well.

K: Would there be one arranger in particular that you could say that has influenced you in some of your arranging choices?

B: If I had to pick just one it would be Gil Evans. However I also have to add Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Ellington, George Martin and Neil Chotem.

K: Is there a teacher or mentor that you could name that you know has made an impact on you in your life as a musician?

B: Once again I can't seem to limit myself to one! There are four people that have really been there at the moment I needed them. My mother, Iris Page was the first musical influence in my life. She got me started on piano and has been my biggest fan ever since. My good friend the multi-talented Andre White got me into jazz. He asked me to join his jazz group and we played together in different incarnations in that group for over 15 years. He is an incredible person and musician. I was fortunate enough to be able to take lessons from legendary guitarist Jim Hall over a period of a year and a half (thank you Canada Council!). Meeting and playing with him continues to inspire me today. Last but not least there is an incredible pianist arranger composer named Neil Chotem who is originally from Saskatoon but has lived most of his life in Montreal. He has created much beautiful music for orchestra that defies category, most of which has been documented by the CBC. I've studied with him on and off for the past 8 or 9 years.

K: Do you enjoy practicing your instrument or does that ever become a chore to you?

B: There are times when I simply don't have time to do much more than warm up on the guitar which is okay but after a while no matter how much I¹m playing I get the itch to do some woodshedding. Practicing is fun when I can find the time, especially when I get in a groove. If it becomes a real chore than I do something else for a while and come back to it when I'm fresh.

K: Do you have a regimented practice routine or do you just fit it in when you can in your busy schedule?

B: When I'm not playing a lot, I do have a practicing schedule but it's pretty flexible. There is a general warm up I do that starts out with very slow but focused playing and gradually increases in speed. It's a good one because as well as getting your fingers warmed up it also focuses your mind. After this I work on whatever I'm trying to accomplish, be it repertoire or tempos or working on some new solo ideas. I like to do some practicing away from the guitar as well especially when I'm learning a new tune.

K: Is there any advice that you would give to person who believes he/she would like to become a jazz musician, based on your own experiences so far?

B: I think this is an important question and I always try to tailor the answer to the person who is asking it. If I had to make a general comment it would be to listen, listen, and then listen some more. Find a good teacher and be aware that while a good teacher opens doors, it's up to you to do the work. Keep at it and have some fun.

K: Are you glad to be living in Vancouver now or do you miss Montreal?

B: Montreal is a wonderful city. I feel very lucky to have lived there. Great people, great food and a great vibe for such a big urban area. There is a time for everything I guess and although leaving Montreal was hard in some ways, it also felt like the right thing to do. Vancouver is a great city for different reasons. To have such extraordinary beauty surrounding a city is very unique. Musically, there is a lot going on here and there are many great musicians to play with and learn from. There is a tremendous amount of mutual support amongst musicians in the city. I really appreciate that aspect of the musical community.

K: If you were not able to be a musician for some unknown reason, what would be another profession that you might enjoy?

B: I tried painting when I was younger and I enjoyed that. I also thought at one point that I might try writing fiction. I like the idea of creating stories and still enjoy reading literature.

K: What profession would you dislike above all others?

B: I've never thought that any profession was really distasteful. I was brought up to find out where your heart is and go for it.

K: The guitar is your instrument. Is there another instrument you have ever been interested in learning how to play? Do you in fact play other instruments?

B: I started out on piano but I can't say that I play piano. I've tried the trombone and bassoon just for fun but I didn't like the way they made my lips feel! Several years ago I had a roommate, Peter Wilson who was an upright bass player and I used to practice his bass. I got to to the point where I could play about 2 choruses of blues in Bb. I also messed around on the drums which was fun. I think if it wasn't guitar, it would be another rhythm section instrument.

K: You are a professional performing musician, composer and arranger. One of your other roles is that of teacher. Is that a role that you enjoy?

B: I have taught on a part time basis for much of my playing career and I've had (and continue to have) my share of peaks and valleys in my attitude towards teaching. I really enjoy seeing the light bulb go on over people's heads and I like to see people getting excited about playing music. I don't enjoy cracking the whip when somebody's not putting any real effort onto it. I respond much better as a teacher when I sense someone is really trying. I continue to learn from interacting with students and as long as I feel that, I will probably continue to do some teaching. As well as guitar, I am teaching some private composition at Capilano College which I find both challenging and rewarding.