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Guitarist Bill Coon, Jazz Guitar on Canada’s West Coast

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JGT contributor Joe Barth interviews Canadian guitarist Bill Coon.

If you are in Vancouver, British Columbia, and listening to live jazz guitar it is most likely Bill Coon.  Born near Toronto and growing up in Montreal he graduated from Concordia University in Montreal before coming west to the Vancouver area.  Two noted jazz guitarists that Bill has studied with are Jim Hall and Ireland’s Louis Stewart.

JB:  When did you start to play jazz guitar and what inspired you to take up the guitar? 

BC:  I first began playing jazz guitar in Montreal when I joined Andre White’s band in my last year of high school. This would have been 1976-77. I was inspired to play guitar after I had stopped classical piano lessons when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old. My brother had been taking lessons and had a cheap flat top, so I began messing around with it and within a few days, I was hooked! The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winters, Jimmy Hendrix, and Rory Gallagher were my early heroes.

Bill Coon

JB:  What was most helpful in your personal development as a guitarist?

BC:  So many things were helpful in the early years of playing guitar but discovering the sense of freedom that jazz provided really lit a fire under me. We were listening to those mid-70s Freddie Hubbard records on CTI and trying to recreate those sounds. George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and others created this sound I had never heard before, so hearing these recordings served as a gateway into more mainstream jazz and bop. Because I had no real jazz lessons at the time, having a group to play with and try things, and make mistakes was key in giving me the confidence to carry on. Andre White is now a wonderful educator and performer at McGill University and both his knowledge of the music at a young age and his father’s record collection served as a catalyst for me to dive into this music.

JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why? 

BC:  My picks of the three most influential jazz guitar albums reflect the order in which I happened across them; The Genius of Charlie Christian, Bill Evans, and Jim Hall Undercurrent, and Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note.

The Genius of Charlie Christian was my introduction to this amazing musician who changed forever the way we play and hear jazz guitar. I read about some of the histories in the liner notes, but it was the sound and the feel of the music that got me going. To this day, Christian’s guitar sound is beautiful to me – clear, full, and bursting with life. The 2-LP set includes many of the studio tracks he recorded with Benny Goodman and a few jam session tracks where Christian stretches out beyond the confines of the three-minute format. Hearing the guitar leap out of the ensemble when he turned up his volume to solo must have been electrifying in person because it still gives me a thrill on the records. Benny had great bands and great small groups that swung so hard. That groove literally invaded my body as I listened to those sides so many times as I was trying to figure out this thing called jazz.

JB:  Which of your CDs best represents your playing?

BC:  I honestly feel that I have yet to make that recording. So many of the recorded projects I have been collaborations with vocalists – Denzal Sinclaire, Jennifer Scott, Becky Kilgore, Laura Crema, and Sienna Dahlen to name a few, or guitarists such as Ron Peters and Oliver Gannon, that a true recorded representation of my guitar playing as a solo voice is still to come. My next project is a solo album and after that, the plan is to record a trio guitar album. Both these are recordings I’ve been wanting to do for years but just haven’t gotten around to. If I have to choose, I’ll pick Departure by the BC Double Quartet on Cellar Live or Scudder’s Groove by the Bill Coon Quartet featuring Ross Taggart on Pagetown Records.

JB:  Reflect upon recording your duo records, TWO MUCH GUITAR and TWO MUCH MORE, with guitarist Oliver Gannon.

BC:  I love those recordings! Oliver and I are still playing together, in fact, we just played a duo gig last night and we had some magical moments. Two Much Guitar was recorded live at the Jazz Cellar in Vancouver BC and features drummer Dave Robbins and bassist Darren Radtke. It captures the early spirit of that band with a live audience to inspire us. I can’t say enough about Oliver as a guitarist. His knowledge is very deep, and you can hear this in his comping and soloing. When he plays behind a solo, he thinks of the guitar as a big band or string section or some other type of sound. We both share this idea and like to switch up the sound of the instrument in our solos as well, creating different textures from single string lines to full chords. When we play together, we have as much fun comping behind each other’s solos as we are improvising, and I think that energy is a big part of the charm of the band. When you add in Dave and Darren, well those two are such stellar soloists that it makes for a nice mix.

Listen to Bill and Oliver play “Have You Met Miss Jones?”


JB:  Over your stellar career as a teacher, what are some traps that guitar players get themselves into? 

BC:  As an educator, I’ve seen and heard many guitarists go through the learning process and I see two issues that often come up. The first is not recognizing that one needs to understand the guitar neck to be an authentic player. I tell my students that one of the most challenging aspects of the guitar is that, unlike the piano which has one middle C, the guitar has five places to play that exact same note! Jim Hall made a virtue out of this fact and was a master of using the different sounds that different places on the fingerboard can create. It takes time and study to become intimately familiar with the guitar neck and without this, your ability to improvise and accompany at some point becomes limited. The second is related to understanding the fingerboard. Because the guitar is so visual, guitarists (including myself) can rely too heavily on practiced ideas. While this is always going to be part of it, it’s essential to play in such a way that you keep your mind and fingers open to interacting and improvising in the moment. 

JB:  Are you and your wife, trombonist Jill Townsend, able to get out and play duet gigs?

BC:  My wife Jill hasn’t been able to play trombone for many years, but she has turned her career around and become a nationally acclaimed arranger-composer. She leads many larger ensembles including her own, the Jill Townsend Jazz Orchestra. I am fortunate to play in that group and I also do some writing for it.

JB:  What do you find rewarding in living and playing in Vancouver, B.C., and your career now?

BC:  When I first came to Vancouver, I met a broad spectrum of musicians as I was involved in a show about Nat King Cole that had a 23-piece orchestra. I’ve always felt welcomed here by the musical community and for that, I am very thankful. Early on, I had the chance to learn about and play music with some of the great established Vancouver musicians by playing in the Wow Orchestra. In part because of my long association with Capilano University, I get to make music with many wonderful musicians of all ages, and I find this very rewarding. So besides being a beautiful place to live, the music scene in Vancouver is alive with a new surge of energy coming from many talented younger players and that’s a positive thing. I’m looking forward to the next chapter!


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