Vancouver jazz artist Bill Coon started playing guitar in his early teens, thanks in large part to his brother David. His elder sibling—currently the leader of New Brunswick's Green Party—had a cheap acoustic six-string that, despite its high action, young Bill took a real shining to. Permanently.
"Pretty soon after I stopped taking piano lessons I picked up my brother's guitar," says Coon, on the phone from his North Burnaby home. "And as I say—or he will tell people—I never gave it back."
Not long after absconding with his bro's instrument, Coon started getting good enough to perform. It wasn't long before he discovered there was gold in them thar jazz licks. Or a few bucks, anyway.
"When I first started getting into guitar it didn't really occur to me that I could make a living doing it," says Coon. "I remember getting my first gig playing jazz at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Montreal, and I think we made 30 dollars each. I couldn't really imagine it, because we'd be playing in the basement [for free] anyway. So I thought, 'Wow, I can make money doing this.' "
That first paying gig was followed by over three decades of musical achievements, including playing on over 50 recordings, winning awards and commissions from the B.C. Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts, and being chosen Guitarist of the Year at the 2009 National Jazz Awards. So which of those accomplishments is he most proud of?
"I've managed to eke out a living playing and teaching music," replies the 61-year-old, "and that's not something that is the easiest path. So I'm just kinda proud of that."
The majority of Coon's recent musical forays have seen him making use of his favourite guitar, one handcrafted by local luthier Mike Kinal, a high-school woodworking teacher who builds guitars part time. The instrument Coon favours, which he's been playing for about a dozen years, is called the Mini Voyager.
"I played a lotta guitars," he says, "and this one seems to suit my body quite well. It has a nice acoustic sound, so if I'm playing with a band like Triology or if I'm doing a smaller group, I can turn my guitar amp down and you can hear the acoustic part of it too, if it's a quiet situation. So it has a nice acoustic-electric blend to it. And the neck is great."
As far as his own personal taste in guitar slingers go, Coon isn't big on speedy players who blast off 10 notes a second. You won't see him lining up at a Joe Satriani or Steve Vai gig any time soon.
"I certainly appreciate their musicianship and their guitar mastery," he says, "but I've always been into guys that sort of figured a way to do more with less, for example someone like Ed Bickert, or to a certain extent Lenny Breau. Jim Hall. Those kind of players I've always been really drawn to, more the lyrical side. But I love all sorts of guitar players."
Coon says that he was influenced early on by guitarists like George Benson and Wes Montgomery; one of the records that he listened to "to death" was the 1962 Jim Hall/Bill Evans duo record Undercurrent. Nowadays, when he's not listening to jazz, he enjoys orchestral or chamber music. His fave classical composer is Maurice Ravel.
"He seems to really have a magical way with an orchestra and colour and combinations of instruments," cites Coon of Ravel. "I love the way he writes."
As far as local guitar players go, Coon points to Tony Wilson, David Blake, and Dave Sikula as among the city's top pickers.
"We've got a pretty rich guitar thing going on in this city," he asserts, "and it's actually really grown in the last 20 years, quite amazingly. The first time I ever heard about a Vancouver jazz scene was hearing Oliver Gannon playing on a CBC program many years ago. I got to play with him, and then we actually made two records. So I consider Oliver Gannon sort of the godfather of the jazz guitar here in Vancouver."
Local Coon fans hoping to see him perform at jazz fest shouldn't have much trouble tracking him down—live or online—as he's booked to play no less than four festival gigs.
"I'm not just lazing around during jazz fest," he says. "I'm keepin' busy."
As part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Bill Coon performs with Triology at Pyatt Hall on June 30 at 7 pm, with his 4Tet and Campbell Ryga at Pyatt Hall on July 1 at 7 pm, with Laura Crema at Frankie's Jazz on July 2 at 7:30 pm, and with the Jodi Proznick Trio as part of Jasmine Jazz at Performance Works on July 4 at 2:30 pm.