"Why the guitar?" Alan Matheson asks Oliver Gannon, one of Canada's premier jazz guitarists, who smiles brightly as he tells the story of being a seventeen or eighteen-year-old boy trying to decide what to buy with his leftover money from a summer job in Winnipeg. "How about the guitar?" his mother suggests. Guitar? No, says Oliver. "Well, how about an electric guitar?" Oliver thinks again. "As soon as she said 'electric guitar', my eyes light up, so I got an electric guitar and came home and started plonking out open-position C's with my amplifier and my father said, 'Would you shut up with that racket?' And I said, 'Well, teach me a good chord!'" Oliver's father (Irish pianist Joe Gannon) played an E flat chord on the piano while young Oliver literally "picked out" the notes on his instrument. "So that's how I learned how to play my chords on the guitar," says Gannon, who played his first gig two months later. "It never occurred to me to go get a book or a teacher."
You could say that Oliver Gannon did eventually learn how to play the guitar from a teacher. After borrowing a copy of the LP Barney Kessel and the Poll Winners from the local Winnipeg Library, Gannon "learned how to play the guitar with Barney Kessel as my teacher just by listening over and over again... And I don't think I ever to this day returned that record to the library," he chuckles. Years later, Gannon found himself playing a guitar duo with his greatest influence Barney Kessel on a CBC show in Vancouver. "So you can imagine how I felt when I was able to ask him, what was it like when you went in to record the Poll Winners?"
Gannon was playing local casuals in Winnipeg while he attended engineering school at the University of Manitoba. "I remember a thermodynamics class at 8 o'clock in the morning, having been playing the night before, and the blackboard was full of the Second Law of Thermodynamics or something, and I looked up at that and said, 'Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life, or do I want to do what I was doing last night?' A light bulb went off and I literally got up in the middle of the class, walked out, and never came back."
"I think I was lucky to come here at the right time."
It was by reading Downbeat Magazine that Gannon discovered Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he graduated with a degree in Composition in 1969. That same year, he moved to the West Coast (choosing Vancouver over Toronto). Not knowing anyone or having any relatives in the city, Gannon first met trumpeter Carse Sneddon who mentioned Oliver Gannon's name around town, leading Gannon to a job playing in Fraser MacPherson's band at the Cave. "The Cave band was such a joy to play," says Gannon. "These guys were such excellent readers... They would play a brand new show perfectly the first time," he remembers, gesturing the height of the stacks of music which the band was often required to play when new shows came into town.
Around the same time in 1970, Oliver Gannon became part of the original band put together by Ian McDougall called Pacific Salt. "We always technically refer to it as a co-op group, but we knew that Ian was the head honcho," explains Gannon, who played guitar in the band with Ian McDougall on trombone (later replaced by PJ Perry), Donny Clark on trumpet, Tony Clitheroe on bass, George Ursan on drums, and Ron Johnson on piano. All members were encouraged by McDougall to bring in two original compositions for the first rehearsal. "It was a great outlet for me," says Gannon, who considered himself a real beginner as a professional musician in comparison to the other band members who he says "were such heavies in the city." Pacific Salt was known for its popular "history of jazz" performances in the schools. "One year we did so many school concerts that a lot of other musicians actually complained to the school board or something," laughs Gannon, remembering how the band members would perform up to three school concerts during the day and then play their nightly gig at the Cave or some other casual in the evening.
Gannon continued to play at the Cave when Bobby Hales was hired as the new bandleader in the late seventies. But Fraser MacPherson, not having to play at the Cave six nights a week for twenty years any longer, put together a trio with Oliver Gannon and bassist Wyatt Ruther that recorded and toured internationally. "Fraser was a wonderful leader," says Gannon, who was mentored by MacPherson's consistent attitude and his ability to calm nerves backstage by saying, "Don't worry about it, we're just going to go out and do what we normally do."
Oliver Gannon continued with lots of studio work in the seventies and eighties, especially with Bobby Hales. In the late eighties or early nineties, Gannon's younger brother Peter created Band in a Box (PG Music), a highly successful musical accompaniment computer program. "Whenever we talk about things that could be done, he has never said, 'Oh, I don't think we can do that," Gannon says of his brother Peter. "It has always been the opposite: Oh, how will we do it?'"
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JazzStreet Vancouver Interview
Gannon, Oliver. Personal interview with Alan Matheson. Vancouver, BC. 16 Nov. 2005.
JazzStreet Vancouver Interview
Collins, Eleanor. Personal Interview with Colleen Savage. Vancouver, BC. 02 Nov 2005.