Don Thompson

Thompson, Don

"The first sound you'd hear in a musician's house was a bass, and that would be Don Thompson."
-Al Neil

January 08, 1940—

INSTRUMENTS Composer/Arranger, Record Producer, Bass, Piano, Vibraphone
Multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson is one of Vancouver's unparalleled jazz luminaries. He moved from his hometown Powell River to Vancouver in the summer of 1960 "because of Lloyd Arntzen," Thompson remembers. The two musicians had met and jammed together through a mutual friend in Powell River where clarinetist Lloyd told Don, "If you move to Vancouver, you can play in my band."

"And so I did, and I did," says Thompson, whose initial gigs in Vancouver consisted of playing a loaned bass at dance shows with Lloyd Arntzen's Dixieland quartet. "And one time, the bass broke. The neck broke off, and I got my own bass," laughs Thompson, who eventually went on to become one of the city's first-call bassists for countless studio sessions after his mentor, bassist Paul Ruhland moved to California in the 1960s.

As a pianist, Thompson attributes his greatest musical influence to Chris Gage, whom he first met on a studio session for Dave Robbins' Jazz Workshop (CBC Radio). "Chris was an anomaly," praises Thompson. "It didn't matter what he played. He just always seemed to know exactly what to play." Thompson, who was a sideman and admiring friend to Chris Gage for many years remembers "standing there just playing bass, watching his hands, and every move he made -- and it was fantastic lessons." Thompson and Gage, along with drummer Terry Clarke, played together regularly at the Quadra Club (near Georgia and Seymour Street) right up until Chris Gage's death in 1964.

Unique among his musical peers, Don Thompson was probably the only musician in Vancouver who worked at both the Cellar and the Flat Five in the 1960s. "A lot of the guys did one or the other," explains Thompson, who played at the Cellar with Bill Boyle, John Dawe, Tony Clitheroe, and Al Neil, but was also a regular player at the Flat Five with "a whole bunch of the younger guys that needed a club of their own" such as Al Wiertz, Glenn MacDonald, Blaine Wikjord, Terry Clarke, and Claire Lawrence.

Around the same time, Thompson was being hired by Dave Robbins and Doug Parker on a regular basis to play the vibraphone on radio and TV shows with the CBC. "That's where I learned how to read music," Thompson says. "Fraser [MacPherson] would sit there for the whole break and teach me my parts, week after week." Thompson was the only vibes player in the entire city.

In the mid-1960s, Don Thompson and Terry Clarke moved to San Francisco for two years where they played and toured with saxophonist John Handy and his Quintet, achieving international acclaim with the LP Live at Monterey, one of the most popular jazz recordings of the decade.

Faced with the option of signing up for the Armed Forces in order to renew his work permit in the United States, Thompson decided to move back to Vancouver in 1967 where he returned to a lot of studio work with the CBC. "They were all my own TV shows. There were some really great people," says Thompson, "But I don't know, I just didn't want to stay there. I just wanted to go to Toronto." Thompson moved to Toronto in 1969 and has continued to lead a vibrant career as a pianist, bassist, percussionist, composer, arranger, producer, and music educator ever since.


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  • Don Thompson


Don Thompson quartet plays "Inch Worm" (part 1)

Don Thompson quartet plays "Inch Worm" (part 2)

Don Thompson - first live jazz heard in Vancouver

Don Thompson - moved to Vancouver

Don Thompson on The Cellar (part 1)

Don Thompson on The Cellar (part 2)


JazzStreet Vancouver Interview
Thompson, Don. Personal Interview by Mark Miller. 20 Dec 2005. Toronto, ON.

JazzStreet Vancouver Interview
Neil, Al. Personal Interview by Bill Smith. June 2004. Toronto, ON.