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The Tony Wilson Interview

Tony Wilson
Tony Wilson

He will never be the poster child for the jazz world but, British Columbia's Tony Wilson is redefining accessible music one show at a time.

By Jim Dupuis

Henry David Thoreau said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” This quote could be applied to jazz musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk; certainly, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra’s  Arkestra, Paul Motian and John Zorn. There are different terminologies for what they play. Some hate it and just call it noise. Others call it avant-garde or improvised jazz and sometimes free jazz.  And for sure, nobody has ever likened it to dinner jazz. Usually jazz festivals hide this music with late night shows and short concerts in out of the way places. That’s if they even bother to showcase it at all. In Vancouver, one name has become synonymous with, for lack of a better term, the free jazz movement. It is guitarist Tony Wilson. Over the years Wilson has been involved with projects that honored Monk, Ayler and probably other musicians that few have heard of.  I’ve been attending shows that included Wilson at The Vancouver International Jazz Festival since the early nineties. I’ve witnessed Tony Wilson playing free shows in crowded rooms that emptied after two songs. That’s what it’s like when you veer away from the mainstream in jazz. But, more recently there have been long line-ups for Wilson’s free shows. Sometimes you’d be lucky to get a chance to get in to hear the last song. What gives?  To their credit the good folks at The Vancouver International Jazz Festival have persevered and have made it part of their mandate to showcase and maybe even champion the less accessible forms of jazz over the years. It’s paid off and the jazz series at the Ironworks is now well attended and a new generation of fans and musicians are exploring what many consider to be the most inaccessible part of jazz music. Tony Wilson. Ya, he’s kind on an enigma. He’s an admitted drug addict. He left home at an early age and more or less started playing guitar by accident. He has evolved into an intelligent, caring, humble, human being. He is equally at home sharing his musical knowledge, as he is learning from someone half his age. He is a prolific composer and he also arranges classical music. He has defied the odds and beat his drug addiction. This spawned a cathartic experience which produced a novella about a drug addict in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside called A Day’s Life. This gritty work is real; maybe too real for some people. It’s much like Tony Wilson’s music. I think it is so good, that it should be required reading for first year social work students. It may be fiction, but it is certainly autobiographical and it gives you some insights as to where his music comes from. Recently I scratched an item off my bucket list and interviewed Tony Wilson.

How are you doing Tony?

TW: I’m doing very well Jim, and yourself?

JD: Real well, thanks. How did it all begin for you? Where did you grow up?

TW: I grew up in Ottawa. I left home when I was sixteen and travelled out west. I went back [to Ottawa] for a little while, but I’ve been here ever since. I ended up on Hornby Island after many years of travelling around and hitch-hiking. This is where I started playing music. When I was eighteen or nineteen I lived on a piece of property with an older man who rented out cabins. He played the accordion and he wanted someone to play the guitar with him. That’s kind of how I started. I learned a lot of the old Americana songs. That started me in music and I met more people here. Eventually I went to Malaspina College for a year and that’s where I learned to read and write [music] and I got the fundamentals. I guess around ’88 I moved to Vancouver for ten years. That’s when I started playing professionally. That would have been around 1988.

JD: I also read that you eventually went to Banff and took lessons from people like John Abercrombie.

TW: I went to the Banff program. It’s still running. I went in ’86 and 1990. That was a month long program and it was run by Dave Holland. Hugh Fraser was the librarian and eventually he took over. It was a great program and they brought in a lot of American musicians. The key guitar players that I studied with were John Abercrombie and Kevin Eubanks. Anyway that was great. Also, I met a lot of people there. People from Europe and stuff and I made some connections—people I still know, like Benoit Delbecq and a few others. Yes, that was quite formative, as well. That was just a four week program but it was great and I learned a lot. More importantly I got to see, really what it took to be a good jazz musician. Being around people like Dave Holland, Pat Coleman, Rufus Reid. You got to see what it was to be a good musician. It was pretty inspiring, but it also made me realize that I had a lot to learn.

Tiempe Libre
Tony Wilson at work.

JD: Yes, Banff. I’ve always heard good things about it. Who would you say are your main influences? You just mentioned a bunch of people. Has anyone really influenced the way you play, or do you just pick up the guitar and play the way Tony Wilson plays?

TW: Well not really. I mentioned I learned the guitar kind of in a weird way, playing Americana and Swedish folk music, and then of course I got into playing the blues. That’s where I started learning. I like a lot of the old classic bluesmen. I played with Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and people like that. When I went to school it was a jazz course, but we did classical stuff, too. That’s where I got turned on to Charlie Parker, and the guitar player Charlie Christian. Of course, Charlie Parker is a sax player. I started getting interested in bebop and jazz music. Like most people I copied things off records, but as far as the guitar is concerned specifically, there has been a whole lot of music and obviously I’ve listened to. One guy I really liked from the get-go is Sonny Greenwich. He’s a Canadian guitar player, who is not pretty well known because he doesn’t play a lot. I’m not sure if he plays at all anymore. He made some great albums in the seventies and I got turned on to that music, and so and he was really one of my favorites. I didn’t really copy my style from him, but because of the way he played, which was kind of a cross between the spiritual aspects, like John Coltrane and a jazz influence of somebody like Grant Green. He was just someone I really liked and he was Canadian as well. So he was a big influence and I would say if there is anyone I play like it would be someone like him. He liked to play a bit on the edge and I kind of let things unfold as they go. I don’t necessarily have a big game plan as far as playing guitar solos and things like that. It’s guitar playing and I respond to what’s going on around me. He would be one name I would mention. But, there’s been dozens and a lot of classical music too; not just jazz. I listen to a lot of Motown music. That was the music I grew up with and a lot of blues music, and later on in my development a lot of classical music, too. Although, I don’t know tons of classical music, I do know some pieces very well. Britten was a big influence. I like Benjamin Britten, as well.

JD: Tony, you have half a dozen CDs as a leader and many as a sideman. Some of your music appears to be a fusion of classical/chamber music and free jazz. That’s what your sextet CD The People Look Like Flowers At Last does. How difficult is it to combine these genres when composing?

TW: With that specific CD we are actually playing arrangements of Benjamin Britten's songs. That comes from a piece of his and I just wrote another variation of it very recently for a big classical ensemble. But it obviously takes a little bit of imagination, because making arrangements of any music can be very difficult in the sense in that you want to portray the essence of the music and of course you want to make it your own. I’ve done a lot of that over the years and I’ve written my own music and done arrangements of Ellington, Sun Ra and Don Cherry, Monk—I had a Monkaholic band. I don’t know if it’s more difficult than doing any other kind of music, but I use the elements that work well with those pieces so it becomes a significant hybrid because there are the classical elements there.  Like any composer, I’ve done a lot of composing and of course most composers get into classical music eventually because it is quite advanced harmonically and rhythmically compared to a lot of other music. I don’t mean that it’s better or anything like that. It really more evolved. For example you can listen to music by Bela Bartok from the twenties and thirties. He uses a lot of the things, some 45 years before, that became very avant-garde in jazz. That’s part of my curiosity in music and I think that everyone is influenced by all the things they do and what they listen to.

JD: You don’t only write music, Tony. You also wrote a book, which I read and enjoyed. You moved to Vancouver in 1987 and ended up living on the streets. You did a very good job of documenting street life in your book A Day’s Life. The book starts off with you waking up on a piece of cardboard behind a fish and chip restaurant. How did you get to that point in your life?

TW: I’ve got to explain to you, first of all the book is not non-fiction.  So the guy in A Day’s Life is not me. It is a story. The guy is based on me, in sense that a lot of the things about him are real to me. The things when he looks back are autobiographical. Basically I’m not a writer. I hadn’t written anything in my life until I wrote that book and I haven’t written anything since. I was compelled to write. Basically, I had drug problems for many years. Briefly, very briefly, I lived in the Downtown Eastside in a hotel, being in that situation. The catalyst for the book, in later years, after I cleaned up—I did got to detox and all that—I did have relapses and I would go to the Downtown Eastside to buy my drugs. I would see the same guys in the same places. It was like three months later and I realized that people that inhabit that neighborhood live in a very small area. So the book takes place in about an eight block square area of the Downtown Eastside. So it’s not a true life story, but I spent time on the street and I have been a drug addict and I’ve gone through a lot of shit in life. I have some insights into it, obviously having lived that way. People get mixed up about that and basically I became addicted is what happened and because of that my life slowly deteriorated. I stopped playing music and became a drug addict. You slowly burn out. You burn all your friends and family and end up by yourself. Hopefully you go and get some help. That’s what I did. Why I came up with the book?  It was a compulsion. It was something I needed to do for some reason. I think it was probably therapeutic for me in one aspect. About the music I write and stuff like that, it just comes to me. I write it down and I work on it. I don’t have a technique. It was much like the music. The book just came out of me. It was a story I had to tell and so, as I was writing the book, of course I wrote music to go with it and recently I just put on a big show. It had the music, the band, a narrator, I had someone doing sign language, a dancer, and I had these big projections. So, it’s been an ongoing project for about three years and now that I have all that stuff, I want to tour the band. We’re going to Guelph this year, before I move on to the next project.

JD: I’m thinking this book is screaming for a sequel. Any chance of that?

TW: (Laughs) Not at this time. I really haven’t been trying to write anything, except for songs with lyrics, which is something I’ve never done. I’ve been working on doing that for the last little while. I have a band with a singer. Patsy Cline is her name; a wonderful singer.  I’m trying to write some original songs. I haven’t really thought about the writing thing at all. I kind of did that, and like I say it wasn’t something I thought about doing and I haven’t thought about doing any more. I’m happy the book was quite well received. I’ve probably printed 800-900 copies now. Because I’m a musician and I play that music I keep selling the book and people really seem to like it and I’m happy that it has made people think a little bit about what that particular kind of life is like and sometimes people are in unfortunate situations like that and get looked upon by the general public in a very general way and of course everyone in life has a story. The great equalizer amongst us all is that we all have a story that’s unique to ourselves. Once someone else hears that story, regardless of the present situation they develop an empathetic attitude,  because it humanizes the person instead of vilifying them. So I’m happy about the book. So to answer the question—you never know. I didn’t think I’d write that one (laughs).

JD: That’s a good point. So is there a CD available of A Day’s Life?

TW: It just came out. It was the CD release at that show I was telling you about but right now, but it will be released officially by Drip-Audio at the end of June, along with a few others.

JD: Drip-Audio, Jesse Zubot’s label. Great! Just in time for the Jazz Festival. So, speaking of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, I noticed that you are playing with Pugs and Crows and the Ironworks on June 19th. Do you have any other gigs that you want to mention?

TW: Ya, I’m playing with a band I have doing a tribute to Jim Pepper. Pepper was a native American saxophone player from the United States, who was quite popular in the sixties, seventies and eighties. He was a pretty big influence on me in a sense, in that he really loved his music. He was a very good straight up jazz player and kind of an avant-garde jazz musician. He played with Don Cherry and many different people. One thing he did, was that he took native chants and added R&B and jazz harmony to them and basically played them with jazz musicians. So years ago I did kind of a tribute to him. A couple of years ago I met a couple of native singers and got different musicians and redid the thing. So we’re playing there with the singers, tenor sax, trumpet, bass, guitar and drums. Then I’m playing in a trio with Peggy Lee the cellist and Jon Bentley the saxophone player. That trio is called Waxwing and we just released a CD as well. And then I’m doing a few other gigs while I’m there but they are not necessarily a part of the Jazz Festival. Those are the main ones.

JD: You sound very busy. I’m going to throw out a few names in the Vancouver jazz scene and maybe you could give a brief comment about them. You have a connection with all of them; Brad Turner, for example.

TW:  Brad, I don’t play with that much, but I do play with him in Peggy Lee’s Band. Brad is an exemplary musician. He’s one of the real very, very talented pianists and trumpet player of course and actually quite a good drummer, too. He’s a very prolific composer as well. I can’t really say enough about Brad. Not only is he such a wonderful musician, but for many years he ran the program up at Cap College and he’s taught a lot of musicians that have gone on to have careers. He’s taught a lot of people. Brad’s a special guy.

JD: So, Peggy Lee has melded classical with jazz for quite a while in Vancouver. What about Peggy?

TW: Well, Peggy, I’ve played with for a very long time, after I’d been in Vancouver for a couple of years she was one of the very first people. Peggy is a classically trained musician who quickly became a very good improviser and a great composer. I have a special affinity for Peggy and her music. I think we are similar in a way and she is one of the great improvisers—right up there with anyone in the world, I would say.

JD: I would agree with you on that. Next, Pugs and Crows, a bunch of younger people who discovered your music and have really taken to it. What about them?

TW:  The Pugs and Crows, that’s really Cole Schmidt’s band. He’s the guitar player. He writes all the music and we do a couple of my tunes as well. That’s a great band. Cole came up to Hornby [Island] and hung out with me and studied with me a bit—and composition. We’ve become really good friends. We play a lot of music together in that band and other bands. The Pugs are a great group, really. They are a real group. They play as a band. The music isn’t necessarily solocentric in the sense that it really isn’t a string of solos. It’s not really out of that kind of jazz framework. It’s group improvisational . There a wonderful band. They won a Juno! So they’ve been recognized, which I think is a good thing. You know, they are special musicians and it’s been my pleasure to play with them and some of the other younger people in Vancouver. It’s been my pleasure to play with them and of course, I’m getting on in age, and it’s nice to meet other people that have different influences, and obviously they learn as well. It’s been my pleasure to play with them.

JD: They’ve were in town last year a couple of times and I got to see them both times and it was just a treat. Oh, they have a song called “Xmas With Tony Wilson (Has Been Cancelled).” Is that kind of an in joke?

TW:  Actually one of the first times Cole was going to come up to hang out with me over Christmas, we got a big snow storm in Hornby. So I guess that’s it. You’d have to ask him, but I guess that’s it.

JD: So now I’m going to embarrass you with some of your listings from past Vancouver International Jazz Festivals. One mentioned that Downbeat called you “a talismanic west coast figure” and another listed you as “a major force in Vancouver’s creative community.” How does that make you feel and I figure they are pretty much true?

TW: Well you know I don’t think about that kind of stuff and of course, like any artist or any person in life I like to be appreciated, of course. So I’m super happy that people think that way. I don’t think like that.  I’m just another musician doing my thing. There’s a lot of people doing that and I’m just another one of them. It’s nice that I got some recognition. It’s nice that people like the music. That’s really the main thing with me, that  the music has an effect on people and it’s even ok if they don’t like it. As far as those accolades, I don’t think many musicians—I mean it’s nice, but I don’t spend much time thinking about it. I spent time thinking about writing more music than dealing with stuff like that. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been around a lot of great musicians that were generous enough to pass down a lot of information. You know one guy I studied composition with was Claude Ranger. Claude was actually a drummer who was also a composer. One of the great drummers in the world, he was a Canadian and unfortunately Claude is missing and no-one knows where he is. I spent many afternoons with him. Not only did we go over my music and he would over his opinions. We would sit and enjoy the time together. He told me a lot of stories about his time in music and stuff like that. You music is a culmination of a lot of things. Music, to me, is a community thing. It is something you create with others, although the composing part, a lot of times is done mostly by yourself. It is a community thing. As far as all those nice things that are said—whatever. It’s great but it’s not important to me. It’s more important that I keep learning. I keep getting around people that are really good that something to offer me as well as me maybe being able to offer them something. The short answer is that those things are nice, but I don’t think about them very much.

JD: I didn’t think you would, but I had to put you on the spot,  just because it’s fun (laughs).Ok Tony, I’d really like to thank you for speaking with me tonight. I know you are really busy. Good luck and I’ll see you at the Jazz Festival this year. I’d like to get a chance to say hi.

TW: Ya, come and say hi. I’d like to meet you. Thanks for phoning and being interested. Good luck to  you, as well.

Tony’s website is:
CDs available from Drip Audio:

Jim Dupuis is the host of Jazz Notes, now in it’s 13th year on Wed. 5-7 PM PT at

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