Michael Gauthier is a Montreal-based musician who teaches jazz guitar at the University of Montreal and at McGill University. A long-time fixture of the Montreal jazz scene, his memory houses a vast and irreplaceable knowledge of the history of jazz in Montreal since the sixties. Recently he took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about his childhood, his choice of instrument, and his early attempt to play by ear on a two-stringed guitar.
So, tell me about your childhood.
I come from Drummondville. Luckily, for some reason unknown to me, it was a basin for music?there was a lot of music going on in that region of the province. As a teenager, I remember a lot of rock bands and all sorts of stuff like that being there.
My father first got me interested in music; he was a harmonica player, and there was always music and dancing and singing going on at home. He didn’t necessarily encourage me to play, but he definitely opened the door to the whole idea.
One of my earliest memories was a trip to Bermuda together when I was about seven or eight. He brought back some 78 rpms of island music. We had a little record player back then, and I remember playing those records over and over again because I just loved that kind of music. I liked the rhythm.
I eventually also grew to love the music of Jimi Hendrix. It almost didn’t even dawn on me at first that he was black; he was just Hendrix to me, another guitar player whom I happened to love. I never associated color with music until much later on.
When you made that association, what went through your head?
Well, at first I sort of figured out that I was at the short end of the stick there. I mean, growing up in Drummondville, going to a Catholic Church, having a WASP mother and a half-French Canadian father and all. I never really saw a black person in Drummondville until I was about eighteen years old. In other words, black American culture, black island culture, or black culture period was something totally divorced from my reality except for all this listening to and loving black music.
So you thought of it as being “your music.” You didn’t think of it as being from a culture separate from your own.
Well, in an intellectual sense, yes, I realized it. I wasn’t born in Alabama. I’m not a black guy. I didn’t go to the sanctified church and praise the Lord on Sunday morning.
I asked myself, at times, “Do I have a right to play this music?” because of this. I don’t know, and you know what? I don’t care. That’s the secret?it doesn’t matter.
Hit by a Bomb
Now, getting back to my childhood for just a second, I can remember something that really marked me a lot. For some reason, when I was about twelve years old, my father figured that the family (including him) needed some culture, so he took us to Montreal to hear Van Cliburn?a great classical piano player?play Chopin. I can remember the last two pieces he played; it was like being hit by a bomb. To this day I remember how electrified I felt by it.
I started to play guitar in the early sixties because the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came out then. As a young teenager it wasn’t cool to play a trombone or the French horn because the Rolling Stones didn’t play those instruments.
I started to love the blues before even realizing that it was the blues. The guitar is the main blues instrument, and because of that, it became the number one instrument in rock and roll.
When I was fourteen, I had a neighbour my age who’d gotten a guitar, and I became envious of him. There was a guitar kicking around my place when I was a real little kid, but it had only two strings. Even as a little kid I remember picking it up and doing any stupid thing I felt like doing with it, but I remember that the first tune I ever learned, I learned on that little two-stringed guitar.
There was a TV show a long time ago called The Third Man. The theme song from it is the tune I learned. The music was kind of like Greek zither music. I can remember the melody. I remember learning that on one string. No big deal, but I was really proud of myself to be able to play what I heard on TV.
(to be continued)