Senior Lecturer and Canadian jazz cat Ron Samsom shares the scoop on his story and how he made the move from metalhead to music teacher.
The youngest of four boys, Ronald Brian Samsom was born to Johanna and Harm in swinging mid-6os Kelowna, British Columbia. Frequented for its famous vineyards and first-class ski resorts, Kelowna basks in sun-drenched summers and bitterly cold winters.
Ron began practising piano at age seven, took on trombone at ten and started the drum rolling at twelve. He has been teaching at the School of Music since 2003.
It was a call from his good mate Jim that inspired Ron to emigrate with his wife and ten-year-old son to New Zealand. Taking up the teaching post at the University was a massive move but, after 17 years, one he maintains was meant to be.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you study? What subjects did you enjoy at school?
I grew up in Kelowna, which is in western Canada, not far from Vancouver. I graduated from high school (Kelowna Senior Secondary) in 1983. Apart from Band with Brian Todd, who was a total jazz head, I really enjoyed social studies.
What were you like as a kid?
I was into the normal stuff like street hockey and hanging out with friends. I have three older brothers who were pretty diverse in their interests, but all studied music. My eldest brother Tony was super academic and practised accordion all the time. I definitely was not interested in practising, but I loved jamming along to whatever he was trying to learn. Drove him nuts.
What was your life like, growing up?
We were basically outside all the time and had free range as kids. I would often catch the bus out of the city where my friends lived and ride dirt bikes and Skidoos depending on the season. I listened to a lot of music and played along to records most days.
I had lots of friends - probably my best mate was Jimmy Leguilloux, singer-songwriter-guitarist and still very active on the scene in Kelowna. We used to jam a lot at my house and later in my uncle's garage.
I remember me and Jim and a few other friends got hold of a Honda Civic and put it in the high school gymnasium. We carried this car, because it had no wheels, and left it in the centre of the gymnasium. We thought it was hilarious. Then some other friends took a car the same night and suspended it from the Kelowna bridge. This, of course, made the local news, I think it was even on the front page of the local paper – completely overshadowed our prank.
How old were you when you started drumming?
I started getting lessons when I was ten which was conditional on me continuing to study piano. My parents were quite strict about this proviso, and even though I never took piano too seriously, it was a tremendous advantage when I began studying at university.
Was it always jazz?
It was anything but jazz - that came later. I started on classical piano with weekly lessons, then trombone in concert band, then switched to drums when I changed schools. I told the teacher I was a drummer, and it worked.
My first paid gig was with a family from Hawaii. We put on a dinner and dance show every weekend at the Eldorado Hotel. I finally got into an original heavy metal instrumental band and thought I was cool. It’s a long list of bands before my first jazz gig which was with Bob Stroup (ex. Woody Herman).
What inspired you to study music?
I think failure had a big part in wanting to study music. I had pretty limited success as a musician touring Canada in a cover band called Strike Zone in the early '80s, and it really sucked. Playing six-nighters and travelling to the next town on the day off pretty much wiped me out. So I wasn’t really sure music was the right path for me.
My family was very supportive of musical study and this project as well. This band taught me a lot about relationships with club owners and booking agents and a whole bunch of the elements related to music that aren’t really musical.
What were your musical ambitions at this time?
At this point, I got a great wake-up call and started to figure out that I had to put my energy into improving my musicality. So my ambition was to become a musician holistically, and this meant learning how to play everything in terms of style. This was probably the point where I fell in love with improvising because it seemed to be the place that everything fit.
Most doors that open up for us result from attitude and work ethic.
Is there a particular memory that stands out for you? Any defining life moments?
Leaving Canada has to be a pretty big one. I guess deciding to move to New Zealand with my wife and son was pretty epic. I mean, we had a great life in Edmonton, and I really enjoyed the playing and friends there. But New Zealand blew me away. I mean, the proximity to the ocean and level of musicians here ticked a few boxes …
What would you say to someone considering a career in / studying music?
I think it’s always good to follow your passion for music and if you are curious and motivated, you will have a better chance of finding yourself with a career. The adaptability of musicians is probably one of the most transferable skills on offer. So there is nothing to lose and everything to gain through studying music – plus it’s fun.
The upside of studying music is what it does for the brain and your ability to think creatively.
Tell us about your students at the School of Music
I find the students inspiring and smart. I mean, sure, they can be distracted at times but they have chosen to study a super rewarding art form which, at the same time, is massively in the grey zone in that it can be hard to tell if you are making progress.
Students tend to motivate me to up my game. I mean, the best learning environments tend to be ones where the students are coming out feeling challenged - so it goes both ways.
Favourite bands/solo artists
In no particular order: Kneebody, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, The Roots, Nazz, Ceramic Dog, Jackie Mitto, Duke Ellington, The Meters, Tom Waits, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane, Rush, John Zorn, Jimmy McGriff, Sonic Youth, Hank Mobley, Oliver Nelson, Nir Felder, Joni Mitchell – quitting now as there’s too many more!
I see the Beatles aren’t on your list of favourite bands .. why is this?!
Actually, I pretty much wore out my parents' copy of A Hard Day's Night. Before owning a set of drums, Dad's recliner was the recipient of many beatings.
Kate Sumner I Content Writer