His musical path has carried him across the continent from smoky saloons to grand concert halls, but this month’s concert at the Dave Dunnet Community Theatre feels like coming home for Joe Coughlin.
Coughlin, who has called Saanich home for the past 22 years, will be performing songs from his album Saloon Standard Nov. 23 at the theatre in Oak Bay High, backed by the all-star quartet of pianist Miles Black, guitarist Bill Coons, bassist Ken Lister and drummer Hans Verhoeven. The concert is a benefit for the Sno’uyutth Legacy Scholarship, for students of First Nations, Inuit and Métis descent who pursue post-secondary training upon graduation from Oak Bay High.
The concert provides Coughlin the opportunity to broaden the educational horizons of local youth while sharing his passion for jazz.
That passion has been smouldering for nearly 40 years, with Coughlin releasing his first jazz album in 1981.
“Before that I was a rock and roll guy for close to 10 years in the Windsor and Detroit area,” said Coughlin, the frontman for Whiteheet, a successful Ontario metal band in the late ‘70s. “My parents said we can never hear you with all those loud guitars. They were big fans of Sinatra and we heard all that music growing up, it was just a natural progression.”
So Coughlin got a haircut, traded his jeans for a suit and tie, and went from Zeppelin to Sinatra.
“A lot of people looked at me and said what the heck are you doing that for. Well it’s easier on the body,” he says with a laugh. “It happened pretty fast, it was a shock really.”
He said the swinging beat and great lyrical content is what won him over to jazz.
“I think I’m a sucker for a really good melody, and that’s what this music provides.”
Most of Coughlin’s repertoire comes from the Great American Songbook that came out of the 1930s.
“Popular music at the turn of the [20th] century was mostly singalong stuff. Everybody had a piano in their front room and everybody sang around the piano. The Gershwins and the Cole Porters and those kind of guys started coming along and it started getting a bit more sophisticated.”
Coughlin spent the better part of three decades performing those timeless standards from coast to coast, spending months on the road at a time.
“The hotels all start smelling the same, the french fries all start tasting the same. It’s amazing how quickly it gets old,” said Coughlin, adding touring has become a lot tougher since 9/11.
“They think we’re all terrorists,” said the 63-year-old, recalling a time the wheelchair he has been in for the past 20 years attracted the attention of customs agents on a flight back from Chicago.
“They pulled me aside and said they wanted to take my wheelchair apart.”
Coughlin told them they could take it apart if they were able to put it back together again. A United Airlines agent was eventually able to get the situation straightened out and Coughlin departed the airport, wheelchair intact.
He is now quite content to leave that life on the road behind him, and is more than happy to trade the smoky saloons of the past to the beautiful surroundings of the Dave Dunnet Theatre.
“We opened it up in December 2015, when we did the Sinatra 100 birthday celebration,” recalls Coughlin, adding he is proud to have played a role in the formation of the Sno’uyutth Legacy Scholarship the concert will support.
“When you get an education, all those barriers that are attached to poverty start to disappear.”
Tickets are available through the Royal McPherson box office as well as at various locations throughout Oak Bay.