Oliver Whitehead is a guitarist and composer, originally from England, who has worked mostly in Canada. He is an Associate Composer at the Canadian Music Centre. His orchestral works include the oratorio We Shall be Changed (1993), Concerto For Oboe (1996) and Pissarro Landscapes (2000). His jazz album Free For Now was nominated for a Juno Award as Best Jazz Album of 1985. He has composed for, and played with, many individual musicians and groups over the years, most recently world music/jazz group The Antler River Project, the singer Linda Hoyle and the music producer and songwriter/composer Mo Foster. Whitehead is currently working on a new album with Hoyle and Foster.
Early life and influences:
Oliver's father Henry Whitehead was a mathematician at Balliol College, Oxford, and a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during World War II. His son knew almost nothing of the latter fact until 1995, three decades after his father's death, when the Official Secrets Act on WWII service expired. His mother Barbara began a career as a concert pianist (under her maiden name Smyth), but spent most of the 1950s and 60s running a farm that the family bought in the tiny village of Noke, near Oxford. Barbara's first cousin was the operatic tenor Peter Pears, partner of composer Benjamin Britten. Pears and Britten were close with the Whiteheads, often exchanging visits.
Oliver grew up in a home where classical music was highly valued--and jazz was little understood and rarely played. His parents tried to give him formal piano lessons. Instead, Oliver taught himself guitar and, by means of the radio and his wind-up 78 rpm gramophone, soon discovered all the British chart-toppers of the day, such as Tommy Steele, Lonnie Donegan and Cliff Richard, later finding more advanced models in Andres Segovia and Django Reinhardt.
After his father's early death in 1959, when Oliver was 11, his mother increasingly spent time in Donegal, Ireland, where she had holidayed as a child, eventually moving there permanently in 1970. Traditional Irish tunes became another ingredient in Oliver's mental music box.
The only guitar lesson Oliver ever took was from Julian Bream, who showed him a few blues and jazz licks, during a Christmas party with Britten and Pears in 1962.
At school, Oliver and his friends (including blues singer-guitarist Giles Hedley) shared a passionate love of blues and folk, mostly American. He came to the US at age 17, to study literature at Princeton University, where his father had worked for many years at the Institute For Advanced Study. In 1970 he moved to Canada to pursue post-graduate studies at the University of Toronto.
In 1978,Oliver moved to London, Ontario to take up an academic post at Western University. With the encouragement of some new friends there, he began to play and compose jazz for the first time, and formed the Oliver Whitehead Quintet (1983-1990), fronted by sax player Chris Robinson, to play original composition by him and pianist Patrick Dubois. Their first LP was encouragingly nominated for Best Jazz Album in Canada's Juno Award 1985. The quintet played twice at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, as well as other jazz fests in Detroit, Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver.
By 1997, Whitehead was incorporating more world music elements in his compositions, beginning with The Mass For All Creatures, a full length mass commissioned for a Blessing of the Animals ceremony, for child and adult choirs, and instrumentation that included African percussion and Celtic harp. The key players in that work went on to form The Antler River Project, which continues to play original jazz/world music compositions by Whitehead and pianist Steve Horowitz.
Whitehead wrote his first classical / art music piece--the oratorio We Shall Be Changed--in 1993, on commission from Pro Musica and Orchestra London Canada. That oratorio is based on the book Cosmic Consciousness by Richard Maurice Bucke, an early 20th-century psychiatrist and mystic who lived in London, Ontario. Other classical commissions followed, described in the list below.
Whitehead has never taught music. After completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, under Northrop Frye, he began in 1978 to teach English and Comparative Literature and Culture, at Western University in London, Ontario, and continued for the next 35 years. Although he started as a full-timer, he resigned in 1988, to take up year-to-year, part-time contracts at the university, to devote more time to music. Over the years, his teaching course load focused on Shakespeare, Foundations of Literature (Homer, Virgil the Bible, Renaissance) and Literature and Music; as well as general survey courses. The field of Comparative Literature allowed him the freedom to break traditional academic boundaries by incorporating all the art forms, especially music, in his courses.
Whitehead has been married since 1984 to Mary Malone, a journalist and communications project manager from Montreal. They have two daughters, Anne and Claire. He is a cryptic crossword addict.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license