At the age of 17, award-winning jazz drummer Oliver Fentum seems to know just where he’s going.
His itinerary is definitely set for the next school year, at least – from September to May (his Grade 12 year) Fentum will be in Michigan at the Interlochen Arts Academy/Arts Boarding School, part of the internationally-renowned Interlochen Centre for the Arts.
Not only did the White Rock resident win admission to the prestigious school (whose alumni include such Grammy-winning singers as Norah Jones and Josh Groban, and jazz artists such as trumpeter Byron Stripling, violinist Regina Carter, saxophonist Bob Mintzer and one of Fentum’s idols, drummer Peter Erskine), he also won a scholarship that will pay a significant portion of his tuition and expenses.
Locals may recognize him best as the capable and versatile young musician who often sat in as house drummer – pre- COVID-19 – at the West Beach Bar & Grill’s Sunday Night Jam sessions hosted by Sami Ghawi of Fusion Presents.
For the last three years Fentum has been in the jazz program at Semiahmoo Secondary, studying under the direction of Dagan Lowe. In 2019 he won a scholarship to the Blaine Harbour Music Camp and in the 2020 Surrey Schools Jazz Festival’s junior division, he won best drummer honours and the ensemble he led won best combo.
Nor is winning awards and scholarships new to the Ontario-born Fentum – before moving to the West Coast with his mom, Anita Nielsen, and older brother Mason in 2018, he won the Music Award of Merit from Queen Victoria Public School in Ontario and scholarships to Music by the Lake and National Music Camp at Camp Wahanowin in Orillia.
But he was still surprised when he received the news about Interlochen a couple of weeks back while on a family vacation in Kelowna. Appropriately enough, he was told by his mom – Fentum credits her with researching scholarships and schools and encouraging him to submit applications and audition tapes.
“She’s always been there for everything I really wanted to go for – she’s always been there 110 per cent,” he said, adding that he’s always had the support of his brother, a guitar player, too.
“When he heard about Interlochen and the scholarship he said, ‘Wow – they must really want you,’” Fentum said.
“It’s really a blessing to have such support from my family,” he said, noting that they are all quite musical themselves.
“I know many kids aren’t so lucky.”
Probably the most excited of all, he said, is his father, rock drummer Trevor Fentum, who still lives in Toronto where he leads his own band.
“My dad is over the moon about this – he’s so proud,” he said.
Fentum acknowledges that his first inspiration came from his father – he was going out to his dad’s gigs at a very early age, he recalled.
“The story is when I was very young, maybe five or six years old I fell asleep behind his drum kit while he was playing,” he chuckled. “I was so comfortable with the sound of the drums it didn’t faze me at all.”
When he was 10 or 11 and playing a lot of sports – he’s still very keen on racquet sports like tennis, as well as weightlifting and body building – Fentum decided he’d like to pursue music as well.
While an early interest in the saxophone, and some study of bass, has informed his playing and concept of how ensembles work together, it was clear that his major gifts lay in playing drums – and frequent listening to jazz recordings by such favourites as Alvin Jones, Dave Weckl and Steve Gadd helped him realize that he wanted to be a jazz drummer most of all.
Coming to the White Rock-South Surrey community where his mom grew up, it was a natural for him to go to Semiahmoo Secondary and get into the jazz program there.
“It was great opportunity to push through and meet like-minded people,” Fentum said, adding that he has benefited from working with Lowe.
“He’s a great band teacher,” he said. “He really challenged me.”
Participating in the West Beach Bar & Grill jams was also exhilarating, he said, because it gave him a chance to prove his versatility in accompanying all genres – and, in the process, won him much-valued recognition from older and much more experienced musicians, including Ghawi.
He’s very excited for the year ahead at Interlochen, he said.
“I’m hoping to learn more about my instrument – but also what it means to be musician and how to play with other people.”
As passionate as Fentum is about jazz drumming, he has another major interest that may also become a future study and career goal – architecture.
“It’s one of my biggest passions right now,” he acknowledged. “I love drawing buildings and I have several coffee-table books on modern design.
“If it’s possible, some day I would love to become known as a musician/architect.”