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Adrian is photographing a bear in Alaska, 2019.

Interview: Jazz orchestra bandleader, wildlife photographer and ex-Shopify director Adrian Cho

By Bruce Burwell on January 13, 2020

In December we published a preview of the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra’s new season and talked to OJO bandleader, bassist Adrian Cho. Outside of the jazz world Adrian has worked in hi-tech for many years, written a book on the application of jazz to business, become a wildlife photographer and is now launching a wildlife photography training and travel enterprise. We chatted about how he balances his time across these multiple creative domains and how they all tie together.

The first thing I noticed when talking to Adrian was his Aussie accent. Since it was a cold winter’s day when we chatted, the first thing I asked about was why exactly he left Melbourne in 2000 for Ottawa. The answer will surprise you but you’ll need to wait till the end to find out what drew him here.

“I thought that I was going to be a professional trumpet player.”

Adrian started out his creative journey with jazz—but encountered an early challenge. “I was playing trumpet and I thought that I was going to be a professional trumpet player. I was in my final year at school and noticed that I couldn’t play as much. I would play for an hour and my lip would just get numb. So I went to a neurosurgeon and he said you’ve got to take a rest. And it could be for a long long time. And I thought – oh this is not good. Now fortunately I’d been playing piano but it was my second instrument and I wasn’t a great pianist. So I went to the Melbourne Conservatorium to study classical piano. And of course it was very difficult because I was up against these concert pianists who had been playing classical piano for years. And so I realized that this is going to be really difficult. And fortunately I had been always tinkering around with computers since I was young and written software so I decided to get into that in a big way.

His last full time gig was ‘Director of Getting Shit Done’ at Shopify.

Adrian spent many years working in hi-tech and is still consulting. His last full time gig was as ‘Director of Getting Shit Done’ at Shopify. No seriously, that was his title. As a jazz musician he could see the crossover between jazz and hi-tech work and even wrote a book on the subject called The Jazz Process.

In the past couple of years Adrian has spent the biggest chunk of his time on wildlife photography and reduced his hi-tech commitments. I asked him if he was now a professional photographer. “I guess the bottom line is this. When I thought at one stage I wanted to be a full time professional musician, my belief was that you can do something at a professional level, and play alongside other professionals and be considered equals to all of them, but you don’t have to be doing it 100% of the time. And the problem is if you do it 100% of the time, you potentially end up in situations where you end up doing things you don’t want to be doing. I have plenty of friends who are full-time photographers and they would like to be just out there photographing, let’s say wildlife, but instead they’re doing real estate photography, wedding photography and that sort of thing.”

Photo: Adrian Cho

“That’s a passion of mine.”

Adrian’s most recent venture combines teaching wildlife photography with conservation and travel. “The next thing I’m working on now is actually running trips to places to take people to show them some of the things that are going on. There’s a whole bad thing that’s happening now around ecotourism and you know, people taking selfies of tigers and all this stupid stuff. And the animals are chained and drugged and so I am trying to show photographers that they don’t have to do that kind of stuff. And in fact, if you are interested in the conservation work that’s going on, you can get access to animals behind the scenes who have been rescued. And you don’t have to pretend that they’re in the wild. You can be honest about where they are and you can have a really interesting experience and you don’t have to be exploiting animals. So that’s a passion of mine.”

So why did Adrian come to Ottawa from sunny Australia? Love? Education? A job? Nope. None of the above. And the reason echoes his deep love and respect for animals. Adrian had two Alaskan malamute dogs in Melbourne and felt that they needed to experience snow. “They had never seen snow. I tried to find places in Australia where I could take them with snow and there was no way you could go that wasn’t a national park.”

You can find out more about Adrian at his personal website. It has links to the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra site, his wildlife photography site and his new wildlife photography workshop site.