Washburn's early musical experience was wide-ranging and eclectic. As a teenager, he was a jazz bass player and band leader. At university, he became heavily involved in musical theatre, specifically acting, singing, conducting, and stage directing. He earned a choral conducting degree at the University of Illinois and proceeded to pursue musicological studies at Northwestern and the University of British Columbia.
Washburn quickly became involved in Baroque and Renaissance
music as a busy professional viola da gamba and violone
player with ensembles such as Hortulani Musicae, the Cecilian
Ensemble, L'Age d'Or Baroque Orchestra, and the Spokane
Bach Festival Orchestra. He was one of the founders of the
Vancouver Society for Early Music (now Early Music Vancouver)
and a long-time member of its management committee. As a
conductor of Baroque repertory, he has led over 300 performances
of more than 80 large works by composers such as Bach, Buxtehude,
Carissimi, Charpentier, Handel, Monteverdi, Pachelbel, Pergolesi,
Purcell, Scarlatti, Schutz, Telemann, and Vivaldi, as well
as numerous smaller works.
He has taught at the secondary, college, and university levels, including a temporary post as Artist-in-Residence at Simon Fraser University. Even his part-time jobs have been musical in orientation. He has hosted "Choral Concert" on the CBC Stereo network and has been employed as a music engraver and music librarian. For half a decade, he shared the artistic direction of Masterpiece Chamber Music with his wife, pianist Linda Lee Thomas.
Most of Jon Washburn's achievements, however, have been in the field of choral music. Foremost is the founding of the Vancouver Chamber Choir in 1971, for which, since its inception, he has provided its conducting and artistic direction. He was also artistic director for six years of the Phoenix Bach Choir, an American professional ensemble, and associated with several amateur ensembles, including Vancouver's Bach Choir and Willan Choir, Victoria's Amity Singers, and the early Jon Washburn Singers.
With his many choirs, Jon Washburn has consistently championed new choral repertoire: he has commissioned and premiered nearly 200 new works by Canadian, American, and European composers during his career. Washburn has conducted over 2,300 performances of 306 pieces by 105 Canadian composers with the Vancouver Chamber Choir alone, for which he received the Friends of Canadian Music Award from the Canadian League of Composers and the Canadian Music Centre. As an active composer, arranger, and editor, he has had many compositions published, performed, and recorded around the world, including Rise! Shine!, a Grouse Records CD of his choral works sung by the Vancouver Chamber Choir.
He has recorded with the Vancouver Chamber Choir, Phoenix Bach Choir, and various other ensembles for several labels, including EMI/Virgin Classics, Grouse Records, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), Naxos, and Centrediscs (Canadian Music Centre).
Each year Jon Washburn conducts approximately 50 concerts, broadcasts, and CD performances of twenty separate repertoires, in addition to many workshops for choral conductors, composers, students, and singers. He has appeared as guest conductor with groups such as the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (Tallinn), and prepared choruses for the Royal Swedish Chamber Orchestra, the Seoul Philharmonic, and the Boston Pops Orchestra.
He has worked with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra in over 75 concerts, broadcasts, and recordings, as well as with other ensembles such as the Baroque Strings of Vancouver, the Phoenix Chamber Orchestra, the Calgary, Edmonton, Nova Scotia, Phoenix, and Vancouver Symphony Orchestras.
In 2001 Mr. Washburn was named a Member of the Order of Canada (the nation's highest civilian honour) and in 2002 received Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee Medal for his lifetime contribution to Canadian choral art. Mr. Washburn received a Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors in the spring of 1996 and the Louis Botto Award from Chorus America in June 2000, in recognition of "innovative and entrepreneurial spirit in the development of a professional choral ensemble of exceptional quality." He was given the Friends of Canadian Music Award 2000 by the Canadian Music Centre (CMC) and the Canadian League of Composers in recognition of his outstanding contribution to Canadian composers' music. In the fall of 2009, he was named a CMC Ambassador and in 2010 received a star on the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame's Starwalk.
In 2012 Mr. Washburn received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. In June 2014 he received the Michael Korn Founders Award for Development of the Professional Choral Art, presented by Chorus America.