Born in Edinburgh, John Gourlay was educated at the Royal High School and the University of Edinburgh, then trained and worked as a teacher before spending three years at the University of York studying the music of Luciano Berio. As a lecturer at Glasgow Arts Centre (1983-92) he developed an interest in jazz education and, returning to school teaching, set up the Strathclyde Arts Centre Jazz Band and Workshop and tutored on the first National Youth Orchestra of Scotland jazz courses.