Jazz Between The Festivals
September 1, 1999
Jazz Between The Festivals
by Philip Ehrensaft
Piano virtuoso Oliver Jones, who began taking classical music lessons when he was two years old (yes, two), has decided to play the last concert of his career at the Millennium New Year's Eve celebration organized by the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. His retirement marks not only the culmination of a distinguished career but also a transition in Montreal's role in the North American jazz scene.
Lights of Burgundy, the Jones' album that won the Juno award for jazz in 1986, refers to the African-Canadian neighborhood that was the source of Montreal's jazz scene. From the Swing Era through the 1950's, Montreal became a continental jazz hot spot. When the first Festival de Jazz de Montreal was presented twenty years ago, big name jazz players were visiting the city's clubs each weekend.
Then jazz clubs faced hard times all across the continent. People wondered whether jazz clubs could survive outside New York. Like Montreal, many cities eventually had two distinct jazz seasons: the brief cornucopia of its summer festival and the other 11.5 months featuring local talent in small venues and episodic concerts featuring big names. Because intimate contact between performers and audiences in the clubs brings out musicians' best efforts, this was unfortunate.
A welcome renaissance in the North American club scene emerged during the mid-1990's. Pride of place for jazz club renaissance in Montreal goes to Joel Giberovitch, the young jazz enthusiast whose hard work has made a success of Upstairs, the club which has featured a different first-class jazz ensemble every weekend since May 1995.
A major challenge facing Giberovitch and every other Canadian jazz club manager is the value of the Canadian dollar, which makes it increasingly prohibitive to bring in big-name American musicians. The two main Toronto clubs, the Top of the Senator and (ironically) the Montreal Bistro, now rely on an excellent pool of local talent or, occasionally, bring in a well-known American backed by a local rhythm section.
Montreal's Upstairs takes the same route. On November 5 and 6, Giberovitch has invited Tim Hagans, one of New York's top trumpeters and a bright light at this year's jazz festival, to play with a rhythm section chosen from a pool of excellent Montreal candidates.
Other classic North American jazz clubs are organized around permanent house bands. This may happen when first-class musicians consider life in New York and on the road as not worth the race. But these musicians have to be very good to keep audiences coming back week after week. Montreal's venerable jazz institution, Biddle's, is this kind of club. Charlie Biddle on bass, Richard Parris on sax, and the younger Wali Mohammed on drums play the solid straight-ahead jazz which blossomed in African-Canadian Montreal from the 1940s onward. For many jazz fans and younger musicians like Wynton Marsalis, this is what jazz is all about.
Oliver Jones was a mainstay at Biddle's during an earlier phase of his career. Even the seemingly unstoppable Biddle and Parris, together with other members of their cohort, will join Jones in retirement some day. As noted above, Jones's retirement represents not only a personal transition but a transition for jazz in Montreal as a whole, the end of the Little Burgundy era that has long been the source and inspiration for jazz in this city.
Two newer clubs have recently reinforced the Montreal jazz scene. Café Boomers is an exceedingly pleasant jazz supper club located in the old village section of Point St-Claire. Like Upstairs, Café Boomers features top Montreal talent and is well worth the drive to the West Island. The diminutive Jazzons has been flourishing at its Quartier Latin location at the corner of Ontario and Sanguinet. Jazzons features mainly its permanent house duo, bassist Skip Bey and pianist Tim Jackson. They are very good and obviously keep their audiences coming back for more. A third and long-established club in Vieux Montréal, L'Air du Temps, had focused on jazz fusion in recent years. Now the emphasis seems to have shifted to world music.
Beyond the club scene, concerts organized by the two national radio broadcasters offer some excellent opportunities for jazz audiences. Thanks to Radio Canada, there is a 10-day festival of Montreal jazz talent every October at La Maison de la Culture Frontenac, plus live broadcasts and taped concert and studio sessions throughout the year. CBC's jazz broadcasts follow a parallel route, often drawing on summer jazz festival concerts across the country.
Then there are the concerts presented by faculty at Montreal's universities and CÉGEPs. Although it is easy to envision a thriving jazz club based solely on rotating weekly performances by teachers in Montreal area jazz programs, there is a key dimension of contemporary jazz that is poorly represented in Montreal's music schools: the avant-garde. Fortunately this slack has been taken up by the informal college of adventurous musicians of the SuperMémé group. Saxophonist Jean Derome, bassist Normand Guilbeault, drummer Pierre Tanguay, and trombonist Tom Walsh are an endless sources of imaginative, world-class concerts and recordings.
Recording companies are essential to a flourishing local jazz scene. Outside of New York City, this means independent labels that can buck the trend of increasing domination by a few multinational corporations. Montreal has been blessed with one of the eminent success stories among North America's independent companies, Jim West's Justin Time label. This is the senior member of a constellation of Montreal-based recording companies that includes Lost Chart, Ambience Magnétique, DSM, New Jazz Records, and Effendi.
Oliver Jones's success in building an international career is intimately linked to his well-received recordings for Justin Time since the mid-1980s. Part of West's success story has been his prescience in identifying and recording young Canadian musicians such as D.D. Jackson and John Stetch who have proven themselves in the tough arena of jazz in the Big Apple. His roster now includes such top American musicians as the World Saxophone Quartet.