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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 9

Jazz Festivals in Perspective

by Marc Chénard / June 1, 2002

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No other genre has been eulogized so often as jazz. From time to time we hear the old saw that 'jazz is dead', or that it just smells funny (as Frank Zappa once quipped). In spite of such gloomy pronouncements it keeps bouncing back, capable of creating new outfits cut from unfamiliar cloth or slipping into well-worn ones.

For all its notoriety, people remain unsure of just what jazz is. Save for some diehard nostalgics, there are about as many views on jazz as there are fans. For some it is unquestionably the Great Classical Music of America, a definition coined by the historian Grover Sales half a century or so ago. In contrast, noted jazz journalist Whitney Balliett has dubbed it the 'Sound of Surprise'. Between these two extremes, jazz unfolds on a daily basis, from the smallest holes-in-the-wall to the largest concert stages of major cultural institutions.

Although recordings have been for decades the prime delivery medium for the music, festivals have had a growing impact over the last quarter of a century. In Canada, for instance, there is a well-established jazz festival circuit which is unlike that of any other country (see listings). Given our climate, just about all festivals occur in the late spring and early summer. Because of these -- together with some public funds to support travel costs -- Canadian artists are now able to crisscross the country. What is more, name performers from the States and Europe can take part in the action as well. Not unlike free trade, music penetrates us from all parts of the world, sometimes in styles that have little connection with the musical raison d'être of these events.

Whether one likes it or not, the success (or 'popularity' if you will) of a jazz festival is not so much predicated on the music as how it reaches beyond that single label. The bigger the event is or wants to become, the further it has to stretch. Yet success cannot be measured only the scope and size of an event and its economic spin-offs. A jazz festival must also be mindful of its artistic ambitions. The secret then is for organizers to appeal to a mass audience through style (and flash, when needed) without glossing over the substance that music devotees ask for. If that were to go, then so does the festival's credibility as an event in which music is the driving force -- and not just a pretext for another summer street party.

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