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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 9

The Canadian Jazz Fest Bonanza

by Marc Chénard / June 5, 2004

On June 30, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (FIJM) will be pulling out all of its stops for its landmark 25th edition. Since its initial run on the first weekend of July in 1980, it has elevated itself to the major leagues of music happenings on the planet, since it is now one of two Canadian members of the International Association of Jazz Festivals (the other being Vancouver). On the national level, it has spawned a whole series of events of varying shapes and sizes, some of similar magnitude (Vancouver and Toronto), others much more modest (Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Rimouski).

Because our harsher climate makes it more difficult to stage these in either the early or latter parts of the year (unlike Europe, where there is almost no downtime for such activities), the festivals are confined to those few months of warmer weather we all yearn for. From the second half of spring until the latter part of summer, there are close to 20 jazz festivals happening, and more if one includes places like Victoriaville and its experimental music festival (FIMAV) or Toronto's Distillery Festival, both of which occur in the latter part of May.

The jazz festival as growth industry

In retrospect, there is no doubting the fact that jazz festivals can be considered the leading cultural growth industry in Canada. Press releases coming from the media offices of these events show that the festivals' impacts on local economies are invariably emphasized, a reality readily understood by public funding bodies and sponsors that keep these cultural infrastructures afloat.

In many ways, Canada's reality lies somewhere between Europe and our southern neighbour. Across the Atlantic, the state still remains the single strongest backer of cultural activities (a legacy of a centuries-old tradition instituted in feudal times). In the USA, the public sector has largely abdicated its responsibility in this regard, thus passing on the burden to an increasingly wealthy--but not necessarily more generous--private sector.

Nowadays, all levels of government in Canada usually support the festivals, either for tourism or, more pointedly, to enable our own musicians to tour the country, a practice virtually unheard of across the border. On the other side of the coin, one need not look any farther than the titles of today's festivals to see many of them displaying a corporate name in front of the event itself. Six of those listed in the national jazz calendar in this section are headed by a major financial institution, while a seventh has a provincial telephone company in its designation.

These sponsors certainly contribute to the visibility of festivals as social phenoma, but do they necessarily contribute to the visibility of the music, let alone its popularity? Curiously, as these events attract more people from year to year, statistics show that the market share for jazz in the record industry is shrinking to unprecendented levels. Should it not be the contrary?

On the one hand, interest in the music is like the events themselves: both are seasonal and have little carryover effect in the rest of the year; only a minority of these events bother to present shows year-round. Even Montreal's FIJM spent many years without presenting either local artists or touring musicians from the USA. However, in 2000, there was a sudden change of heart, which interestingly coincided with the appearance of the renegade Off Festival de Jazz, an offshoot event organized by local musicians no longer content to be given crumbs. But Montreal's case is not unique: Toronto is also home to two other festivals apart from its main one; Vancouver now has its Sweet Basil fest, staged by a separate organization from the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society. In Quebec, Montreal now sports a third summer fest, ensconced at the city's alternative music den par excellence, the Casa del Popolo. Even in distant Rimouski, a parallel festival to the official one set up shop last year. Clearly, the creation of alternative festivals can be viewed as a symptom of discontent within some music circles, but it is also the sign of the music's overall vitality.

The two-tier festival system

With this creation of a two-tier festival system, it becomes increasingly apparent that the long held perception of jazz as a kind of elitist music is being upheld, but in differing ways. Considering that ticket prices at the big events range from $25 to over $100, it is evident that accessibility is not guaranteed to the population at large. The average concert-goer is therefore likelier to choose the safe bet. In most cases, though, people just fall back on the grab bag of free outdoor shows where jazz gets lost in a wash of other styles.

Some out there may lament the days when jazz was played in smoky dives and was something underground and almost illicit, yet such spots have not entirely disappeared (though many venues have cleaned up their acts by adopting non-smoking policies). Whichever way one chooses to look at it, either retrospectively or prospectively, jazz was and still is a minority's music. But no matter how many times it has been turned inside out, proclaimed dead or even smelled funny, it has never lost any of its resilience and appeal to those willing enough to listen and challenge themselves at the same time.

En primeur !

Entrevue publique avec Louis Sclavis et Michel Portal

Suite à leur concert du 2 juillet dans le cadre du Festival international de jazz de Montréal, ces deux grands musiciens accordent une entrevue publique à notre journaliste Marc Chénard. Une période sera réservée aux questions du public.

Samedi le 3 juillet à 12 h

Théâtre La Chapelle

3700, rue St-Dominique, Montréal

Entrée gratuite.

Nombre de places limité.

Renseignements et réservations :

514 948.2520 jazz@scena.org

Présenté par La Scena Musicale en collaboration avec le Théâtre La Chapelle, Environnement électronique et Totem

(c) La Scena Musicale