After hockey season ends, Canadians apply their passion to another form of entertainment: jazz.
About 17 festivals run from now until mid-September, and while that's far fewer than in the States, Canada has polished the art of jazz-festival production to a gleam that is absent in all but a few U.S. events. Jazz festivals in Canada tend to be more inclusive and more varied, and they're less expensive, too, thanks not only to the weaker Canadian dollar but also to more generous government support. And with a better pipeline to European acts than U.S. festivals, combined with easy access to U.S. artists, Canadian festivals can present the best of two continents.
(Click herefor dates, locations and rosters of selected summer festivals.)
Renowned bassist Dave Holland is looking forward to playing host at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, which runs from June 29 to July 9.
"There is just such a laid-back atmosphere at the festival that it makes attaining your musical goals much easier," he says. "In some ways it's more fulfilling than anywhere else."
But all is not sanguine on the Canada jazz scene. Three years ago the government passed a law phasing out cigarette-company sponsorship of public events, and the ban becomes total this fall. The legislation almost killed one festival — Toronto's — and has caused others to scramble for new sponsors. Also, the government has reduced its own funding of festivals, which severely threatened the Ottawa Festival.
Cooperation Is Key
But the Canadian festivals' trump card may be a spirit of cooperation among all the presenters. Unlike U.S. festivals, which have traditionally operated under an every-festival-for-themselves philosophy, Canada's presenters gather in Victoria, British Columbia, every November and January to plot out the summer's events. WesCan, the association of Western Canada jazz presenters, further coordinates bookings among festivals ranging from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Calgary, Alberta, to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The cooperative spirit in Canada helps keeps costs down, as well as quality high, by maximizing artists' performance schedules.
"We kind of look at it as four or five weeks of jazz stretched out across Canada," said Catherine O'Grady of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival.
Montreal Jazz Festival Coordinator Christine Mitton said, "By us getting together far in advance of the summer, we are able to book our acts in concert with each other. This helps us share expenses, and it allows us to compete for the main-attraction type of talent. The economic gains made by forming coalitions such as these allow for adventurous bookings, since we also seem to share an appreciation of a certain type of improvised music that does not seem to sell in the States."
Though big, ambitious U.S. festivals such as the Bell Atlantic contradict Mitton's statement to an extent, some credit must go to Canada for revealing to the U.S. what is possible in presenting a jazz festival — namely, that challenging music and entertaining music are not mutually exclusive.
And that's one reason contingents of U.S. jazz fans head north every summer. Here's a look at some of the best festivals Canada has to offer:
Victoriaville Attracts Jazz's Cutting Edge
Surprise, discovery and the international flavor of improvised music are the main ingredients at the 17th annual Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec.
The lineup for the festival running Thursday through Monday features some of the most famous names in jazz's cutting edge. The headlining group on opening night is the 11-member Orchestra From Atlantic Canada, led by saxophonist and composer Paul Cram. Friday, the 11 virtuoso-clowns in Amsterdam's Willem Breuker Kollektief will accompany screenings of Johan Van der Keuken films.
Monday, avant-garde icon Cecil Taylor sets up at the piano, and his acolyte, pianist Marilyn Crispell, performs on the same bill.
"I've loved playing Victoriaville. It's really quiet, kind of mellow, and the bands they book are great," said Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark, who, like Taylor, has won a MacArthur "genius" grant.
Another attraction of the Festival International is its extremely rustic setting, just a short walk from some beautiful Eastern Canadian forests.
Vancouver Fest Matches Popular With Obscure
One of the most creative and international of all North American festivals, the du Maurier International Jazz Festival in Vancouver delivers a wide array of talent over 10 days. The music is spread out among 19 concert stages and 17 clubs.
Running from June 23 to July 2, the festival always strikes a good balance between big-name acts and talent deserving wider recognition. For example, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis will bring in the crowds June 27 at the posh Orpheum Theater, but adventure seekers can catch volcanic German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on June 25.
This year's festival seems to be inundated with Swedish artists, including pianist Bobo Stenson, who plays on June 26–27, and the AALY Trio, who perform on June 24–25. Formed by drummer Kjell Nordeson and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, AALY is named after the Art Ensemble of Chicago tune "Lebert Aaly," which paid tribute to radical saxophonist Albert Ayler.
"We really feel that our festival presents players from around the globe. Some famous, some not — we will present as wide a range of music and musicians as possible," said festival Artistic Director Ken Pickering. While playing one of his many gigs at the festival last year, trumpeter Dave Douglas said, "We thought Montreal was the best festival. We were wrong. It's in Vancouver."
Toronto's Downtown Fest Back From Dead
Running over the same time period as the Vancouver Festival is the du Maurier Downtown Jazz Festival in Toronto. The event will now live in infamy because of its near-death experience in March, when director Patrick Taylor announced the festival's cancellation after the du Maurier tobacco company drastically reduced its financial commitment in response to the country's anti-tobacco legislation. But Toronto's mayor talked du Maurier into reversing its decision, and the show was back on.
"That was a close call," Taylor said.
A bit wounded, the festival enters its 14th season. Taylor is particularly proud that pianist George Shearing is playing a three-night run June 29 to July 1 at the intimate Montreal Bistro in downtown Toronto.
"George has worked with us over the years and loves to be back playing in a club atmosphere," Taylor said.
Other headliners are drummer Elvin Jones, guitarist Al DiMeola and singer Dianne Reeves. Artists from the Caribbean, France, Sweden, Germany and Italy are performing, and the festival will close a stretch of Toronto streets for a celebration of Louisiana music.
But the Toronto festival now must find a new sponsor, or sponsors, because du Maurier will be out of the picture after this year.
Montreal: 'The Best Festival In The World'
Quebec is part European charm, part North American efficiency, part splendiferous nature. Add to this stew the French-Canadian bohemian culture and you've got a party. Throw in jazz, and it's the Montreal International Jazz Festival — the big daddy of Canada festivals.
After faltering last year with a lackluster lineup, the festival is back on track for its 21st edition in 2000.
''This festival is really solidly based," said Katie Malloch, host of CBC Radio's Jazz Beat program. "They have several feet in several camps, with a special pass if you're a real jazz fan."
Guitarist Pat Metheny once called the Montreal affair "the best festival in the world."
A highlight of this year's festival, which runs from June 28 to July 9, is undoubtedly the Invitation series at the Monument National. Bassist Holland is this year's host, and he'll be performing with such guests as pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Jack DeJohnette and guitarist John Abercrombie in addition to his own quintet and a big band.
Holland also shares a gig with the tasteful Jim Hall on guitar, who follows with a solo concert, then is joined by saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Kenny Barron and saxophonist Greg Osby in separate gigs. Lovano's 1996 album, Celebrating Sinatra, contains the tune "One for My Baby" (RealAudio excerpt).
In general, the festival is a combination of older masters and younger innovators. Trumpeter Douglas comes in with his sextet on July 7 at the Spectrum, saxophonist John Zorn and his Masada group play the same day at Theatre Maisonneuve and pianist Brad Mehldau performs in a trio July 1 at the Spectrum and solo July 2 at Theatre du Gesu.
The veterans include Ray Charles at the Molson Centre on July 6, drummer Max Roach and pianist Mal Waldron in a duo at Theatre Maisonneuve on July 5 and bassist Ray Brown with young hotshot guitarist Russell Malone and others at Theatre Maisonneuve on July 2.
Need a break from jazz? The Montreal festival's DJ series is back for the second year with an intelligent and enticing late-night lineup at Club Soda. From Japan, electronic jazz-pop outfit UFO will make a rare appearance, as will DJ/producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, better known as Fantastic Plastic Machine. Legendary U.S. hip-hop producer Prince Paul will perform a DJ set, as will instrumental hip-hop producer George Evelyn, a.k.a. DJ Ease of Nightmares on Wax.
Like several other Canada festivals, Montreal's has been threatened by the loss of tobacco sponsorship. But the Montreal Festival has found a new main sponsor: General Motors, which has committed $8 million over the next five years.
''It is the first time in the history of the festival we've had stability for a five-year period,'' said festival President Alain Simard. ''The longest contract we had with du Maurier was for three years. For a few years now we've had a sword hanging over our heads."
Ottawa Fest Now A Respected Player
Ironically, the festival that sets up in Canada's capital — the Ottawa International Jazz Festival — almost died a few years ago because of reduced government funding. But the show found sponsors, and now it's a respected player on the world jazz scene.
Running from July 14–23, the festival is presenting tenor titan Lovano, who performs with his 52nd Street Themes nonet on July 14. Trumpeter Terrence Blanchard brings his group with drummer Eric Harland in on July 20, while saxophonist Branford Marsalis performs with a quartet July 22.
Presenting Wynton Marsalis last year "put the festival on the map,'' O'Grady said. An estimated 10,000 people jammed Confederation Park to see Marsalis' outdoor concert. O'Grady said the event was very risky because ''we could have lost everything with a rain cloud.'' She added that getting jazz fans to pay to see music in the nation's capital was a hard sell.
"Folks took a while before coming around to supporting this music." With the end of tobacco sponsorships looming, Canada's festivals will be looking for increased government support. According to John Orysik, director of marketing and promotions for the Vancouver festival, the producers who now meet informally to coordinate bookings plan to form an official organization.
"The group will be called Jazz Festivals Canada," Orysik said. "It would in effect be a lobbying force, which would address the overall concept of countrywide festivals, rather than going for financial help in a piecemeal fashion."