[First published in Vacay.ca on June 30, 2013]
MONTREAL, QUEBEC — In a city that very well may be the festival capital of North America, the annual event that started on Friday night stands above the rest. It’s not that the Montreal Jazz Fest’s lineup features the biggest names in music — the superb Osheaga festival that runs August 2-4 this year has a more star-studded roster — or the most unique venues and program.
The Jazz Fest remains worthy of reverence for the same reason any great event or attraction would. It has built up years, 34 of them, of credibility and notoriety. Its 25th anniversary edition in 2004 drew 250,000 people for its finale, a Cirque du Soleilperformance that celebrated that circus troupe’s 20th year, and earned the event a Guinness Book of World Records‘ mark for largest jazz festival on the planet. Since Ray Charles headlined the first edition in 1980, the Montreal Jazz Fest has grown into a calendar event, an annual occasion that your mind makes note of every June. You know the Montreal Jazz Fest means something, just like you know theToronto International Film Festival or Tour de France or Rio Carnival mean something, even if you’ve never been.
What the Jazz Fest means to Montreal is approximately $125 million in economic impact each year. It employs 2,500 people during its 10-day run and attracts more than 1 million people, roughly a third of them from outside of the metropolitan area. It is also traditionally considered the event that kicks off festival season in Montreal, a city that rolls out good times like no other North American centre other than New Orleans. Following the Jazz Fest is the Just for Laughs comedy festival, the delightful Circus Festival, Osheaga, the underrated Reggae Fest that’s in its 10th year, Pop Montreal, a world film festival, and on and on right into the new year when the 30-year-old Snow Fest and IglooFest, billed as “the world’s coldest rave,” serve as opening acts to the Montreal en Lumière Festival that fills the cold winter nights with dance, song, and plenty of cups of hot chocolate, many of them spiked.
While the likes of Charles and Stevie Wonder have opened the festival, the event for the past two years has featured Canadian talent on the first night. Rufus Wainwright kicked things off in 2012 and this year’s edition starred Feist, who played a free show for more than 100,000 people in Places des Festivals, a square outside of the Contemporary Museum of Art and the concert hall, Place des Arts.
Feist is one of those artists who isn’t considered a jazz musician but nonetheless finds a place on the bill, and as the headliner. A Torontonian whose alternative rock as a solo artist and member of Broken Social Scene have garnered global acclaim, Feist showed a jazzy side to her performance, a nearly 90-minute show that featured elegant guitar work on songs that can range from Carole King tender to Patti Smithraw. Years ago, jazz and blues festivals everywhere shifted to booking artists with broad appeal, even if they didn’t fit the genre. The strategy might help draw attention to jazz and blues musicians on the bill who don’t make nearly as much money or headlines as rock and pop stars. More than anything, however, including popular artists helps attract media attention and that helps to sell tickets to many shows and to maintain the buzz.
“We have more than 200 media from outside of the country and more than 200 from other parts of Canada. That helps to get the word out. The festival gets a lot of attention from everywhere,” says André Ménard, a co-founder of the fest and music promoter who has built a dream job for himself. “You would have to be a megalomaniac to think you would be able to grow something of this stature when we started. But it grew steadily, organically, right from the beginning.”
By its fifth year, Ménard says the festival was a global event, with international media arriving and taking word back to their homes of Montreal and its vibrant music scene. Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald were among the performers who helped the event build its reputation and spawn a following.
“The Montreal Jazz Fest and Festival d’Ete in Quebec City are the two that are pretty special for a musician,” says Sarah Slean, who played at Club Soda on Saturday night, along with a string orchestra. “Any time anything is held in Quebec, you just know it’s going to be done well. They have a knack for putting on a great show.”
Ménard says there are many people in government and in private business who see the festival’s importance as a cultural event, an economic driver and a symbol of the city. “There are a lot of people who want this festival to succeed and to remain going,” he says.
With 2014 marking the 35th anniversary, he understands expectations will be exceptionally high. Although he says he is dreaming of a massive series of headliners, he understands more than most the difficulty of booking a roster of A-list musicians.
“Programming a festival is an exercise in disillusionment, I’ve learned. You’re not going to be able to line up every musician you want because of their schedules and other logistics,” he says.
Still, he is hoping to somehow top the 30th anniversary’s opening-night concert, a free show by Stevie Wonder.
“Each time we pass a five-year landmark, we know it will be something special,” he says. “Everyone’s expectation is it will be something big for the 35th year.”