Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Here in Ottawa, you would be challenged to find a bigger civic booster than Ken Gray, a columnist, editorial writer and blogger for The Ottawa Citizen, a daily newspaper that was also my home as a columnist for 10 years. To his credit, Gray is always looking for ways that Canada's capital city could expand its horizons—methods that include playing host to major international sporting events and paying attention to urban theorist Richard Florida.

Gray is also a jazz fan, and he has taken to using his summer vacation days to immerse himself in the music at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival. This week, he's back at work and reflecting on 11 days spent inside the "Gold Tent"—the white vinyl enclosure that sits to the left of the festival's main stage in Confederation Park (that's it over my left shoulder in the YouTube video posted below). He focuses on the non-jazz activities inside what he calls a "crypt," which include people BlackBerry surfing, gourmet sandwich eating and chatting—anything but responding to the exhortations of Kenny Garrett to get up and dance.

I've spent my own time inside the "crypt"—both as a paying customer before being employed by the festival as a media consultant and during brief moments on the job—and can attest to Gray's observations that the people in there sometimes seem less interested in what's happening on the stage than in the latest memo their boss has emailed to them. But, where Gray is off base in his efforts to make Ottawans seem like hicks who need to get with the program and act like they live in a world-class city is in believing that concert-goers in other cities act differently. I've seen the same types of behaviour at jazz festivals in San Francisco, Vancouver, Montreal and, yes, New York City. In Spain, I've seen audience members at jazz concerts more excited by the pintxos they buy between acts than headline performances.

One of the best things about festivals is that they welcome all comers. During my 24 years observing Ottawa's jazz festival I've seen the same people over and over. Some of them bring a book to every concert. Some of them treat the concerts like background music as they unpack picnic baskets and sip wine from plastic cups. Some of them seem to lack any grace whatsoever (to the woman who held a loud conversation on her cellphone during the percussion workshop last week, may your BlackBerry be stolen). At least they are there, and hopefully repeated exposure will improve their appreciation.

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