The festival is focusing on the trumpet this year, so there's Arturo Sandoval, Paolo Fresu, Ingrid Jensen, Eric Truffaz, Joe Sullivan, Jeremy Pelt, Christian Scott and a tribute to Miles Davis, but that only hints at the depth of the programming and the distinctive vision that the festival brings to its booking.
In keeping with my belief in full disclosure, I must admit I played a small role in recommending the booking of pianist Ran Blake, who will bring his love of film noir to a special presentation of the music composed for Alfred Hitchcock's film I Confess, which was based in Quebec City.
Last fall, along with my DownBeat colleague John Murph, I spent several days enjoying the festival, and then reflecting on what makes the festival unique. Here's what I wrote:
Art and urban upheaval often intertwine, whether the setting is Berlin between the wars or New York City in the mid-‘70s. That artists are drawn to cities and neighborhoods where rents are cheap is no surprise, but the spark generated by these huddled innovators doesn’t always catch fire and change the entire face of a community.
In Quebec City, a city of 500,000 dominated by provincial government and tourism, a five-year-old jazz festival is the unlikely catalyst of a boom that has helped to transform the once-derelict district of Saint-Roch into the kind of burgeoning creative community that urban theorist Richard Florida sees as a key to sustainability.
|Festival president Gino Ste-Marie|
“It was a beautiful street in the ‘50s,” said Ste-Marie. “But they hid the architecture and made it a scary place. It was a desert. It broke my heart to see it like that.”
The city decided to remove the enclosure in 1998, but the damage had been done.
Ste-Marie pined for a time when Quebeckers believed that Saint-Joseph, with its dominant cathedral and broad sidewalks, could hold its own with ‘The Main’—Montreal’s storied Saint-Laurent Street. Early in the new millennium, he opened a jazz club and restaurant called Largo on Saint-Joseph, staking his future on the street’s recovery.
|The Saint-Roch cathedral|
Embracing the street, even while it was still stumbling back to its feet, he hung local art on the walls, encouraged restaurant patrons to hang around the neighborhood, and championed local musicians like bassist Guillaume Bouchard—a burly, bearded Mingus acolyte who had given up on music to drive a truck.
While Quebec City has a history of supporting artists who help keep shiploads of tourists happy (Cirque du Soleil grew out of a troupe of government-funded buskers who worked the broad plaza adjacent to the iconic Chateau Frontenac hotel) the city lacked a strong year-round music scene to serve residents. Jazz was almost non-existent through the ‘80s and ‘90s, despite the large number of artists just 300 miles away in Montreal. Some talented Quebec natives a generation older than Bouchard, like the extraordinary drummer Pierre Tanguay, had moved to Montreal, giving up on the idea of ever making a living in their hometown.
In 2006, Ste-Marie established a foundation to promote culture in Quebec City, raising funds through the sale of locally sourced bottled water, and launched his annual jazz festival.
“Jazz was dead here for 20 years,” he said. “And yet, Quebec has so many great artists. Beginning with Largo eight years ago, my mission has been to start with Quebec jazz, not just produce international names. The odd thing about Quebec is that it’s easier to produce a concert by (Montreal-based pianists) Lorraine Desmarais or Oliver Jones than an artist who is known around the world. So, my strategy is to start with a week of Quebec artists, then mix in internationally known names.
Just five years in, Ste-Marie and his youthful teammates Simon Couillard and Nicolas Marcil seem to be doing everything right.
By blanketing the city with creative music—and shining a bright light on Saint-Roch’s renaissance—they have accomplished something that other, more-seasoned festival producers view as a critical key to building a viable local base of artists.
|The Palais Montcalm is one of the festival's venues|
“It’s really important to galvanize a community in support of what you’re doing, with an eye toward creating a living neighborhood,” said Ken Pickering, a co-founder of the Vancouver Jazz Festival, who serves as the event’s artistic director. “Festivals like ours have been instrumental in bringing culture to neighborhoods.”
Northwest of Toronto, in the small, university-dominated city of Guelph, jazz festival director Ajay Heble has applied both the theory and the practice of community building through art. Since 1994, his annual post-Labor Day event has produced shows by artists including Han Bennink, Muhal Richard Abrams, Pauline Oliveros, Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman, at the same time as it has brought academics together to discuss the relation between improvised music and community.
“Improvisation is a powerful voice,” said Heble. “It’s a powerful model for how we get along as societies, and how we build sustainable communities. Music has a social role, and what we’ve done here is build a strong local audience for what might be perceived as challenging music.”
“I’ve always believed that a successful jazz festival has three responsibilities,” said Royston. “Present international artists who otherwise might not be seen in your area, provide a viable series of showcases for local artists, and offer free jazz education events that extend into the neighborhood within the overall community.”
Pickering added that those types of approaches will help see a festival through tough economic times. “We’ve lost 40 of our regular programming slots,” he said. “When that happens, you have to focus on essentials, be proactive and find new partners.”
For Ste-Marie, the key to continued success is following those principles. He has worked hard to position jazz as one of the art forms supported by Quebec City’s activist mayor, Régis Labeaume—who has poured $50 million into developing artists’ ateliers—and struck alliances with major hotels to draw people to the city in the shoulder season before winter. And, if harder times come, he’s convinced he has firm bedrock beneath him.
“It all comes back to our culture—Quebec culture. I’m radical about that. I’m pretty proud that we keep that front and center, no matter what. This city, this neighborhood, it’s my heart.”