Monday, January 07, 2013

Jacques Emond, Death of a Jazz Hero


Note: My longtime friend Jacques Emond, former programming director for the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, died Sunday night after suffering a stroke the previous day.

Almost everywhere I’ve ventured in the global jazz community I’ve found them: obsessed, lifelong fans of the music with encyclopedic knowledge, massive collections of recordings, and a thousand stories—either firsthand or many times retold. Some, like broadcaster Phil Schaap, have turned their obsessions into high-profile careers; most you’ve never heard of.

Jacques and I at a CKCU-FM reunion
What separated Jacques Emond from almost all the other jazz savants—public and private—I’ve met is that he never flaunted his knowledge, never made anyone feel that he possessed something someone else lacked. If he could share his enthusiasm for something he’d heard or some new artist he’d discovered, he was happy. His love of the music was absolutely selfless.

A short, shy, career public servant, Jacques never stood out in a crowd.

Maybe that’s the reason the guys from Duke Ellington’s band—road-hardened lifers like Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney—felt comfortable hanging with Jacques when the group swung through West Quebec. His easy-going persona permitted him to blend in, even though, as a non-drinking, francophone, government worker he was as far removed from musicians like Hodges and Carney as possible.

That low-key demeanor didn’t make him an obvious choice when Joe Reilly, then the executive director of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, Don Lahey, Joe’s predecessor, and me, then the president of the festival’s board of directors, met to determine who we could approach to introduce acts from the stage in 1988. We needed a bilingual person, and we knew Jacques as a festival volunteer and as the host of a big band-oriented program on CKCU-FM, where we also volunteered.

Despite his quiet manner, Jacques was our choice, and though initially reluctant, he quickly became the face of the festival for many audience members. In time, as Reilly, Lahey and I stepped out, Jacques also became the driving force behind the festival’s musical personality. Booked by committee during its formative years, by 1990 programming the festival was his sole domain. What’s more, through his longevity in his position (he retired as full-time programming director in 2010) he helped shape the Canadian jazz scene in a very tangible way.

He accomplished this in two ways: one, he had enormous ears; and two, he was a great money manager.

Although his main personal love was the slick, richly harmonic sound of West Coast big bands (oh, he loved Woody Herman!) he was open to a wide range of music. New things excited him. Young artists encouraged him that his beloved art form would continue to flourish. Add that to the fact that he took his fiduciary responsibility to the always-cash-strapped festival very seriously, and you had a formula for him introducing Ottawa audiences to some bright, young artists eager to make their mark on a foreign stage. As a result, musicians like Dave Douglas—several years prior to his breakthrough victories in critics’ polls—received their first Canadian headline billing thanks to Jacques.

Those two traits combined with one other—a total lack of artifice—to create some memorable onstage introductions; the kind of idiosyncratic emcee quirks that endeared him to audience members. “I love this guy’s playing,” he’d tell seven or eight thousand people gathered at the Confederation Park mainstage. “I’ve been trying to book him for a couple of years, and we’ve finally got him. Jeez, it cost a lot of money, too.”

You had to love him for honesty and unbridled enthusiasm like that.

Jacques and C├ęcile Emond
at the Jazz Heroes event
Some health problems slowed him visibly in the decade prior to his retirement, but his enthusiasm for what he was hearing never faltered. During two recent summers when I served as the festival’s media relations specialist, the highlight of my day would usually be when Jacques stepped into my onsite trailer—always dapper regardless of the stifling heat and humidity—and shared some story of his latest trip to California or a long-past musical hero. There was always a tone of wonder in his voice, as if he still couldn’t quite believe that he had found his way into this world of music that gave him so much joy.

Last June, the Jazz Journalists Association asked my colleague Peter Hum and I to organize a social event to honour Jacques as one of a number of local Jazz Heroes across North America. This was hardly the most prestigious of Jacques’ honours—in fact, he had recently been appointed a Chevalier in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres—but his gratitude and humility about our small tribute was notable. Weeks later, when I ran into him at the festival, he was still beaming about that night. That was the last time I saw him.

Yes, you will find people as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about jazz just about everywhere you go, but one other thing I find in the jazz community as I travel: Musicians and others constantly ask me if I know Jacques Emond. He had that kind of impact.

2 comments:

Robert Fontaine said...

Lovely James, you have captured something of his positive presence and joyful spirit.

His contribution to both the local and national jazz scenes cannot be overestimated.

Robert Cross said...

What a wonderful tribute. Jacques was a special man and a wonderful friend. We will all miss him. Rest in peace Jacques, you deserve it. Rob Cross, Ottawa, Canada