Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Festival Blooms In Quebec City

On the eve of summer, and the attendant launch of jazz festival season across Canada and the United States, one of my favourite festivals—the Quebec City Jazz Festival—has just announced its 2012 lineup, and it's beauty for an event that is just a few years old.

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
Festival president Gino Ste-Marie remembers Saint-Roch before it was on the radar of the New York Times’ travel writers. Hoping to draw tourists westward from Quebec City’s quaint 17th-century shopping area that has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the ‘70s the city built a weatherproof enclosure over Saint-Joseph Street, which runs through the center of Saint-Roch. Unfortunately, the renewal project attracted far more prostitutes and drug dealers than tourists.

“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
“It was a freaking operation,” he said, “a big dice throw.”

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
“Good music begets more good music,” said Bill Royston, who recently retired after eight years as the head of the Portland Jazz Festival. Having previously organized successful festivals in Pennsylvania (including the Clifford Brown, Berks and Penn’s Landing jazz festivals) he said: “Partnerships both within and outside the community are very important for the survival of a jazz festival and related events. Externally, cultural tourism efforts represent some of the most pivotal efforts to reach new audiences.”

“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, RĂ©gis 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.”

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Heat Is On

In the dead of winter, especially in the dead of a winter in Eastern Ontario, it can seem like a long time between jazz festivals. But, now, with the temperature in the high 20s (Celsius) and rising, comes the most-anticipated week in the whole year.

This year, I'm starting my jazz festival celebration early by emceeing an event to honour the man who booked the Ottawa International Jazz Festival for many years: Jacques Emond. Tonight, Jacques will be receiving the Jazz Journalists Association JAZZ HERO award in conjunction with this year's Jazz Awards, which will be held in New York City later this week. As a concert promoter and radio host, Jacques has been a tireless champion of jazz for decades; the kind of local hero who exists in communities throughout North America. The JJA—and hopefully a few dozen friends here in Ottawa—are delighted to give him a little recognition, and encourage others to give a word of thanks to all those other heroes out there who keep jazz alive at the community level.

On Thursday, a double bill of blues journeymen John Mayall and Robert Cray kicks off this year's edition of the Ottawa jazz fest, which promises a number of highlights.

I'm particularly looking forward to the new quintet co-led by Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano, which I'll be reviewing for DownBeat's digital service. Inspired by their time working together in the SF JAZZ Collective, the band has its debut in Kingston next week before coming to Ottawa. It then hits the European festival circuit prior to its U.S. debut at the Newport Jazz Festival.

As excited as I am about catching early shows by this new group, it means I'll be missing what might just be the overall highlight for many people at this year's event: an all-star group led by the great New Orleans songwriter Allen Toussaint, featuring Christian Scott, Don Byron and Marc Ribot. I'm predicting that this is the show people will be buzzing about after the festival.

I know I've said this before about the Ottawa festival, but this is a particularly great year for catching some of jazz's best drummers. A short list: Eric Harland, Joey Baron, Brian Blade, Tom Rainey and Jack DeJohnette.

There's no shortage of great guitarists, either: Kevin Eubanks, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Pete McCann.