Many festivals and venues have begun to diversify their music in order to capture a larger audience. You can find examples across the country, starting with the Beaches Jazz Festival, which commonly hosts rock and reggae bands, to the Ottawa Blues Fest, which hosted Metallica just a few years back. Besides Buddy Guy probably spinning in his grave, attendance was great and the festival a success. But with so many jazz festivals going mainstream, true jazz music and culture is getting lost in what has become a new definition of jazz – often including world, R&B, soft pop and rock, and funk music. So is there still a home for true jazz fans, or are jazz festivals increasingly becoming unrepresentative of the music we know and like to call jazz?
Perhaps right off the bat we should acknowledge the festivals we already have, because there surely are benefits to mainstream jazzy fests. With a relatively small (and proportionately dwindling) jazz fan base, venues across the city would just not fill, counting on jazz fans alone. By targeting a larger audience, festivals are able to book smaller artists while riding the income from the packed tents and concert halls that serve as the festival’s main attractions. And hopefully someone who purchased tickets to see Aretha Franklin this year may be compelled to see Adam Rogers or Donny McCaslin at the Rex in a few months. Jazzy Fests give listeners the opportunity to get into the music, as superficial as that opportunity may be; kind of like giving your guitar-shredding buddy a Mike Stern or Chick Corea Elektric Band record to listen to. But for those of us who have long ago been converted, there is very little in place to represent the music and culture that has been lost in this diversification.
I began writing this piece a few days before the June issue of Downbeat hit my doorstep. Flipping through the pages, I landed on a small, half page article that probably passed most people by, entitled European Scene: Swedish Jazz Celebration sets the pace for national priorities.
The article looks at Sweden – one of the countries that has voted for financial support for the arts opposed to the cut-backs we’re accustomed to seeing in Canada and the States – and the kinds of initiatives being taken with the financial support devoted to the arts there. The focus is the Swedish Jazz Celebration, a ten-year-old festival put together by the Society of Swedish Composers to promote Swedish jazz abroad. The festival invites booking agents, festival organizers, label representatives, and journalists from around the world to check out Sweden’s stock of jazz players. Between the 30 groups and two full days of music, the festival provides opportunities and aims to open doors abroad for Swedish players.
And although our politicians’ priorities don’t necessarily lie in this direction, it is not only government money that makes this festival work, but also a set of some really great ideas! Every other year, the festival moves to a new location in Sweden, getting the attention of fans across the country. The festival is paid for in part by royalties off the recordings that are made of the performances, which are broadcast on European television stations. And perhaps best of all, it only lasts two days – a sort of miniature and manageable, undiluted, compact festival, flourishing within the confines of it’s own curious and devoted fan base.
New York is home to the world’s greatest jazz musicians, and at just a 10-hour drive away, it should provide Toronto with a rich pool of affordable artists for any jazz festival. Sure, maybe Bobby McFerrin is a write-off, but put any other gigging jazz musician on a bus to Toronto for a fully booked, two day stay, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most said yes. After all, for those looking to promote their latest record, I’m sure they’d rather have someone else schedule the Canadian tour altogether, rather than start sending the emails and dusting off the ol’ touring van themselves.
Every year in June, Toronto is host to the North by North-East (NxNE) music festival, and almost none of the bands playing are big enough to fill a room the size of the TD Jazz Festival’s main tent. The festival, like any other, naturally requires a boatload of press and buzz, as well as three to four opening acts to help sell out moderate capacity club venues. And due to the work that goes in each year, it succeeds in attracting the bulk of Toronto’s concert-going, indie-music-listening youth. Today, it has become probably the most renowned indie music festival in Canada.
And much like jazz music, this music is not necessarily for your average listener – ranging from reverby, shoegaze, stoner pop, to deafening, sweaty-mosh-pit, garage rock – but by promoting small clubs across the city, assembling smart bills of several supporting acts, selling inclusive passes to all shows for an affordable price, and creating buzz about some of the key acts to check out through social media and blogs, NxNE manages to succeed each year.
By putting on such festivals year after year, festival organizers develop a community and network of sponsors, media outlets, industry representatives, and volunteers who come back again and again, looking forward to the next exciting installment. I believe the community and network is there – for both jazz, as it is for indie rock – it’s just a matter of pooling and organizing everyone together into one, well-oiled machine.
And although adopting ideas from other festivals can help create a clearer image of success for jazz in some areas, don’t forget to consider some of the specific advantages in being a jazz musician. Clinics at Toronto’s jazz schools and one off private lessons can not only bring in additional work for performers, but can also work to develop the nighttime attractions into whole day events.
If a true jazz festival has no chance of selling out large venues, then it needs to be hosted in small clubs. And contrary to many people’s beliefs, Toronto has many – most of which have had to diversify their music to stay afloat, but who will more than gladly host a packed room of devoted jazz fans (don’t believe it? – read more about that in a previous article by clicking here). Between local players and University students alone, a Queen West or College strip of three to five clubs within walking distance of each other would quickly pack up on most weeknights. With creative bills, buzzing special guests, clinics and lessons during the day, and late night jam sessions, Toronto would be bustling with jazz fever – if just for a day or two.
I don’t yet want to say Purple Cabbage Jazz Fest 2012, but if anyone wants to beat us to it, you’ve got our full support!
The Purple Cabbage
P.S. Hats off to the Emmet Ray for hosting the first Emmet Ray Jazz Festival this month – a great lineup and a great time! More to come about that.