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The popularity of jazz festivals

Professor Terry Promane (right), renowned trombonist, with the jazz faculty's Alex Dean (photo by Richard Lu)

Jazz festivals are a common part of the summer scene. In Canada, there are major festivals devoted to the form in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, with many other smaller events. Professor Terry Promane, noted trombonist and director of U of T’s Jazz Studies program, explains what's behind the popularity of jazz festivals.

Today, jazz doesn’t have the hold it did 60 or so years ago. But we have all these festivals with huge corporate sponsors, jazz-only FM stations, a number of university and college programs. What’s going on?

I think it tends to be based around marketing. The success of jazz, at least with these festivals, is due to jazz hitching its wagon to derivatives of jazz. If you look at the largest festivals in the country – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver – a lot of the headline acts are pop acts or funk acts. And that’s where marketing comes in. People want to be associated with jazz, they like the feeling of jazz, they like the ideology of jazz, they just don’t like jazz! The problem with the jazz festival is that nobody wants to hear jazz. The festival and its organizers and sponsors need to generate a buzz so they need to get popular acts to pay for the jazz acts. That’s the way I’m looking at it.

There are some curious choices for headliners in these festivals, aren’t there?

I can’t get over Liza Minnelli at the Montreal festival. At last year’s Toronto festival, I played in Aretha Franklin’s band. She was a huge hit. Liza and Aretha are superb artists, legendary performers. But they are not jazz artists. Not by any means. But let me say this – I also played in Dee Dee Bridgewater’s band last year. Dee Dee is a jazz artist, one of the top jazz vocalists in the business. And you wouldn’t have been able to have Dee Dee at the festival without Aretha. Aretha draws them in and that enables Dee Dee to be there. One hand washes the other. That’s ok.

And there’s a fair amount of competition between these festivals, right?

Absolutely. As I say, it’s marketing. Toronto wants to outhip Montreal. Because they are taking their cues from the big daddy, the Montreux Festival, in Europe. Even Montreux booked the Rolling Stones in the ‘70s. So Montreal took that approach. Toronto was originally known as the more pure, straight ahead jazz festival. They weren’t bringing in hip hop and pop, they had Wayne Shorter and Michael Brecker, real jazz players.

Josh Grossman is the director of the Toronto festival and he was one of my students at U of T. He’s reinventing the face of the Toronto Festival. And he has to, with all the competition from big festivals here in Canada and in Detroit and New York and all over the US. So, from a pure marketing perspective, they need to differentiate somehow and draw an audience.

Still, there’s some great jazz to hear, isn’t there?

No question. But I wish our local musicians had a higher profile at the festival. This is a great jazz town. I was perusing the lineup and Toronto musicians are, for the most part, in very small venues and not really in mainstage situtations and if so, not at the best times – it’s noon or 5 pm, not the 9:30 pm slot. Is that bad or good? A bit of both. They are getting representation, just not to the widest market. And I wish the festivals represented all of jazz. It’s surprising to me that in a jazz festival that is hiring thousands of musicians that they’ve virtually erased early jazz, bebop jazz, and free jazz for the most part. There are a lot of people who play these types of jazz, but they’re not represented at the festivals. And I think the audience is there. But the music is just not deemed “cool.”

But the jazz studies and performance programs at universities and colleges are thriving. The U of T program has terrific alumni like David Braid, Tara Davidson and Anthony Michelli. And I’ve heard your student bands – these young people really get the music and they sure can play.

Most of the musicians you hear in various genres today have been educated at schools like U of T, the New England Conservatory, the New York schools or Humber College. When they go into a jazz program, they know they love the music and they also know they need to acquire key skills, the way a student chef needs to know how to slice an onion properly. There are certain classical skills you need, whether you’re a chef or a musician. For musicians, it’s how to treat a harmonic series, or how to behave as a musician. That’s why music schools are attractive to young people. Because in the end, the schools that give the most amount of freedom and the ability to learn those skills can draw great students.

At U of T, our program is so popular that we’re turning people away. For a genre that really has to battle in terms of recognition and record sales, we certainly have a lot of people interested in acquiring the skills of the jazz player. We pick people based on how they interact with other musicians and their skill level. You don’t have to necessarily be the best person on your instrument. We look to see if you can get along with people and can handle yourself on your instrument. And we have some pretty good alumni to prove we’ve got a great program.