Ménard Plans 40th Montreal Jazz Festival

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George Benson (left) accepts an award from André Ménard in 2010.

(Photo: ©Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, Frédérique Ménard-Aubin)

It’s a frigid mid-winter day in Montreal, but in his eighth-floor office, André Ménard’s mind is focused on the dates of June 27–July 6 as he puts the final touches on the last of the 40 summer jazz festivals he’s programmed in the city. Along with his business partner, Alain Simard—who is also retiring this year—Ménard has seen the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal grow from an event that attracted 12,000 people its first year to a musical behemoth that annually draws more than 2 million visitors to 500 concerts.

Launched in an era before jazz festivals were ubiquitous in North America, FIJM stands apart for two unique accomplishments: Ménard’s curation of the annual Invitation series—which has given free rein to the imaginations of featured artists like Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette—and its contribution to Montreal’s reputation as a prime tourist destination.

“The image that Montrealers had in their minds of their city as a very unhip place where nothing ever happens, I think that has been transformed in the last 40 years,” Ménard said. “And I’m very conscious that we’ve influenced other festivals in the city.”

In the late 1970s, Montreal was suffering a financial hangover from hosting the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, a venture that resulted in the city taking on more than $1 billion in debt. Disco music ruled most of the city’s nightclubs, and the city’s two founding cultures (the linguistic chasm that author Hugh MacLennan famously called the “two solitudes”) were split east and west by St. Laurent Boulevard. Anglos seldom ventured east of the street that was universally called “The Main,” and francophones predominated in the east end. The city’s biggest English-language musical stars—Leonard Cohen, Oscar Peterson and Paul Bley—had all left for greener pastures.

Ménard and Simard were, separately, gaining experience booking and promoting one-off concerts or small, regional tours by artists like John Lee Hooker. In 1975, Ménard quit college to focus on stage production at a small theater, and two years later he partnered with Simard to bring music into the El Casino club in the heart of the city. Early in their partnership, they reached the conclusion that the key to making money in a small venue was to diversify. So, they founded a video production company and struck up relationships with radio producers to broadcast concerts. By the time they moved across Ste. Catherine Street to open the Spectrum concert venue, their formula for success was firmly in place.

The programming at the Spectrum ran the gamut, from rock acts like Devo to adventurous jazz veterans like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and after an aborted attempt in 1979—which turned into just two concerts by Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett—in 1980 Ménard and Simard, along with two other partners, decided to launch their first jazz festival, featuring Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Ray Charles, Ramsey Lewis and others on the former site of the 1967 World’s Fair.

“In our first program booklet, it says we have somewhat larger ambitions for the future,” said Ménard, “but I can admit that we never had a vision of what it became. I could not foresee that we would take over an entire sector of the city or actually change the geography of Montreal.”

Looking back on a city that had been torn apart by cultural tensions, and wracked by terrorist mailbox bombings and fatal, politically charged kidnappings in the late ’60s and 1970s, Ménard acknowledges the legitimacy of the skepticism that his nascent festival could succeed by moving to the predominantly francophone St. Denis Street in 1982.

“There was a longing on the part of the public for something that would resemble a big party, and we happened to offer this in the form of the jazz festival,” Ménard said. “When we set up shop on St. Denis Street, we didn’t think, ‘Oh, we might miss out on the Anglos.’ It was our natural playground, because we had opened the St. Denis Theatre as a concert venue in 1978, so we just didn’t think of it. The bar owners in the area were very surprised that the Anglos would come in to hear music, and they liked the money that came with them. We never had any unrest; it was all very peaceful.”

The first year on St. Denis elevated the festival into the international jazz consciousness. While Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman and others filled the indoor theater to capacity, free concerts drew massive crowds to the street itself. It was impossible to wade through the throng filling three city blocks and not realize that FIJM was a hit.

The success of the 1982 festival flowed into the successive three events, to the point that it became clear that FIJM had outgrown St. Denis Street. In 1986, an expansion to a second main site, closer to the city’s core, signaled the festival’s widespread success, but it also triggered a rocky financial period.

“We were kind of twitching in financial terms,” Ménard said, “and we ended up with deficits. They were not very spectacular losses compared to what it costs today to put on the festival. But at the time, they were quite concerning. We had to go to the bank and sign our houses as a guarantee.”

But even the hardest-nosed banker in a glass tower in Montreal’s financial district could not miss what happened on July 4, 1989—an event that announced FIJM had evolved to a new level. Pat Metheny, a frequent act at the festival since 1981, was scheduled to play a free outdoor concert on Ste. Catherine Street.

“That concert really struck people’s minds about the hugeness of the festival,” Ménard recalled. “There were far too many people, and at that time our crowd control was not all that great. They were cramming in and cramming in, and I was thinking, ‘Shit, what if we lose control?’”

Was it 100,000 people? More? Ménard was too worried to count heads.

Meanwhile, among musicians, the festival was gaining the reputation as a great place to hang.

“Montreal is one of those festivals where, when you show up, you run into artist after artist,” said trumpeter Dave Douglas, who first played FIJM in 1987 as part of Horace Silver’s sextet. “Heroes, colleagues, new names: Everyone’s in the same space. It’s exhilarating, and I think that excitement makes for great music.”

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