Montreal Jazz Fest Shapes Surrounding City—and Vice Versa

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Last year, Montreal native Leonard Cohen was immortalized in a 20-story mural in the city’s downtown. Cohen’s image now stands out clearly on the skyline, sending a powerful message that art and music are foundational to Montreal’s identity.

The Montreal International Jazz Festival, which ran June 28-July 7, has shaped the city, too: The permanent complex of venues in the Quartier des Spectacles, established in 2003, partly evolved from festival events that have been held in the neighborhood since the early ’80s, when it was a red light district. Now, in its 39th year, few other large festivals feel as well integrated within their host cities. Montreal is a kind of framework upon which the event improvises, making it an ideal place to combine a love of music and travel. Visitors have a chance to play their own changes. For me this year, the sensation of cycling down the scenic Lachine Canal one afternoon carried into Zakir Hussein, Dave Holland and Chris Potter’s pulsing, transporting set that evening. Morning visits to Old Montreal’s gothic revival Notre-Dame Basilica and the Au Papier Japonais shop resonated that night in the jewel tones and fine filigree of Gretchen Parlato’s vocals.

The Montreal festival long has walked the razor’s edge in booking artistic integrity and commercial success with 50 percent corporate sponsorship. On my fifth festival visit—but my first since its 2013 sale to Groupe CH—I noticed a tilting in the direction of business interests. In the U.S. alone, serious fans now can find innovative, richly curated programs at festivals like Newport, Detroit and New York’s Winter Jazzfest. Montreal, meanwhile, seems to be trending toward more reflexive programming of packaged acts—for example, at a closing press conference, organizers said they green-lighted 2018’s misguided SLĀV production on the basis of singer Betty Bonifassi’s previous success at the festival.

The festival is nevertheless too big to fail, with about 500 free and paid shows offering a diverse mix of world music, pop, jazz and everything in between. Its sheer volume of jazz performances could convert any casual fan into a true believer, which is exactly what happened to my 16-year-old niece, Grace, this year.

Like many kids who’ve grown up with digital access to the world’s music bounty, Grace’s taste is omnivore and adaptable. With Grace along, my festival experience had less to do with my own aesthetic criteria than some other fundamental issues: Do the performers seem to enjoy performing? What feeling does this music give us? And with the city sweltering in a heat wave during the festival, how well air-conditioned is the venue?

Kamasi Washington’s ecstatic jazz funk would have slayed Grace, if his septet hadn’t been fighting sound issues that entrapped their authoritative solos like debris in a lava flow. Both of us loved Jose James’ Bill Withers project: Grace for James’ soulful vocals, and me for bassist Ben Williams and drummer Nate Smith’s astute balance of groove and invention, which brought forward the jazz in some of pop’s most recognizable and beloved songs.

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