Montreal’s Inaugural Saint-Henri Jazz Society Festival Sells Out

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​New York saxophonist Nicole Glover (right) and Montreal pianist Taurey Butler on stage during the inaugural Saint-Henri Jazz Week.

(Photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Spring sprouted a brand new jazz initiative in Montreal this year: the Saint-Henri Jazz Week, presented in the borough that is the birthplace of Montreal jazz giants Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones, and focusing on local talent, with the expressed intention of fostering community spirit.

This inaugural festival (held May 3–8) featured a diverse program and a variety of activities: local jazz duos playing outdoors every noon on Notre Dame Street; the Wine & Vinyl listening series, pairing jazz albums with local wines; a historical cultural event in the form of a roundtable with distinguished panelists discussing the history of jazz in Montreal; a concert series showcasing New York artists Jeremy Pelt, Nicole Glover and Billy Drummond, who performed alongside leading players on the Canadian jazz scene and offered master classes. From 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. every night, local musicians took the stage for a late show, followed by a spirited jam session, free of charge and open to all.

The festival is an offshoot of the Saint-Henri Jazz Society, a non-profit organization “dedicated to preserving living jazz within Saint-Henri and its immediate surroundings,” and ensuring its evolution. Established by Montreal jazz artists Sam Kirmayer, Valérie Lacombe and André White, the SJSH “aims to balance respect for jazz heritage with a desire to innovate and broaden traditional musical limits. It values artistic excellence, inclusive practices, community spirit and initiatives that seek to make jazz accessible to the largest number of people.”

Choosing Saint Henri to stage the festival had a lot to do with the history of the neighborhood, Kirmayer told DownBeat. The guitarist and composer, who also teaches jazz history at Concordia University, went on to explain, “This is where Oscar Peterson grew up; in fact, the South-West borough, which encompasses Saint-Henri and Little Burgundy, was where Montreal’s Black Anglophone community was primarily located, and so it’s really the birthplace of jazz in Montreal.”

The distinction between the neighborhoods is relatively new; the name Little Burgundy appeared only after the gentrification of the neighborhood in the 1960s, resulting in the exodus of a large portion of the Black community. “When we talk about bringing jazz back to the South-West, we mean recognizing and honoring that history, and reconnecting the music with its roots as a community practice, something that brings neighbors together, and is woven into the fabric of daily life in the neighborhood,” Kirmayer said.

How did it all get started? “Jazz isn’t just a commodity,” Kirmayer said. “The relationship with the music, among musicians, and for the audience, can be more than transactional. It all comes back to community. We’re hoping to build something where musicians, fans and neighbors all feel part of a greater whole, where the history is celebrated and respected, and where there’s a genuine interest in passing on knowledge and keeping the art form alive.”

The special roundtable was a rare and fascinating opportunity to listen to leading figures who played a vital role in developing jazz in Montreal, and are keeping the tradition alive. Panelists included “Miss Swing” Ethel Bruneau (age 72), pianist Oliver Jones (87), community organizer Michael P. Farkas and Modibo Keita, a young multidisciplinary artist and music entrepreneur. The discussion sparked questions from the audience, palpably excited about the opportunity to listen, interact and ask questions, making this exchange a meaningful social and cultural event. The rare historical moment was documented for posterity.

Another unique offering was the Wine & Vinyl listening series, taking place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at a neighborhood gallery. Local jazz musicians shared appreciation of their favorite jazz album with keen listeners in a laid-back setting, paired with a local wine presented by a sommelier. Bassist Adrian Vedady chose Thelonious Monk’s Criss-Cross (1963); it was a unique experience, sitting in a room with fellow jazz lovers, discussing impressions of the music in the “intermission” between Side A and Side B.

The headlining concerts were all captivating, thanks not only to the leaders’ immense talent, but that of the supporting cast. Each artist performed four sets over the course of two nights, with leading players on the Canadian jazz scene, such as Christine Jensen and Kevin Dean.

What guided this programming decision? “Montreal is so close to New York, but the scenes are oddly disconnected,” Kirmayer explained. “It’s easy to feel isolated, as there aren’t many opportunities for exchange with American musicians.”

This hasn’t always been the case, he said. “There used to be a steady flow of established artists and masters coming into town, supported by a local rhythm section. That dynamic helped form many of the musicians who are now pillars of our local scene. So in inviting guests to come up as singles, we were aiming to reproduce that experience, to offer opportunities to young players, and to elevate the local scene.” The bands were also intentionally diverse and intergenerational.

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt kicked off the New York concert series with Oakland drummer Derrell Green (currently a faculty member at McGill University), the up-and-coming North Carolina native and current Montrealer Leighton Harrell on bass, stellar saxophonist Christine Jensen and gifted pianist Gentiane MG. Pelt spoke of the healing power of music, dazzling through the shifting dynamics of his own compositions (“Baswald’s Place,” “Nephthys”), Hank Mobley’s “If I Should Lose You” and Lucky Thompson’s “While You Are Gone.” The beautiful, synergistic interplay between the two horns reached peak heights on the leader’s “Sage,” his piercing trumpet and Jensen’s urgency matched by Green’s propulsive drumming.

Introducing “Cry Freedom,” Pelt highlighted its relevance to our times, “especially in the U.S.,” and later mentioned Griot, his two-volume series of interviews with musicians (inspired by Art Taylor’s Notes And Tones, 1977), and the importance of having conversations about race relations and music.

New York-based saxophonist Nicole Glover shared the stage with bassist Mike de Masi, drummer Valérie Lacombe, trumpeter Kevin Dean and pianist Taurey Butler, a New Jersey native who moved up to Montreal 12 years ago. The chemistry was truly instant; the band, tight as only a group of longstanding collaborators usually are, enthralled the audience with renditions of Miles Davis’ “Walkin’,” Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” and “Confirmation” by Charlie Parker. “Oh, man, we’re having a good time!” Glover exclaimed following a fiery performance of Benny Golson’s “Stablemates.” Dexterous, swinging and soulful, her playing shone on Chet Baker’s “My Ideal” with a breathtaking solo; and as trumpeter Dean took his turn, sharing his elegance and beautiful tone, her appreciation of his emotive playing was both visible and audible. “This is one of the most welcoming and inclusive festivals in the world,” she said as she closed the set.

Veteran drummer Billy Drummond teamed up with bassist Ira Coleman and pianist Jean-Michel Pilc (who both teach at McGill), long-time collaborators he referred to as part of his “musical fabric,” and Montrealers Rachel Therrien on trumpet and Caoilainn Power on alto saxophone. The band was instantly cohesive. Delivering material by Grachan Moncur III (“The Coaster”), Tony Williams (“Laura”), Monk (“Think Of One”) and Frank Kimbrough (“Clara’s Room”), Drummond expressed appreciation of his bandmates’ talent. “I don’t have to do much except sit back and witness all the amazing things happening around me,” he said, elaborating on how mesmerized he was by the horn players’ artistry and brilliance. “I’ve played in Montreal many times before, usually coming in to play one day and out the next morning; now I’m getting a chance to get closer to the fabric of what Montreal is all about.”

DownBeat caught up with Therrien as she stepped off the stage. “This was the best rhythm section I’ve ever played with,” she said, breathless. “It’s like taking a European fast train for the first time.” The creative energy and excitement ran so high that one of the piano’s G keys was inadvertently disabled. “I know I broke it,” Pilc said, smiling, apologizing to Kate Wyatt, who took over the piano bench for the late set, accompanying saxophonist Al McLean, with bassist Adrian Vedady and drummer Guillaume Pilote. The tight-knit band had the audience fully immersed, exploring compositions by John Coltrane (“Lazy Bird,” “Syeeda’s Song Flute”) and Cedar Walton (“Bolivia”).

With lines winding all the way up the stairs and into the street, the festival sold out its first edition — no small feat.

“This is the happiest I’ve ever been to stand in line,” mused Alex, a recent graduate of Concordia University’s music program.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Kirmayer said at the festival’s closing. “We’re a very small team of volunteers, and to have actually pulled this thing off, selling out every night and really feeling that community together, was just a dream come true.”

With sponsors already on board, and such a promising start, this festival is sure to offer engaging, well-curated editions in the years to come. For more information, check out sainthenrijazz.com. DB



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July 2022
Sean Jones
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