Ottawa Jazz Festival Builds for the Future

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Crowds pack downtown Ottawa for the festival.

(Photo: Chris Parker)

Forty-five years after a handful of jazz enthusiasts in the Canadian cities of Montreal and Ottawa transformed their love affairs with jazz into annual summer festivals, the two events are navigating through changing times.

While the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal introduced new leadership in 2020, this summer marks the first time since 1996 that the Ottawa Jazz Festival will not be led by Catherine O’Grady, who retired at the end of last year.

Stepping into her role is Petr Cancura, a 47-year-old musician who has handled much of the festival’s programming for the past 13 years. Born in the Czech Republic, Cancura moved to Ottawa as a child, became omnipresent on the area’s creative music scene as a fiery teenaged saxophonist and then returned to the city after obtaining a postgraduate music degree from the New England Conservatory of Music and working in New York for a decade. In his inaugural year at the festival’s helm, he faces the challenge of continuing to rebuild audiences after COVID threatened to derail the event, along with the larger-scale difficulties of changing tastes and an aging population of both bankable jazz headliners and well-heeled festival goers.

“It’s a balance of thinking about the mainstream audience in Ottawa, what’s worked historically for the festival, what will work now to pay the bills, but then also having artistic integrity and pushing that forward,” Cancura says.

As the country’s capital city, with a population of just over 1 million, Ottawa isn’t known as a musical hotbed. It lives in the shadows of both Montreal and Toronto, and even struggles to compete with nearby Kingston: a much smaller city, but one with a large university-aged audience.

“In Ottawa, we don’t have a system in place for jazz artists to come here, other than for the festival or our off-season events. One of the most important things is to build a supportive community here and have it interact with outside communities,” Cancura says.

While some jazz festivals have followed the model established by the late Claude Nobs in Montreux, Switzerland, booking more and more highly marketable pop artists to draw crowds, others have clung to a more orthodox path. Cancura believes growing and nurturing festival audiences requires fresh thinking. As an example, he points to one of this year’s Ottawa headliners, Icelandic singer Laufey. By early March, she had already sold 2,500 single-day festival passes for her June 28 gig — 80 percent of them youth passes — almost as large as the number for the much more established Norah Jones, who performs the following evening.

“That’s amazing for audience building,” he says. “It’s jazz that’s kind of a gateway into the larger world, so we need to embrace artists like that on the main stage. We raise ticket prices as much as we think the market can bear, but that means we still have to rely on about 30 percent each for subsidies and sponsorships. And if you don’t put big names into your lineup the sponsors are gone. A lot of funding is also tourism-based, so you need to bring people in.”

It’s a conundrum shared by other festival organizers, and Cancura says discussions he’s had with some of his peers have convinced him that the model still works, although he believes that adjustments are required to continue to hit the right notes for sponsors, government arts agencies and a dynamically shifting audience.

“Jazz is just simply a bigger term than it used to be, particularly within the mainstream audience. What does the word ‘jazz’ even mean to a young audience? Those are the kinds of questions we’re all asking.”

One element he sees as being particularly important is for festivals to continue sharing ideas and, in some cases, bookings. The Ottawa festival has long had that kind of relationship with the younger Vancouver Jazz Festival — an approach that has seen them undertaking things like collaborating to offer bookings to European artists who can travel with financial support from their countries’ embassies in Canada.

“We need to continue to develop those kinds of partnerships, as well as looking within our own communities for partnerships that haven’t been tried before,” Cancura says.

The challenge he sees in that regard is the cyclical nature of jazz festivals. No sooner do the last notes sound at each year’s event than Cancura and his peers fan out across the world to other festivals, looking for fresh talent for the next year.

“It’s always really hard to commit to working on new things for future years when you’re scrambling to ensure the current year pans out,” he says. “What would be really great — and I know this is shared by other jazz festivals — is to have the time to step back and rethink the overall jazz festival model as we know it. It’s something that definitely involves the larger music community, because if we could nail that long-term question it would help solve the problem of constantly having to sweat the funding question.”

As it stands, he says, the current model is barely sustainable, not just in Ottawa but at other mid-sized festivals throughout North America.

Working to simultaneously re-establish itself post pandemic and develop new audiences, the Ottawa Jazz Festival — whose lineup stretches from Trombone Shorty to Lakecia Benjamin — may well serve as a bellwether for how this particular forum for the art fares as it moves toward the half-century mark. DB



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