The 2005 Medicine Hat Jazz Festival
(Note: This is part of an occasional series looking at jazz festivals and culture in lesser-known locations around the world.)
Jimmy Bosch went from playing in front of 20,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles to fewer than twenty at a small theater in "The Gas City" of Canada. He was rushed there straight from the airport after a ten-hour journey, his pianist missed the flight and he didn't have any CDs to sell, saying customs requirements were too strict.
But his workshop had to be a welcome diversion for residents of Medicine Hat during a week where tornados threatened to wipe out eventsif not venuesand the local newspaper went through the "worst nightmare" in memory when a massive blackout left it facing the possibility of missing an issue for the first time in its 120-year history.
Bosch, a New York trombonist and leader of an eight-member Afro-Cuban ensemble, said he wasn't even sure where he was going when his manager told him where he was playing.
"I thought it was a club or something," he told an audience of several hundred during a dance party the night following the workshop. "But look, it's a real live place."
Nobody's going to mistake the Medicine Hat Jazz Festival, now in its ninth year, with globally known events occurring about the same time in Vancouver and Calgary. Even festival producer Lyle Rebbeck refers tongue-in-cheek to the community of 55,000 as a conservative Midwestern town. But many performers stop in Medicine Hat as part of a countrywide tour, often giving audience members a better chance of knowing them personally, and Rebbeck says many come away feeling it was more than a typical "fly-in fly-out" gig.
"I think they come here with these expectations and they're amazed," he said. "I've got pages of unsolicited endorsements from people saying this place has the cultural buzz of Montreal."
Medicine Hat's nickname comes from being perched atop a large petroleum reserve the original of the city's name is much more interestingand lengthynative story). It's about a three-hour drive west of Calgary, whose newspaper featured stories all week about massive flooding in the region from storms - and the bizarre consequence of severe water shortage that forced unprecedented water restrictions. Feuds resulted as hundreds reported neighbors illegally watering lawns and showering longer than five minutes, and some wondered if the "sewer police" were using newly available technology to monitor various forms of drainage from homes. Tourists seemingly had nothing to worry about, with a large Holiday Inn newspaper ad promising "heavy showers" from the industry's best showerhead.
Tuesday: Big Name, Big Tepee
The 2005 jazz festival featured more than 40 events during six days, a day longer than previous years. The lineup ranged from local students to a number of prominent Canadians (if not as famous as Diana Krall) to contemporary artists from Sweden, Holland and Indonesia. Ironically, the town's most famous musician may be "Canadian Idol 2" winner Kalan Porter, but he was booked doing jazz festivals and other events elsewherenot to mention expensive - and the festival's headline act was his out-of-town runner-up Theresa Sokyrka.
"Theresa was very appropriate for the jazz festival circuits because she sings more in a jazz and blues vein," Rebbeck said. "I don't usually go for an act that's popular and pop-oriented just to make money. This is a jazz festival. But in this case it's appropriate."
Her concert and many others were in theaters at Medicine Hat College, located on the opposite site of the highway from the tourist center and "The World's Tallest Tepee." The tepee isn't an actual tent, just a large metal frame, and there's no obvious display indicating its height (215 feet high, according to a tourist Web site). There are ten large circular Native murals around the inner posts detailing Native tribal stories, as the tepee overlooks a valley with an archeological site featuring Native remnants from the 16th to 19th centuries.
Sokyrka's opening-night concert June 21 at college's main theater sold out well in advance and the handful of all-access passes sold to the public (usually snapped up within hours) weren't valid for the performance. So I missed the performance, although I managed to get a good idea of her work through her 2005 album These Old Charms and two hours of free songs from her web site (see review).
But while she sold the most tickets, the most buzz for the day was generated by the subsequent 10:30 pm performance by Sophie Milman at the university's smaller Black Box Theater. Milman, 21, a Russian-born vocalist who grew up in Israel before moving to Canada as a teenager, delivered a passion and intensity that shocked many listeners with little or no familiarity with her brief professional career (she recently released her self-titled debut album; free full-length sample tracks are available at her web site and reviewed separately).