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Toronto Jazz Festival 2008

By Published: July 29, 2008

Each day brought a wide variety of music... These primetime concerts, held in the evening, meant that audiences always had something memorable to take home with them

I will never forget my excitement—years ago—at learning that it would be possible for my family to live in Toronto again. I had been researching a book on Charles Mingus and often listened to one of my favorite vinyl records—The World's Greatest Concert—Jazz at Massey Hall. Not only was it a gem because of the dream band, Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Max Roach on drums and, of course, the man I came to admire in an unabashed way—Charles Mingus on bass... But the historic concert and recording took place at a venue in downtown Toronto. For me, that meant Toronto was a jazz city, like New York, Newport, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco, among others in the US... Rio and San Paolo in Brasil... The Hague in the Netherlands, Montreux in Switzerland, and, yes, even Bombay in India!

So, in Toronto... I fully expected that jazz would be the music on the street. I knew of CODA magazine and Sackville Records, wanted and would eventually meet John Norris... I fancied my chances at writing for the magazine or landing a gig writing liners for Sackville.

But life deals cards face down. And you never know what's coming down the turnpike. No sooner than I finished Trinity College, in England I took off for Europe, got into advertising, rode a wave as a copywriter throughout the seventies and eighties, haunting the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Hague and the Jazz Yatra in Bombay for years, meeting and interviewing some of the most interesting musicians—from Max Roach, Miles Davis and John Lewis to Larry Coryell and Dannie Richmond... before ending up in the State of Virginia. Then back to London. I landed a contract with a British publisher and shuttled between London, England and Dubai, writing furiously and jamming sometimes with Cuban friends at Trader Vic's at the Park Lane Hilton and, happily, with a 'son' band when they opened in Dubai, UAE as well—this last and most wondrous experience, thanks to my dear friend, jazz aficionado and Machito-factotum, Jackie 'el padrino' Laugenie of Trader Vic's.

So it was that I ended up staying in Dubai for two decades before I finally came to home to Toronto. One of the first things I can remember doing after the bags were unpacked and the family settled in, was making my pilgrimage to Massey Hall. There I woke up the spirits of my past and listened to the echoes of that historic concert. I heard the ghostly echoes of Parker's horn and Dizzy's trumpet. I looked for Bud Powell, following the direction from which the flurries of notes on "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" were coming from. I gasped as I saw, in my mind's eye, Mingus and Roach flying across strings and skins. "Hot House" and "Salt Peanuts..." I found myself singing the solos in other keys too! Bebop was my heartbeat that day in September.

My son and I had been careful to look for any jazz we could catch while we were downtown. There was plenty to sample in the core and at the western edge of the city. The Montreal Bistro was alive—and well and kicking with a Sackville artist...I cannot recall who exactly, but I seem to recall it may have included Don Thompson on bass and Terry Clarke on drums. There was jazz at The Home Smith Bar at the Old Mill Inn, The Top O' The Senator, jazz in a couple of other small clubs; and jazz from CJRT with Bill O'Reilly and even CBC Radio. And jazz was also heard, booming out of Sam the Record Man, Toronto's legendary record store, where the uninitiated were—with a solid recommendation—always gently, but authoritatively ushered into the jazz fold.

That was then—and although it may now seem to reside in the dark distant past, it was only as but as late as in the 1990s.

Today, however, the scene has changed. Legendary clubs such as George's Jazz Room—once the only venue to feature leading Canadian musicians such as the late Moe Koffman and Doug Riley and where CBC Radio also recorded some of its finest live broadcasts—and Bourbon Street, located at 180 Queen's Street West booked Jim Hall and Paul Desmond, both of whom made terrific recordings with Don Thompson on bass, and also housed local rhythm sections with pianists, Bernie Senensky and Carol Britto, and guitarist, Ed Bickert. At Basin Street, the second-floor room also hosted jazz and at least one famous musical—Salome Bey's Indigo. And all of those venues were active well into the eighties.

But then things started to fall apart. The Top O' The Senator has shut down. The Montreal Bistro, venue of so many memorable live performances—happily, several captured on record by Sackville Records. There is one—just one—radio station, Jazz FM91 that broadcasts jazz 24 hours—mostly background music, unless you are tuned into Larry Green's 'Drive Anywhere' show in the afternoons. And in one of the biggest blows in recent times to jazz fans in the city the historic Sam the Record Man closed its doors forever after being an institution like no other for 70 years. With the closing of the best-loved jazz clubs and a retail outlet that provided so vital a service to so many the city of Toronto has never been quite the same for the jazz-lover. And it has been reported recently that 'CoolTV,' the only jazz television channel has closed down, effective July 21, 2008.

So, jump-cut to today... It would have been a 2008 to forget had it not been for this summer of jazz that recently picked up momentum shortly after the Art of Jazz Celebration of 2008.

The TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival (June 20 to 29, 2008) was by far the biggest music event in the city and one of the three largest jazz festivals in the country. The 2008 Festival was bigger and better than previous years' events. More marquee names from the jazz world, more Canadian jazz musicians and more music from the fringes of jazz—though nowhere near where it could have been. The Festival was also better organized than ever before and even though the venues were spread across a greater part of the downtown core, further away from the tent that came to be the main concert stage, the production of most events—by all accounts—was near perfect. Part of the reason was that the event management just got better at doing what they do best—a bigger media room, more publicists putting out releases and news faster than usual, and better crisis management. Finding a way to overcome the loss of e.s.t. for instance, with the tragic and untimely passing of Esbjorn Svensson, and the sudden pull-out of Michel Legrand due to health issues took some doing. But the management now works like a well-oiled machine and it appears that nothing can faze the young team that puts it all together.

And then there is the way the event was produced, with seven series of concerts. The Grandmasters Series, which presented venerable artists such as Ahmad Jamal and Oliver Jones in magnificent trio settings. Spectacular as ever was Ahmed Jamal, who let his music do the talking. It was not hard to see why Miles Davis famously cited him as a major inspiration in his whole approach to phrasing and intonation. Oliver Jones, of course continues to astound listeners. His style continues to remind one of his mentor—the late Oscar Peterson—but his voice is more introverted and his harmonic attack more slanted. Although Michel Legrand was sorely missed here, Quartetto Guido Basso and Dave Brubeck in a quartet and with the Toronto Jazz Festival Orchestra was a revelation of sorts in both contexts. That an artist—of any stature—can be around so long play with the same voice and yet modernize the metaphor of jazz over the years is a wonderful thing. Only the late Jimmy Giuffre has been a more successful changeling.

The rest of the 2008 Festival brought an embarrassment of riches. There was more music in more venues than ever before in the 22-year history of the festival—forty-nine venues (fifty, when you counted the Main Stage) in all doing something or other that was festival-related. In addition to the main events at the Main Stage, the organizers presented several series of events: The "Guitar Series," at one of The Pilot. Such acts, as the Andrew Scott Quintet, Gene Bertoncini and the Don Thompson/Reg Schwager Quartet were the top performers here. Then there was the "Jazz by the Lake" series that was headlined by the magnificent Renaud Garcia-Fons, who brought his 'oriental bass concepts' and performed highlights from his albums Entremundo (Enja, 2004) and Arcoluz (Enja, 2005). It is regrettable that the Charles Lloyd Quartet appeared to pass like a ship in the night. Lloyd, a revelation in his many incarnations was once a cult figure in the 1960s and 70s, when his band featured the young Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, has won broad appeal with his extraordinary, smoky tone that can be melancholic and bright. Lloyd brought with him the young piano phenomenon, Jason Moran, with Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. This is probably the most inspired band since the one that included Jarrett, DeJohnette and Ron McClure on bass. Ernestine Anderson and Houston Person were always going to be a memorable concert. And there was a lot more here too.

The "French Connection"—another series—probably did not come off as expected after Michel Legrand had to pull out due to poor health, but there was a lot more to choose from. The "Supermarket Jazz Series," probably not the best name for jazz to go by, was, nevertheless, quite well attended. The Jake Langley and the Tony Monaco trios were probably why. Langley, once a well-kept Canadian secret is now one of the busiest and most exciting guitarists in North America. His records with Joey DeFrancesco have won much critical acclaim and even a quick listen will tell you why. The "Cabaret" series at the Old Mill presented some intimate moments with pianist Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart, Marcus Nance and Louise Petrie and John Alcorn, who on a day when his pipes are on song, can sing as well as anyone in jazz today. The "Lunchtime" and "Afterwork" concert series at Nathan Philips Square brought some music that may have been a better fit for a venue that was more intimate. For instance pianist Bernie Senensky with bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Terry Clarke and trumpeter Alexis Baro deserved to be primetime performances. Senensky in particular is one of the finest Canadian pianists who has written and played for such legendary musicians as the late Moe Koffman, is a bigger draw in the US than he appears to be in Canada.

The headline acts for each day of the festival brought a wide variety of music to the 2008 roster. These primetime concerts were all held in the evening and meant that audiences always had something memorable to take home with them. Day 1 featured Dr. John presenting his now-renowned mix of rhythm and blues mixed in with Southern fried funk and delivered in his raspy nonchalant style that has made him an artistic Ambassador of New Orleans together with the Neville Brothers as well. Day 2 would not be complete without the John Hammond Quartet featuring the soulful voice of Susan Tedeschi. Nor would Day 3 been the same without listening to the Geri Allen Quartet that opened for the Alto Summit featuring alto saxophonists Red Holloway, Greg Osby and Bobby Watson together with tenor saxophonist Donald Harrison. Though not quite the World Saxophone Quartet, this sax summit did reach pinnacles of sound nevertheless, giving Toronto an object lesson in saxophone history from swing to bop and the free idiom as well. Geri Allen could have headlined here as well.

Day 4 was all about the piano. Part of the Grandmasters' series, the twin headlines were the Ahmad Jamal and the Oliver Jones trios. Jamal, is probably one of the most influential pianists together with Hank Jones. Jamal is a prodigious talent, whose pianism is deeply rooted in the two-handed stride milieu. His playing often recalls the work of Willie 'The Lion' Smith, but he has a voice that is all his own. In many ways he predated pianists such as Herbie Hancock, with his grand, classical touch and phrasing. He understood the beauty of "space" and this became a conceptual hallmark of his playing, influencing such masters as Miles Davis. James Cammack joined Jamal on bass and a long-time rhythm partner, Idris Muhammed on drums.

Oliver Jones continues to thrill serious fans of the music across the world and appears to have become one of the most stylish exponents of the almost baroque style of jazz piano. His complex harmonies and spectacular darting runs always thrill and hark back to the piano of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, who served as an early influence and mentor for Jones.

Day 5 was all about the bluesy vocalastics of James Hunter, who has become one of the brightest, swinging vocalists and a fine raconteur as well—all of which has been extraordinarily good for his music. Day 6 was brought a buzz like there was not during the festival—especially at the Main Stage. The Blind Boys of Alabama took center stage with the magnificent Cyrus Chestnut on piano. There are few vocal groups that can stir the soul like the Blind Boys can. Their uniquely fervent gospel music also towers across the bridges that lead to jazz. And their gospel repertoire celebrates the joy of living something that has brought broader appeal to the idiom. Chestnut is one of the most sensitive accompanists in the art of jazz. Day 7 took it up several notches, with a rousing tribute to Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic—the original concert made famous by Charlie Parker, Lester and Lee Young and a host of musicians from the era when bebop was spoken and sung. This concert featured Roy Hargrove and his Quintet, with stars such as Frank Wess, Paquito D'Rivera, Russell Malone and Roberta Gambarini.

Day 8 was perhaps the biggest of the festival, with the guitar trios of John Abercrombie, John Scofield and Mike 'Fat Time' Stern. Abercrombie brought organist, Dan Wall and drummer, Adam Nussbaum, the trio that has brightened the ECM catalogue with some fine music. Scofield had his own power trio, featuring the master, Steve Swallow on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. And Stern was the big draw for the fact that he sits astride jazz blues and rock and made that eloquent statement when he played with Miles Davis as well. Days 9 and 10 heated things up with the virtuoso playing of Arturo Sandoval, the trumpeter who gained phenomenal fame when he toured with Dizzy Gillespie's United Nations Orchestra. Sandoval is one of the few trumpeters who can inhabit the upper registers of the instrument and once famously wowed even Dizzy at a concert that they played at the Royal Albert Hall in the nineties. Hilario Duran on piano, Roberto Occhipinti on bass and Mark Kelso on drums joined Sandoval. The flamboyance was, at times, almost delightfully terrifying... to hear so much technical brilliance poured out into four instruments, and so much 'duende' as well. Then there was Salif Keita, the master griot from Mali, who wove stories and sent the night into overdrive with the Orchestra Africa and Toby Toyeh, himself an exciting musician in the Yoruban tradition.

Much has been made of the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival. Now in its fifth year after it was recast, following the various advertising and marketing bans on the tobacco industry. The buzz in the jazz community here in Toronto may always be, "We could have done this," or "So-and so should have been included on the bill..." No matter what you may think of artistic direction and content of featured artists, there is no denying that no one corporate entity is doing more for jazz in Canada than TD Canada Trust. The mere fact that they support eight major jazz festivals in Canada, from Victoria to Halifax is proof indeed. In his annual message, Tim Hockey, Group Head, Personal Banking and Co-Chair TD Canada Trust, describes the certain something that jazz brings to a city as a "community spirit that comes with a shared celebration, a spirit that makes you feel connected, comfortable and part of something good." Hockey describes what most jazz-loving Torontonians know to be true and yet wonder what happened to the city that once proffered jazz at virtually every important intersection in the Downtown core.

It felt as if Toronto was 'choking with gold.' In the 22 years of Toronto Jazz, the organizers have perfected the art of the jazz spectacle. Artistic Direction has been flawless year after year—this year, thanks to saxophonist and Artistic Director, Jim Galloway (who also performed with his Wee Big Band) and Producer Patrick Taylor, the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival was the biggest and most memorable ever. And to think that this was only the second big event after the Art of Jazz Celebration 2008 at the Distillery Historic District only a few weeks prior to the this festival...

As summer wears down the Torontonian, the fan of fine music can look forward too much more. Coda magazine's "Quintessential Canadian Jazz Festival Guide (4th Edition, 2008) lists multi-artist jazz music events across Canada. Ontario will have jazz music 22 events by the time the summer of 2008 blows by, nine of these will be in the Greater Toronto Area.

So why is jazz unable to sustain the artists who make it possible? Why are the clubs closing down and the good, paying gigs drying up? Has jazz become a mere 'jazz festival' tourist spectacle even for Torontonians? The answers are far from easy to come by.

To begin with there is a worldwide recession in the music industry. After the sixties, the 'industry'—record labels, to be precise—has never given jazz major recognition on its roster. Mergers and acquisitions have buried many labels that came to be known as 'jazz' labels. Alfred Lion's Blue Note has not been run with the same evangelical fever that Lion ran it with. How many artists like Thelonious Monk has the label signed up? How many producers like the late Bob Thiele, Creed Taylor and Michael Cuscuna are in control of the so-called jazz labels, which have all but been reduced to boutiques? Sony Music, Warner-Atlantic-Electra, Universal, which houses the Verve Group and Concord, that other giant are slowly resurrecting some fine historic music, how much is new is a moot point for discussion elsewhere.

Most record companies are conglomerates run by the stock-reports on Wall Street. It has become far more expedient to produce a lavish production with an embarrassing splash of photographs to launch another hip-hop artist into an already crowded market than to support and/or commission bassist Don Thompson to write new music for piano and vibraharp, then put together a stellar cast of musicians to bring it to life. If he is lucky, a jazz musician may get a tetra-package sans liners and complete track details, so that really knowledgeable young marketing executives can make a serious attempt at drawing in a newer jazz audience that has just left rock behind and is ready for the more historic and adult idiom.

As a result more jazz artists are wont to eschew the jazz idiom in favor of the so-called fusion, electronic and other fey expressions in music. Post-rationalization of the production is the order of the day, just in case some of his or her peers are listening. "Yes, rock and Rap and so on...they're all part of the music fabric... of my growing up, etc" But the fact is that jazz is a definitive music with a certain approach to harmony and rhythm ... Which is why Radiohead became Radiohead and the Last Poets became the Last Poets and the Yellowjackets became the Yellowjackets...

Toronto is becoming more like New York in the 1960s. There's the whole wilting away of the club scene and the fact that musicians are paid a pittance for a gig in Toronto. One is reminded of the 60s when Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow—a formidable trio—were forced to disband when they could earn no more than 35cents each after playing a gig at a coffee house in New York! With the withering away of the clubs, the jam session has been all but forgotten. Now it may exist only on record. This is why the "One Take" series produced by Peter Cardinali is as close as one can get to the real thing. But then the very phenomenon that spread the gospel of jazz—the "Let's go hear that cat who is blowing all saxophonists away," is fast becoming part of jazz folklore rather than the changing of the guard as it was when Charlie Parker hit 52nd Street and the lesser saxophonists of the swing era dried their reeds and packed it in.

This has, in turn forced musicians resort to 'other jobs' to support themselves. Teaching, for instance. But then a jazz program can only accommodate so-many musicians and no more. And how many musicians make good teachers? And where, indeed, are the new teachers? Jon Hendricks is past 80. Sheila Jordan turns 80 this winter. John Norris, founder of Coda and Sackville Records taught a non-credit jazz course in history at the University of Toronto for 26 years before failing health resulted in him having to resign his post. He was replaced but the course was never the same and it collapsed altogether.

Which brings us to another factor in the withering away of jazz: When knowledgeable and authoritative figures like Norris and Hendricks and Jordan teach the music, jazz comes down the turnpike with a full history of its origins, with Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong, Duke and Cab Calloway and Willie 'The Lion' Smith and Fats Waller and James P. Johnson and so on... Yet to many young students of jazz today the music before bebop is a blur. This is why the student of jazz finds it more expedient to produce a record inspired by Radiohead music, while Charlie Parker 're-cast' Ray Noble's "Cherokee," and then wrote his own "Ko-Ko," using the same chord progression as Noble did for "Cherokee." Not that there is anything wrong with songs like "OK Computer," but this is far from the new standard. Reductionism? Certainly not, it is just calling to mind the fact that the African-American idiom that was born of the blues and begat jazz.

It does not bode well for the music either, if one pretends that the influence of European music from Bach and Beethoven to Brahms and Bartok, from Debussy and Ravel to Stravinsky and Stockhausen never existed. Even the most hardened conservative will not deny that the music from across the pond played a large part in the development of the music. Musicians like Bird and Bud Powell, Mingus, Miles and the MJQ had more than a passing flirtation with classical music. In fact, perhaps the influence of the music of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries—'classical' Europe, so to speak—has had an indelible influence on the development of the jazz metaphor.

The European 'contribution' comes in non-musical terms as well. First from France and Britain, then from Scandinavia, the large migrations—both ways—brought more consumers to jazz as well. The whole 50s boom in Canada can be almost directly attributed to the European immigrant. And then there is the question of patronage...

Throughout history, music survived on patronage—from church and state. Hundreds of years ago, kings and queens, princes and princesses commissioned works of music. The church continues its slow and steady patronage. More recently, the not-for-profit foundations stepped in and in several instances helped artists, especially jazz artists, create memorable works. Guggenheim, the Kennedy and Lincoln Centers are the new patrons. But their reliance is on donations. So is it time for the new state—the Capitalist Corporation—to step in? If what TD Canada Trust is doing in Canada is any indication, this—although not a new phenomenon—has certainly set things in motion. Too bad about the price of oil and of commodities like grain, which has also led fans to make some ugly choices and supporter/investors to look at options other than jazz clubs. Most disheartening is that many corporations—TD Canada Trust is in a minority—who may have otherwise been supporters of the music are tending to look elsewhere to invest foundation money that would otherwise have gone readily to support the music many of them actually love. Jazz like the whole fabric of capitalism that supports it is in recession. But on a note of hope, this is not the first time that jazz has fallen into the trough of a wave... it will endure as it has for a hundred years and it is only a matter of time before it finds the right patronage—like that of the Ertegun brothers and Norman Granz and Alfred Lion and John Hammond, Michael Cuscuna and John Norris, and so many others who helped the true artists spread the gospel... The second coming is coming. Heard Christian Scott and Alexis Baro, David Virelles, Brandi Disterheft and Rossano Sportiello lately?

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