When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival?
Festivals must find new ways to attract that holy grail of attendance, the younger demographic, and they need to do so in increasing numbers. Sure, bands like Béla Fleck and the Flecktones will continue to bring in the jam band crowd, but it's megastars like Plant, Costello and Black Dub that are certain to bring capacity crowds of all ages to jazz festivals this summer. So, perhaps, it's also important to look at the acts festivals are bringing in to help bolster their bottom lines, and assess whether or not they are quality acts, acts that bring a certain amount of prestige, or are they acts that are about dollars and cents, and nothing more.
Certainly Plant, Costello and Black Dub are prestige actsas are Paul Simon and Derek Trucks, both of whom are performing at Montreux this year. And, while it would be a stretch to call any of these acts jazz per se, digging a little beneath the surface reveals, at least, some tangential connections: Plant's roots in the blues are well-known; Costello has worked with jazz artists, including guitarist Bill Frisell on their Deep Dead Blue (Warner Bros., 1995) EPeven singing a Charles Mingus tune; Black Dub's drummer is Brian Blade, certainly no stranger to the jazz world; Paul Simon has collaborated with many jazzers on albums and on tour, including Steve Gadd and the late Michael Brecker; and, while Trucks fits more squarely in jam band space, he has been known to put his slide to work to the occasional jazz tunehis first album, The Derek Trucks Band (Landslide, 1997), released when he was just 17, containing not one, but two tunes by John Coltrane, and a cover of Miles Davis' "So What" to boot. The same, sadly, cannot be said of Deep Purple, Ricky Martin, Liza Minelli and Arcade Fire, all performing this year at Montreux.
It's also of no small importance that if these larger scale shows bring in the crowds that festivals hope, they will absolutely help to fund jazz acts performing in smaller venuesand to more realistically sized audiencessuch as Atomic, Christian McBride, Vijay Iyer and Kenny Wheeler/Myra Melford in Ottawa; and Ahmad Jamal, Anat Cohen and Terence Blanchard in New Orleans. Montreux is a little different in that, for the most part, it operates in only two large venues, which brings its programming into more question, as it doesn't really have any small venues for lesser-known jazz artists. And that means its decision to book acts, in previous years, like Motorhead and Alice Cooper far more questionable. Whether or not Montreux is, in truth, a jazz festival may be a good question, but how about New Orleans and Ottawa?
One good yardstick to decide whether or not a jazz festival is a jazz festival is the answer to a single question: can you attend the festival for its entire run, ignore the non-jazz programming, and still be immersed in a broad cross-section of jazz each and every day...even facing difficult choices about what you decide to see? In the case of Montreux, the question is, sadly, a resounding no.
But if you're already attending the New Orleans festival, or are making plans for Ottawa, the answer is an absolute and unequivocal yes. Sure, those who only think of OIJF for its main stage in Confederation Park will bemoan the dearth of previous year mainstreamers like Dave Brubeck, Latin artist like Paquito D'Rivera, or specialty projects like Jimmy Cobb's Kind of Blue tribute band. But move into one of the festival's two indoor venues, the tented OLG stage, or the new Canal Stage for the early evening Great Canadian Jazz series, and you've 11 days and 83 acts that are undeniably well within the jazz sphere. New Orleans' programming is almost exponentially larger, with 12 stages, and shows beginning in the late morning, and running through to the early evening. Is it really so offensive to go to a jazz festival that is programming some peripherally relatedor even totally unrelatedacts, when you've got so much "real" jazz from which to choose?