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Opinion/Editorial

When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival?

By Published: May 20, 2011
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 acts—as 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
Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell
b.1951
guitar
on their Deep Dead Blue (Warner Bros., 1995) EP—even singing a Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
tune; Black Dub's drummer is Brian Blade
Brian Blade
Brian Blade
b.1970
drums
, certainly no stranger to the jazz world; Paul Simon has collaborated with many jazzers on albums and on tour, including Steve Gadd
Steve Gadd
Steve Gadd
b.1945
drums
and the late Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
1949 - 2007
sax, tenor
; and, while Trucks fits more squarely in jam band space, he has been known to put his slide to work to the occasional jazz tune—his first album, The Derek Trucks Band (Landslide, 1997), released when he was just 17, containing not one, but two tunes by John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, and a cover of Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
' "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 venues—and to more realistically sized audiences—such as Atomic
Atomic
Atomic

band/orchestra
, Christian McBride
Christian McBride
Christian McBride
b.1972
bass
, Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
b.1971
piano
and Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler
b.1930
trumpet
/Myra Melford
Myra Melford
Myra Melford
b.1957
piano
in Ottawa; and Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
b.1930
piano
, Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen

sax, tenor
and Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard
b.1962
trumpet
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
Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
1920 - 2012
piano
, Latin artist like Paquito D'Rivera
Paquito D'Rivera
Paquito D'Rivera
b.1948
saxophone
, or specialty projects like Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
b.1929
drums
'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 related—or even totally unrelated—acts, when you've got so much "real" jazz from which to choose?


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