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André Ménard: 40 Years at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal

Mark Sullivan By

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We never had ambitions that high in terms of the size of the festival; it has really taken a shape that even surprised us a bit. But we were quick to react; we did not let this chance go by. —André Ménard
André Ménard is the co-founder and Artistic Director of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. Ranked as the world's largest jazz festival in the Guinness World Records, the festival celebrates its 40th anniversary with the 2019 edition. Ménard has announced his retirement this year, marking it as a personal milestone as well. A legendary concert promoter, he is a passionate music fan above all. Our conversation ranged from the beginning of the festival to the present, covering memorable performances and other reminiscences—even a few mistakes. He lists his anticipated highlights of this year's festival, and a bit about his retirement plans.

All About Jazz: I'm very happy to get the chance to speak to you today. First, can you talk a little bit about about how the festival got started?

André Ménard: That was actually tried in 1979 to put it together, but we couldn't find a sponsor and we rapidly found out that you just cannot do a festival and have artists that come for only a one off basis just on box office. You need other revenue to make it happen. So as of 1980 we had finally a TV contract with the state TV in Quebec that allowed us to finance the first edition. That was pretty modest, with eight concerts. But the opening night I had Ray Charles and closing night was Chick Corea and Gary Burton. So it was a very good start: modest, but with some big names there and then a bunch of local acts. We had set up shop along the old Expo 67 Island interfacing downtown Montreal but found out rapidly that we needed more space. We brought it back downtown as of the second year and slowly it built into the French side of the downtown area on St. Denis Street. Between 1982 and '86 we were centralized there and it really took off from there. Major, major artists, we managed to book at the time Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. There the whole thing really gelled to the point that the site became too small for us and we had to transfer the whole operation around Place des Arts (map), which is like the Lincoln Center of Montreal and has a bunch of clubs around it. So there's this big complex of theaters and then some more theaters and lots of clubs.

So that's how we managed to really solidify the festival into this one site with indoor concerts paying and outdoor concerts as well on the streets surrounding the theaters where we have all the free concerts. So it's like two festivals in one. Throughout the years we found that this was the ideal formula for us. It was as if you were adding the New Orleans atmosphere of the festival and then the quality of the concert halls that you had at the New York JVC festivals. It was like two festivals in one and this really solidified the reputation and the size and format of our festival. That was 40 years ago and it took four or five years to really find our proper way. From then on it grew organically I would say, but the demand of the public kind of surprised us. We never had ambitions that high in terms of the size of the festival; it has really taken a shape that even surprised us a bit. But we were quick to react; we did not let this chance go by.

AAJ: So it really got large from '87 on, basically when you moved downtown?

AM: Yeah, from '86 until now it has really grown to what it has become today. And this year for the first time on top of the centralized site around Place des Arts we're going to have a satellite site in one of Montréal's neighborhoods close to downtown, but not on the jazz fest site itself. So we're going into some neighborhoods as well in the future years that I won't be part of obviously because this is my last year, but this is the evolution that I see now, that looks pretty interesting.

AAJ: Are you expecting that you're going to both reach people in the neighborhood that wouldn't come downtown and get people from downtown to go to the neighborhood. Are you looking at it both ways?

AM: I think so, there should be an interesting exchange there. But it's not like we have a problem getting people from the neighborhoods to come downtown. The festival is really a big gathering of all the communities in Montréal. But we thought that it could be nice that some of the the merits of the facility take shape in other neighborhoods and just not in that area. So this is something that we're trying out, you know, it's pretty experimental for now, but we'll see.

AAJ: Can you talk a little bit more about the amazing diversity of venues that you have. Certainly some of them have a great deal of history on their own—like the Monument-National—but have some of them sprung up just because of the festival or are you simply making use of available space?

AM: Actually we have an inventory of halls in the neighborhoods. Some we'll use only on the basis of opportunity if we have something to put there like the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde right across the street from the Place des Arts. We use that most years. This year, we're not using it because we didn't have a show that needed something that can be there for the whole duration of the festival. We didn't find anything that would go along that line this year, so we're not using it. On the other hand we're using the Metropolis and the second hall in the Metropolis now on a permanent basis. Monument-National... we're still using the main hall there. They have two more halls inside that we're not using this year. So it all depends on the opportunity and good ideas that we have for bookings or whatever. But mainly our traditional halls like the three we use in Place des Arts then the hall that we have in the house of the jazz festival.

This year we have some outdoor spaces that we're losing for the year or that we can't use so we have to reconfigure most of the site. The Place des Arts Esplanade is under work right now; the piece of ground that we used to have at the corner of Clark and Saint Catherine is being transformed into the last public space of the County District. They're working on it right now so we cannot use it this year. So from year to year we have to adapt to whatever we have available or whatever we feel like programming; we never felt like we had to fix it into a formula for certain theaters at that time of the day... it can it can vary from year to year, and that keeps us excited.

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