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

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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.

AAJ: The Maison de Festival was inaugurated in 2011 and is the main administrative hub. What was the headquarters before that? How did you handle those functions before you had that that building?

AM: Oh my God, we used to rent spaces, because there's lots of functions there that are not visible to the public. The central communication and some warehousing. So the ground floor is public, but the rest of it, the second floor has the press room that is also an art gallery and all that. And then the other floors we're using all year round for some other uses sometimes; there are offices there and then there's storage in the upper floors. We have a huge warehouse in the east end of the city but some of it remains in that building it's really useful for us because we used to have to rent out spaces that from year to year would threaten you to be ousted because they had something that was going in there. So it has stabilized the operation for us to have that and on top of that it is a permanent showcase with the club and L'Astral [the theater space in the building] has music in it once or twice a week all year round. It's something that we are very proud of. That building was transformed, it was it was given to us in February 2009 and we opened the whole place in June. So it was a four month transformation: the entire place was trashed, completely and then we rebuilt it in four months. Quite an achievement for the moment, but it's still there and it stands, beautiful, so we're proud of it.

AAJ: I wanted to get into the programming area a bit. Of course the big question is how to define jazz and the music that's related to it. As I'm sure you know, there are some jazz fans that are really bothered by their being things at a jazz festival that they don't think of as jazz.

AM: I have to tell you that the best thing about retirement is that I won't have to justify the non-jazz artists presented at the festival. This is something that I've explained throughout the years. I wouldn't want to be too blunt, but I can tell you that the economic ground of the jazz world itself is something that is really under attack year after year. Guys that used to headline the 3000-seater or the 1500-seater, we hardly have them now in the 800-seater. This is something that we are really protecting as much as we can, but there is reality that comes with it. I can say that at least 50% of the indoor programming has bona fide jazz artists there and some of it, you know is small diversity with blues music and some soul and then some some pop music. But I mean New Orleans has Katy Perry this year. What about that?

AAJ: They fudge things a little by calling it a "Jazz and Heritage" festival.

AM: Yes, I don't know how you can relate the Louisiana heritage to Katy Perry, then. I was jealous that they had the The Rolling Stones. Of course they cancelled, but I thought "shit, I would have loved that."

AAJ: But you've got Peter Frampton this year.

AM: Peter Frampton started out as a blues artist in England and then he joined Humble Pie and and obviously didn't start as the pop star that he ended up being when he sold millions of records. He had a great background in music already. Now it's the second time he plays the festival. It's his farewell tour because he has a disease and he won't be able to play for much longer. You have those Melody Gardots and Norah Jones at the borderline. I can remember that the most die-hard jazz critic in Montréal, when Nora Jones did her first record for Blue Note, the whole review was just a few words. He said, has Blue Note branched out into country? Country music; he didn't care to rate it or even review it. That's all he had to say. But the survival of the Blue Note label was really a gift from Heaven, and it was because of her, obviously. Mr. Lundvall [President of Blue Note] was pretty upset, because the whole EMI outfit had been bought out by an English investment firm, and they were asking for the same numbers year after year. He was trying to explain to them that the Nora Jones numbers were not natural. I'm sorry, I cannot repeat this every year after year for sure. So yes, that question springs up all the time, you know, but there's not really any point in me discussing it anymore.

Well, I can remember we had meetings with theater festivals and the international jazz festival organization. I remember that sort of bar the door attitude: Carlo Pagnotta, the esteemed head of the Umbria Jazz Festival was telling us that we should be very cautious not to contaminate our programming and now, when I look at his program my God, there's contamination all over the place! We did some things throughout the past that were pretty daring or maybe out of place. But the when I saw that Montreaux was having Motorhead and Johnny Hallyday, I was thinking well, there you go. We would not dare go that far but on the other hand, from the Montreal rock and pop music scene Arcade Fire: there's a member of Arcade Fire [Richard Reed Parry] who made two records that are beautiful instrumental records. The second one is coming out in May and we are programmed him for whole festival in the Société des arts technologiques [SAT] that we rarely use: it's the dome across the street from the Monument-National. He's gonna play live in that Dome with with the projections that he has that he has created from nature with live musicians. Beautiful record. Is it purely, strictly jazz I would not say but there's lots of improvised parts into what he's doing. So, can we call it jazz? Can we not call it jazz?

These (recent) years were pretty interesting. The exchange between musicians has been so much facilitated by the technology now over the Internet. The way they make new tracks and the way they work in music is so different that you don't make it just with jazz studies now: you have to be very creative to make a statement. You know, that would not be a long line of perpetuating bebop music. Things are created in a very different way, but I see that some of the values that stand from jazz music are being applied to lots of other music. It is something that has really transformed the music scene and then I see that in Radiohead, for example with their long instrumental developments and all that. I can hear lots of echoes of jazz but it's not jazz music for sure. But then I know one thing, guys of my generation that were not really acquainted with jazz when we were young... in my case, I was lucky because at Expo 67 I saw Mahalia Jackson and I saw Oscar Peterson and then in the years after that I saw Roland Kirk and Erroll Garner. It really connected me. But then at the same time fusion was created and guys like John McLaughlin would play in the same breath on the radio as Crosby, Stills and Nash. It was all a continuum and we did not have any prejudice towards any form of music: it was good versus what was boring.

We were challenged by Miles' Live Evil (Columbia, 1971) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) and then the whole prog rock scene came along and songs could take up to 15 minutes to develop and to us it was all part of the same thing. The categories were not that clear and we did not feel compelled to really categorize. It really developed a sensitivity towards music that probably I would not have had if it was not for Genesis and Pink Floyd and those bands. So it's an addition that informs your taste and what you would like to make people discover. There's no school for that. In my case, I know now, and I can analyze pretty intellectually what has happened, but while it was happening I could not. I would not even care to do that anyways, but what I see is that there's been lots of evolution in music. Jazz has contributed to music all around the world, but the echoes come back in very different shapes sometimes. When you work with African music you know that there's a jazz basis there. We listened to Fela [Kuti]: longer improvised solos and all that, jazz, but with the the African beats in the back, it was pretty different from your normal jazz bebop quintet. It was a different thing. But to me the echoes were there, and it still is in many forms of music, even techno music. In electronic music you see lots of those those values that pertain to development and sometimes even you can connect with if it certain forms of spirituality in music that was really along the line of what the blues musicians and the jazz musicians did 50, 40 or 30 years ago.

So it is still taking place but in very different shapes and colors: this I can't help. When we do the jazz festival program, we will try to take into account these currents that probably are not strictly jazz, but has to have lots of values in it that we can associate with what was great jazz music and what still is great jazz music. But obviously you cannot do a festival that is that authentic as you would with only jazz music in it. Obviously it takes us to places that are not strictly jazz, but I think it's one of the beauties of the team as long as you don't lose the perspective that jazz music is the main trunk of that huge colorful tree to me and I think that we're still doing something that is relevant. But in doing so, sometimes you make mistakes. I can admit to that, but it's better to make mistakes every once in a while than do the same thing over and over and over again. It's never been part of our philosophy that it would have been the same festival or the same success if we had... lots of festivals in America are very ethnocentric. We took pride in programming Italian jazz musicians and French jazz musicians and Japanese jazz musicians because they were making a major, somewhat different contribution.

Now look at them. The jazz scene in London: very creative, one of the most exciting jazz scenes in many many years is the one that is taking place in London right now. And you have all sorts of young guys with very fresh outlooks on music, not because they're incorporating bebop and things like that. Like I said, I don't care for that. But musically the strength of the offerings that come from London right now is out of this world. So we're very proud to program as much as we can. I go to the London Jazz Festival every year to find out about these new acts and this is something that I'm going to miss for sure. I think that we've done a pretty good job at trying to diversify without losing perspective on what we set out to do in the first place. Which was simple: to impress our friends with art that would not come to Montreal otherwise.

It's been a long process. Obviously it has its challenges, the economy in the first place. The value of the Canadian dollar is poor, which makes it a good deal for Americans to come to Montreal. On the other end, we have to buy our talent with American dollars, without having prices that are sky-high to buy the tickets.



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