Looking back on 40 years of jazz in Montreal

June 26, 2019

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From the very beginning, the Festival international de jazz de Montréal was cutting edge: its free outdoor shows, bringing jazz to the masses, were revolutionary. At 40, the festival is as young and fresh as ever. As he nears retirement, co-founder André Ménard looks back proudly and shares his endless enthusiasm for music.

When he looks out on Place des Festivals, with its four giant light standards lined up on Jeanne-Mance St., André Ménard thinks back on how far we’ve come. The main public space in the Quartier des Spectacles is now the festival’s hub, and he’s one of the driving forces behind it. The jazzfest was the first major event to set up shop in the area, helping gradually reshape its geography into the welcoming, vibrant neighbourhood it is today, complete with its unique infrastructure.

Looking at the space, the festival’s entire history floods back to him. The first outdoor shows on St. Helen’s Island in 1980, then in the Quartier Latin in 1982, and finally in the streets around Place des Arts, where a dozen outdoor stages have popped up over the years, while the area’s many indoor venues joined in the festivities.

“Although Montreal had some expertise thanks to the big free events of Expo 67, there weren’t many precedents for a festival like ours,” he recalls. “Free music in the streets – that was actually revolutionary.”

Blues, jazz, rock, you name it!

Before co-founding one of the world’s biggest jazz festivals, Ménard produced blues concerts with his loyal business partner Alain Simard. The pair had always seen music as a utopian space, without borders.

Driven by their love of jazz, blues, rock and their various fusions, they never tempered their ambition or backed down from their inclination to mix genres. They embraced the jazz-rock fusion wave spearheaded by Miles Davis, and they were fascinated by the genre’s endless mutations over the following decades. They kept their festival on the cutting edge.

“Our ear was shaped by an age when even commercial radio was daring, not formulaic,” Ménard says. “Progressive rock had educated a lot of people about musical diversity. Nobody felt the need to pigeonhole everything. That’s why, as far back as 1983, we programmed reggae, salsa, blues and African music. It was completely natural. Too bad for the purists – our harshest critics.”

Nevertheless, eclectic taste didn’t stop this diehard music lover from appreciating more “classic” jazz artists. Case in point: trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who led the neo-traditionalist movement of the 80s. Or great singers of jazz standards, like Diana Krall. “When she played the festival for the first time, in 1995, she was almost unknown. And now she’s a huge mainstream star. What I find fascinating is that she led the general public to jazz, rather than using jazz as a springboard to pop. She stayed true to herself, and people followed her!”

A loyal man, but…

The list of artists who return to the festival year after year is a long one. Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Tigram Hamasayan, for example, are clear favourites of Ménard and his programming team.

“I’m a loyal man,” he laughs. “But only as long as a returning artist reinvents themselves. Once, we had Ray Charles back after a five-year gap, and he gave the same show, practically note-for-note. He filled all the seats, but it was still a little bit disappointing. Those who come back more often are tireless explorers who never stand still, who often change up their repertoire. I really admire them.”

That category includes artists like Brian Setzer, “a great musician and an exceptional showman,” in Ménard’s view. In a similar vein, there’s the entire contemporary London scene, an inventive generation led by groups like Get The Blessing and the Neil Cowley Trio. Or Dominique Fils-Aimé, winner of Radio-Canada’s Révélation award in 2019, “an extraordinary artist who has an almost sacred aura, like Nina Simone.”

“My hope for the future is that the festival’s DNA retains that joy of discovery and amazement,” Ménard concludes. “It’s a big machine that needs to meet the expectations of business and tourism, but if my successors manage to keep the flame lit and stay in tune with the times, it will be mission accomplished.”

André Ménard’s picks for the 40th Festival international de jazz de Montréal

Richard Galliano duet with Ron Carter; Brad Mehldau; Melody Gardot; Buddy Guy.

André’s personal favourites
Bobo Stenson; Larry Grenadier; Vigay Eiyer & Greg Taborn; Tuss Gustavaen Trio – all from the ECM label.

Not to be missed
Dominique Fils-Aimé; Youn Sun Nah; Vincent Peirani; Steel Pulse; Richard Reed Parry; Benoit Charest.

Festival international de Jazz de Montréal
June 26 to July 6