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The spirit of jazz is alive in Montreal

Shelly Runyon
The spirit of jazz is alive in Montreal
(Photo: Shelly Runyon)

Montreal —The Montreal Jazz Festival is more than the sum of 800 bands over 12 days. For many, it is family tradition.

Adrian and Guerda Sanon made the six-hour drive from their home in Hyde Park to attend the festival with their daughter Nearah. “We’ve been coming here almost six years,” said Mr. Sanon, as his arms twisted and Nearah spun circles, dancing to the music behind them. Motioning down he added, “She’s been here for the last three years.”

The Sanons are not the only repeat attendees. Most people at the Festival brag about how many years they’ve attended, and while few have made it to all 31 years, many have watched it grow. Each year, the Montreal Jazz Festival attempts to top itself with bigger names and more bands, striving for the impressive and the flamboyant.

And this year, they succeeded.  From award-winning artists to first timers, parades and after-parties, large venues to intimate beer garden settings and improvisational jam sessions, the Festival thoroughly explored the spirit of jazz.

Navigating the festival is difficult without the guidance of a few seasoned attendees like the Sanon family. This year they visited for most of the 12 days, and they explained that in the mornings they go to the children’s stage — an indoor jazz festival where the kids are able to play with interactive musical instruments and gain an appreciation for jazz. During the evening they attend the free outdoor shows and sing and dance as a family. In the late evening, he after party is always at Club Soda. This year, Club Soda hosted a wide range of live performers from jazz to tango to house music.

With an anticipated 2.5 million people in attendance, the 800 bands offered very diverse entertainment. The Montreal Jazz Festival sets up more than 25 stages for the artists some in the clubs of Montreal’s Red Light District, others in the streets that line the Quartier des spectacles — one square kilometer of pedestrian walk-ways and cultural venues. Many of the artists performed either inside auditoriums or on stages with multi-colored light displays that give St. Catherine Street an effervescent glow. Pop up restaurants serving coffee, crepes and mangos carved like flowers provided sustenance — if the festivalgoers are too busy to step inside one of hundreds of sit-down restaurants and bars nearby.

The melding of international foods and music brought together culture and traditions of jazz — and as each brass instrument sang over the Quartier des spectacles, the audience danced and sang the nights away.

While many attendees satisfied their appetite for music and dance outdoors, the big names this year played in indoor theaters and were still a large draw.

“We came to see Lionel Richie,” said Carolyn Sparks, as her daughter Tela-Soleil, 7, danced for the crowd. The pair drove up with Sparks’ mother from Ottowa. Sparks said Lionel Richie was “amazing,” and said, they “came back to the festival for the first time in 10 years,” after previously being loyal festivalgoers.

Lionel Richie was one of the biggest artists this year, performing two sold-out shows in the first two evenings. Other draws to the Festival ranged from big names in jazz such as Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck and Manhattan Transfer and other top-40 hit makers such as Steve Miller Band with the Doobie Brothers, Cindy Lauper and Smokey Robinson.

Montreal resident Adrian Reid has seen many of the big names in his experience at the festival. “[Smokey Robinson] has always been my favorite,” he said. Reid and his wife Barbara moved to Montreal from New York years ago, and each year they take the time to attend the festival. Mr. Reid is a major jazz fan who can describe many of the big artists in detail. He lit up at the mention of Sonny Rollins, and described him as a “classic jazz” artist.

Both Rollins and Robinson were award winners this year. Rollins was awarded the Miles Davis Award — the first time an artist who was not affiliated with Miles Davis, but a peer, was given the award. He accepted the golden statue with a quick, “Thank you very much,” before taking a breath and blowing the audience away with his tenor-saxophone.

The next evening, Robinson was awarded the Spirit Award in a mid-concert ceremony. Montreal Jazz Festival Artistic Director André Ménard presented the award, and Robinson gave a brief speech. He said he felt overwhelmed as he thanked the audience.

“I don’t do this to get awards and all that, I do this because I love it and I get a chance to come and be with you, which is really a real blessing for me,” said Robinson, “And that means the world to me.”

Robinson put on a lively show full of humor and history. He sang his own hits as well as many of the songs he wrote for the Temptations, taking the audience through the decades of Motown along the way. In the end, he had the entire audience standing and singing in unison, “I love it when we’re cruising together!”

As exciting as the big names of the Festival are, the outdoor-free entertainment, where up-and-coming artists belt out their songs over the crowds, is where the spirit of jazz is felt the most.  More than 350 free shows were offered outside on three main stages in the Quartier de spectacles or on smaller stages placed around the big venues.

Many festival attendees buzzed about Jazz Mafia, a west-coast group that came to the Montreal Jazz Festival for the first time this year. The San Francisco-based group consists of a 45-piece touring orchestra with ballad singers, rappers and spoken word artists who collectively create a sound reminiscent of the impromptu style of jazz conversations with a modern feel.

Many members of the ensemble also held solo-concerts including Crystal Monee Hall, a singer who is most famous for playing the role of “Joanne” in the finale cast of Broadway’s “Rent,” and who was there promoting her new solo album, as well as The Shotgun Wedding Quintet, a five-piece subset of the group that has been described as a cross between street-corner rapping and big band sound.

Artists came from as far away as San Francisco to the Balkans and many festivalgoers traveled from just as far.  The sense was that no matter how many hours it took to travel whether coming 12 hours from Halifax, 13 hours from Maryland or six from Boston, the entertainment and uplifting spirit of the Montreal Jazz Festival was well worth it.

“It’s really fun; it’s a good time,” Mr. and Mrs. Sanon echoed to each other while exchanging a smile and laugh — and watching their daughter dance between them.