Ella Fitzgerald’s voice is my first memory of experiencing jazz; high, lilting, melodious, she sounded like an angel to my young ears. When she went into the scat section of “How High The Moon?” my heart stopped — it was such a new and different thing from the classical sounds I’d been exposed to (and played) as a child. It was so… loose, so free, so beautiful. It was pure poetry.
The free-floating, loose, arms-waving, hips-shaking, head-back-laughing-or-crying nature of jazz music is one that continues to inspire and fascinate. So when the TD Toronto Jazz Festival rolls around every year, it’s always cause for celebration in my world. The festival (which kicks off this Thursday, June 18th) has welcomed a range of sounds and styles over the years, with a big uptick in contemporary names rounding out the programming and adding a mass appeal to an art form many (wrongly) consider snooty. Happy memories of seeing Mavis Staples, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Bettye LaVette (whom I also interviewed), and Chaka Khan in recent years complement (nay, shimmy) with those considered more formal jazz artists, ones that hew to the path set out by the likes of Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.
Recently I had the chance to chat with the fest’s Artistic Director Josh Grossman, and we tossed around that “what is real jazz?” question, as well as the role digital culture has played in opening the ears of musicians and audiences alike.
People have said of the festival’s programming choices that much of it isn’t real jazz — “George Clinton isn’t jazz, Morris Day isn’t jazz!” What do you say to that?
Ha, that’s my favorite conversation ever! (laughs) Well, there’s the philosophical and the reality. The reality is, obviously, we’re a nonprofit, charitable organization, but we still need to be in the black every year financially and we have to make decisions that make sure the right amount of tickets get sold, so we stay in the black. I wish it was the case now that every single jazz artist out there right now could sell every single ticket, but unfortunately in our experience that’s not the case. It’s not exclusively that jazz artists don’t sell, a good percentage do, but we need to find a way to boost things, so sometimes we’ll look for an act that will do better at the box office to support the others.
That said, the artistic approach is, jazz as a music has evolved immensely over the past century. Musicians these days are listening, and have much easier access, to an enormous variety of music. All of those styles of music, whether that’s hip-hop or rap or rock or whatever the case may be, are influencing jazz players. A group like Tower of Power, I would say, if you ask any jazz musician, “Has this band played any role in your development?”, I’d wager a very large percentage would say yes. We like to have the strictly jazz musician, the ones who’ve influenced the development of jazz, and the musicians who’ve been influenced by jazz music. We’ve not had Prince on our stage or Stevie Wonder —these are artists who’ve performed in the United States and overseas. But someone like Prince has been so heavily influenced by jazz music, you can hear it in his composition… so I think there’s a place for a diverse variety of musicians in our stages.
How much of that growing influence has been because of digital culture?
Even before mp3s or CDs, when everything was on vinyl, (musicians) would be in the music store all the time, to find whatever they could get their hands on. It’s so much easier now: people can sit at their computer and listen to an enormous variety of music. On the audience side of things, it’s helping and hindering. It’s certainly helping introduce people to more music and we hope that once they get a taste of something online, they’ll want to come see us live. The hindering part is that more people are pretty content just listening to it online! Getting people out of their houses and into our space is a challenge.
That, combined with the fact there is so much music now means people are choosing to spend their dollars listening to another live artist that’s not at the jazz festival, so there are challenges that come along with that as well. […] The challenge is always getting people to cross the threshold. Once they’re in the venue, they have a great time, but people, maybe they’re trying to decide where to spend their money and they don’t know if they like jazz, so we need to make it as easy as possible for them to access things.
It’s inspiring the festival is featuring both Morris Day and a tribute to Oscar Peterson.
Each of these shows does serve a goal and a bit of a different purpose. The opening show… we wanted a big party. In past years, it’s worked out really well. With funding we’re able to put on these parties, that is what this show is. The Peterson show is going to be a beautiful if very different experience, but still beautiful, with great musicians.
And we’re teaming up with the Regent Park School of Music, and with Manifesto as well (an annual hip-hop festival), featuring an afternoon of artists that will resonate with their audience. We’re trying to reach out to all kinds of different audiences.
What does that mean for the future of jazz in Toronto?
I think it’s a really exciting time for music in the city. The challenge in the city is always to find appropriate venues that can be sustained on a long-term basis. There are a lot of great spaces to play jazz, though they don’t look like they used to. That is a challenge for certain musicians. We’ve lost the kinds of venues where musicians could go play for three or four nights in a row. Those venues aren’t around anymore. The Jazz Bistro and the Rex Hotel, those are the big ones right now, but there are 40 other clubs presenting jazz over the course of the festival, a good percentage of them are committed to presenting jazz round-round.
The TD Toronto Jazz Festival runs June 18th to 29th.