Montreal jazz festival at 40: A talk with André Ménard
This year marks the 40th edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, scheduled for June 27-July 6. It also marks the last year of involvement for André Ménard and Alain Simard, cofounders of what the Guinness Book of World Records calls the “world’s largest jazz festival.” We spoke with Ménard, who is also artistic director, about the festival history and what he is looking forward to this year.
Q. What prompted you to launch the Jazz Festival?
A. When we started, Montreal did not have much activity in the summer. When we set up shop in 1980, there had been no big music festival for quite a while. The first event was quite modest. We had eight concerts over 10 days. We moved it downtown as of the second year, and centralized around St-Denis Street for three or four years and then we started doing things around Place des Arts.
Q. Now Montreal is known as a festival city. Did the Jazz Festival help launch that reputation?
A. Yes, it did. In the last 10 years, the city has delivered new public spaces around Place des Arts, a multi-hall complex that is Montreal’s counterpart to Lincoln Center in New York City. The public spaces that the city has been making are what we call Quartier des Spectacles. We have 13 concert halls for the festival this year and seven outdoor stages. This resource that we have with the public spaces and all the concert halls in the same neighborhood is not something that you see very often. It’s like Broadway with more diversity. This is at the very source of the jazz festival’s success.
The indoor concerts are all ticketed and the outdoor concerts are all free. Having much of our program free helps draw people. It is a meeting point of all the communities that live in Montreal and lots of people from outside. The festival really reflects the spirit of the city, a peaceful city where lots of ethnic communities live side by side and meet during events like this.
Q. It appears that music has the power to bring people together.
A. We are challenging people’s curiosity towards music. Jazz is not about language. The two founding peoples of Canada, the French and the English, would not really mingle around the time of the first separation referendum . The jazz festival showed that all these people could converge at the same place without hard feelings. Jazz — and music in general — is a big unifying factor. People can hold onto their political convictions, but when it comes to having a good party in Montreal, not much can stop it. Especially with our cold winters. When we announce our schedule, a lot of people say, “oh, summer is coming.”
Q. The festival seems to define jazz very broadly.
A. The true trunk of the festival program is jazz, but then the foliage has many colors. When we started the festival, some people considered jazz had died around 1960 with the first electric piano on the concert scene. We never looked at it that way. We think it involves a lot of evolution. Jazz has influenced a lot of music and lots of music has influenced jazz as well. As early as the third or fourth edition, we had reggae and salsa. In 1983, we had Tito Puente and musicians from Africa and Jamaica. It’s a bit along the lines of what they are doing in Europe.
Q. What are some of the highlights of this year’s program?
A. We have lots of people who are part of our history but are still very active. I first saw Chucho Valdès in Cuba in 1987. He will be playing Symphony Hall and this really excites me. Brad Mehldau has a special quintet just for Montreal. Melody Gardot is returning for two nights. Norah Jones is returning as well. Buddy Guy, who we have been promoting for the last 40 years, will be closing at Place des Arts.
And speaking of Cuba, one of the heirs to Chucho Valdès in terms of playing, Roberto Fonseca, will be doing three nights of different music with different bands. Fonseca is a major talent of the last 10 years. It’s jazz fest season all over Europe. I’m pretty happy that he is going to play three nights in Montreal.
Q. So many choices can almost be overwhelming. What advice can you give to a first-time visitor?
A. Check out the program on the jazz fest website and let yourself do pure discoveries. The one thing that has always been true to the jazz festival is that it is a festival put on by music fans for music fans.
Q. We understand that this year there will also be programming in one of the neighborhoods?
A. Yes, it is a new initiative. We will be having a satellite site in Verdun, a neighborhood on the west side of the city, close to the St. Lawrence River. It’s a multi-year plan where a few neighborhoods that are accessible by Metro will be involved. There will be free outdoor music, parades, and all that.
Q. Montreal is a great jazz city year-round. For people who miss the festival, can you recommend some good clubs?
A. There are three clubs that I consider to have a permanent jazz policy and not always the same artists playing every weekend. There’s Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill [www.upstairsjazz.com]. There’s Café Résonance [www.resonancecafe.com], a co-op managed by artists. And there’s also Diese Onze [www.dieseonze.com]. These three clubs are good examples of what a jazz club is supposed to be.
For more information, see www.montrealjazzfest.com.