Talkin’ All That Jazz: The Changing Face of Summer Music Festivals (Part 1)

Published June 23rd 2015


Think you know jazz? Since its birth in the early 1900s, jazz music has proven difficult to define. It’s never been a genre with a single focus, instead encompassing and igniting a wide range of sounds with improvisation at their core. From swing through to hip-hop and back again, generations of musicians around the world have inspired one another to create new forms and hybrids, further expanding the range and reach of jazz.

It’s truly an exciting time to attend any of the international jazz festivals that TD supports across Canada. Widely popular and ever evolving, these festivals program an incredible range of sounds, filling their stages with impressive Canadian and international talents who all somehow connect under the jazz umbrella. That musical diversity is reflected in the changing faces of ever-growing audiences. 

Here, in this two-part series, we speak with festival staff about what they see and hear.



“If you asked 100 people for the definition of the word ‘jazz,’ you'd get 100 different answers,” says Josh Grossman, Artistic Director of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, taking place June 18 to 29. “We're now enjoying the output of at least two generations of musicians who grew up listening - and having easier access to - a far greater variety of music than their predecessors. As a result, jazz has changed substantially; no longer can it be put into just a few silos, like ‘trad,’ ‘modern,’ and ‘swing. We're hearing jazz mixed with rock, R&B, hip-hop, contemporary classical and much more.”

“Jazz is a family with its arms wide open,” agrees Petr Cancura, Programming Manager of the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival (June 18 - July 1). Right now, this music embraces all kinds of genres and styles. What is at the heart of jazz is the intimate and adventurous improvisatory aspect. Musicians who truly embody jazz open their heart to the audience and take them on a journey unique to that moment.”


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“[Our] audience is made up of fans who have lived through much of the history of jazz, as well as younger fans energized by newer strains,” says Cancura. “On the other end of the spectrum are the adrenaline-seekers and dancers who scour the late night stages. It’s not uncommon to see the same faces at an intimate, avant-garde show one night tearing it up to an indie-inspired brass band the next.”

“A festival can only grow and sustain itself with a mix of familiar faces and new audience members,” points out Toronto’s Grossman. “Each year we aim to program artists who are new to us, and they tend to bring new audiences as well. Snarky Puppy is a great example: a group which has been performing in Toronto for years and has built a loyal following, particularly among post-secondary school music students. When we put them on a main stage, we see a demographic that might not come out for some of the other shows.”


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Each festival may have its own identity and focus, but they all have their collective eye to the future.

“Presenting world-class jazz music is at the heart of what we do,” emphasizes TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival’s Executive Producer Paul Nolin. “That said, we also think it's important to program broadly; from jazz in all its forms to blues, R&B, soul, hip-hop and dance.

“In terms of jazz music, I like to keep an eye on who is keeping the art form vibrant and exciting. This year, I have a young artist named Otis Brown III, who just released a record on Blue Note. In the past, I've worked with Robert Glasper, Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Christian Scott, The Bad Plus and many more. Their youthful, adventurous approaches, oftentimes incorporating other genres, are what keep the music alive and vibrant.”

Similarly, Ken Pickering, Artistic Director and co-founder of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival (June 18 - July 1) says that “maintaining a diverse and well balanced music program has allowed the festival to attract new and younger audiences every year since inception, yet still appeal to a large core constituency.

“Hipsters, hardcore jazzers, techies, youth, culture mavens, and music fans of all stripes can find exciting music that will resonate,” enthuses Pickering. “The festival has evolved over 30 years through an unwavering vision and commitment to jazz creativity. Today’s festival reflects today’s creative jazz world and is in essence a summit meeting of jazz, improvised music and hybrid forms from around the globe.”

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Pickering notes that 25 countries are represented in Vancouver’s 2015 line-up, mentioning the likes of “mainstream traditionalist” Jimmy Heath; “modern traditionalists” such as The Roots and Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra; “hybrid traditionalists” Ester Rada and Banda Magda; “post-modern jazz innovators” The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, and “genre-benders” like Snarky Puppy, GoGo Penguin, and Zaki Ibrahim.

Back in Toronto, Josh Grossman puts it succinctly: “We book jazz, jazz-influenced, and jazz-influencing artists,” citing main stage examples like “the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra - one of the most important bands in the history of jazz,” and widely influential funky soul band Tower of Power, along with an impressive range of other talents.

“We want to celebrate how jazz got to where it is today, and where jazz is going in the future.”

Darryl Mar, Festival Producer for the TD Victoria International JazzFest (June 19 – 28) also connects past to present.

“[Our] programming philosophy has been the same for the past 32 years,” he underscores. “The core is jazz, however we attempt to program global trends in other genres in order to attract newer audiences.

“We incorporate all styles of jazz, as well as blues and R&B, world music and roots music. [This year], we have South Africa's Freshlyground, Mexico's Troker, Brazil's Eliane Elias, Israel’s Ester Rada, and many more. Some of our headliners include Lisa Fischer and Grand Baton, Pink Martini and Tower of Power. We also have 165 local artists performing in both free and paid events.”

As for Ottawa, Petr Cancura gives an excited overview.

“This year is truly a special one as we have a celebration of European jazz, spanning groups like Paal Nilssen-Love, one of the greatest current improvisers, to the forward-looking and virtuosic Tin Men and The Telephone. A special project is teaming up the great Joe McPhee from the US with our own Jesse Stewart and Montreal’s Nicolas Caloia. Our main stage is riddled with jazz inspired marquee talent such as Chris Botti, The Roots and Snarky Puppy, and if you are up for some dancing, every night offers a slightly different taste of energy-filled veterans and up-and-comers, like The Soul Rebels from New Orleans, Freshlyground from South Africa, and Reuben and the Dark from Toronto.”


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Coming up in part 2: We learn more about factors that feed into programming decisions and hear highlights from TD supported jazz festivals taking place deeper into summer.