Even before Prince opened the 32nd Montreal International Jazz Festival on Friday night, the streets were buzzing with music. A street performer drew the longing notes of Bésame Mucho out of his tarnished saxophone. Indian drummers in native costume pounded relentlessly on tabla drums as a bride and groom mounted a horse. A woman's voice sang sweetly in Chinese out of an amplifier in a Chinatown CD store.
Jazz is not new to Montreal -- it`s been a part of the city's culture for over a hundred years. After the American Civil War, African Americans began migrating to Montreal, bringing their beats with them. Segregation existed in Montreal, but not to the extent that it did in the U.S. African Americans weren't the only ones escaping segregation and infusing Montreal with music. Charles Aznavour, an Armenian immigrant who became one of France's most popular singers, struggled to launch his career in the 1940s in his hometown of Paris, according to his autobiography. He traveled to Montreal, where he was an instant hit. Only Edith Piaf, who came through Montreal on a concert tour, could bring him back to Paris.
Unlike its more uptight neighbor, Montreal did not partake in prohibition, making it a center for entertainment in the 1920s and 30s. It became known as the Sin City of the north, where you could get away with anything. Soon jazz was seeping out of every bar on Notre Dame Street, taking over the Little Burgundy district. The area became a breeding ground for musicians, raising the likes of jazz pianists Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones.
Today, the jazz festival is the largest of 109 festivals in Montreal, and 2.5 million people come out for the event. Nearly 3,000 musicians play over 1,000 concerts, two-thirds of which are free. The festival takes over the Quartier des Spectacles, which is home to 80 art galleries, theaters, opera houses, and concert venues. Outdoor concerts abound, and if you don't like the music playing on one stage, the next stage is just around the corner.
This year, the festival features Prince, Diana Krall, Pink Martini, Tony Bennett, The Roots, Esperanza Spalding and the Oliver Jones Trio, among many others. Some of these artists you wouldn't think of as necessarily being jazz musicians, and others stray even farther from the strictest sense of the word.
But just as Canadians are like French people without the attitude or judgement, that is to say welcoming speakers of all languages, the jazz festival welcomes all musicians -- reggae, country and rock alike. Come one, come all, and as the Doobie Brothers used to say, "Listen to the music."