The Montreal Jazz Festival is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, and it's bigger and better than ever with acts ranging from Canadian superstars Michael Bublé, Diana Krall and Rufus Wainwright to alternative heroes Beck, St. Vincent and Violent Femmes to legends like Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Diana Ross.
We sat down with festival programmer Laurent Saulnier to discuss the fest's history and why it's expanded beyond what most people would consider jazz, as you can see from the lineup.
The Montreal Jazz Festival runs from June 26th to July 6th.
So what’s the legacy of the Jazz Festival as you hit year 35, middle-age almost.
The Montreal Jazz Fest is a real landmark in Montreal. Montreal without its Jazz Fest won’t be the same, I think. It’s very pretentious to say that, but I’m just repeating what everybody’s telling me about it. For me, it’s still pretty young. There’s a lot of other Festivals, like the Newport for example which is 63 now or something like that, so there’s still a future even when you’re 35 as a festival. And I think now that we have to think more about the future than the past.
It’s important every year to bring to Montreal some new faces and new talents, ‘cause you never know which one will be the next Miles or the next Diana Krall.
What do you think the programmer of the first year would think if he came to this year’s festival?
[laughs] You know what it’s very easy because the Programmer of the first edition of the festival has his office right next to mine. So I know that André Ménard is very [happy] with the programming of this year’s festival, but the tricky thing is 35 years ago, can he imagine that this festival could be that one? And I don’t know! But I'm going to ask him Monday morning, first thing.
Despite having jazz in the festival name, you have very much expanded beyond that.
Yeah, but during the ten days of the Montreal Jazz Fest there are almost 800 concerts and I think that we’re still mainly a jazz festival. But do we have room to open a little bit; we have room to think about something else other than jazz with the big ‘J.’
So if you’re choosing a Beck, what is it about their not-jazz music that you associate enough with the Jazz Festival.
When you’re thinking about Beck, he's one of the few still young singer/songwriters from United States that could do anything that you want him to do. Could be a little bit like Prince, you know? He’s doing whatever he wants to do, the way that he wants to do it. So for me Beck is really someone who is really a part of everything. He’s not pop anymore. He’s not folk anymore.
For me it’s always the same kind of mathematic: is there something in the music of that band that could be related to jazz? And if you’re looking well, there will be one way or another. It’s very difficult to find any musical genre that is not related to jazz. There won’t be hip-hop without jazz.
Yeah, because what are The Roots really besides a really great jazz band? If you’re in a band where musicianship is the main priority then essentially you’re in a jazz band.
Yeah. I think so.
Q&A continues after slideshow
For a long time Jazz was like kind of considered an old genre that kids didn’t listen to, it might’ve started out as dangerous music in Harlem but it had gone beyond that. Michael Bublé took it to the top of the pop charts. How important has Bublé’s success been for the Canadian jazz scene and just like jazz in general?
You forget one thing, Diana Krall—
Both from B.C., interestingly.
But I think without Diana Krall there won’t be a Michael Bublé. I think so. I’m a huge fan of Diana Krall, also. I think it—
But she never went to number one in the States. Right?
No, not in the States. Almost everywhere in the world, but not in the States. I’m not that attached—no, okay, I will rephrase it: The fact that the word ‘jazz’ is in the mouth of as many people in 2014, this is important. And I’m always saying that - The Roots, for example - for me having kids saying that they are going to see The Roots at the Montreal Jazz Festival, every single word in this sentence is important. During a month or so people are saying the word, ‘jazz’ in Montreal. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. And it’s not only a few select people that are talking about jazz.
It takes over the city.
The city entirely is talking about jazz. And this is the most important thing here. Yes, it’s Michael Bublé, yes it’s Diana Krall but it’s also Aretha Franklin, or Diana Ross, or Keith Jarrett, or B. B. King, or name it! There will be, during the ten days of the Jazz Festival, there will be around 2 million people, that will drop by the Jazz Fest site. Each and every single person will have to pronounce the word ‘Jazz’ at least once. The job is done.
If you had to pick a few like real highlights over the last 35 years, what would you say?
Oh! There’s a lot. Prince playing at The Métropolis.
How many hours did he play?
The first night he went on at 11:30pm and stopped at 3:30am.
Sounds about right!
That was just crazy. The Homecoming of Leonard Cohen in 2008 or 2009 that was [amazing]. The first time that Diana Krall played at the Montreal Jazz Festival in a small club, capacity of 200 people—even at that time everybody knew that she was going to be someone.