06/30/2014 11:30 EDT | Updated 08/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Diana Krall Adores the Montreal Jazz Festival

Diana Krall says she doesn't know where she would be without the Montreal Jazz Festival. For Krall and many other musicians, however, the festival means work, exposure and potentially a career-making experience.

Diana Krall says she doesn't know where she would be without the Montreal Jazz Festival. It's a comment that underscores an aspect of this enduring and endearing annual event that can get overlooked amid the dizzying amount of free music, street performers, beer and wine drinking, visitors, and money exchanges that make it one of the most notable events in Canada. For Krall and many other musicians, however, the festival means work, exposure and potentially a career-making experience.

"For so many reasons, it's the most important jazz festival in the world. If it wasn't for the Montreal Jazz Festival, I honestly don't know what I would be doing," says Krall, who spoke at a press conference on Saturday and then on Sunday night performed her first outdoor show at the festival -- one of her very few open-air shows anywhere.

In 1995, Krall debuted at the jazz festival with a tribute to Nat King Cole. She so impressed the festival-goers that Tony Bennett invited her on stage to play the piano. Her career exploded and now she is the one who lavishes praise on the premier event in a city full of amazing festival after amazing festival.

"You gave me a springboard," Krall, a British Columbian from Vancouver Island, told festival co-founder and music promoter André Ménard during the conference. "Musicians around the world know what this festival means and how important it is."

Significant moments in Krall's career that occurred at previous editions of the Montreal Jazz Festival include her first solo performances, which took place in 2011. She also had a 10-night run of club performances and played at the cavernous Bell Centre in 2004, a show that was recorded and released as an album.

"For the 35th year, we were wondering what could we do with her that we haven't done yet," Ménard told me. "We said, maybe she should headline her own show on the main stage. Normally for the big outdoor shows we look for something that shakes a bit more than the Diana Krall style. But people will listen and she is up to the challenge. I'm quite elated with this actually."

In some ways the Montreal Jazz Festival embodies the music it celebrates, shifting and improvising and redefining itself, keeping everyone on their toes from year to year. It challenges artists like Krall and surprises audiences. The formula equates to 800 concerts during the 11-day festival that accounts for a whopping $125 million in economic activity for the city.

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Throngs of fans, many of whom lined up for hours, watched Krall's performance that featured an appearance by her husband, Elvis Costello. It topped off an opening weekend that had the one thing every festival wishes for: great weather. The sunshine and temperatures in the low-30s Celsius brought out massive crowds, even for the shows on smaller stages.

Woodkid opened the festival on a hot and humid Friday night with an orchestra and giant screen that showed images matching the epic nature of the songs from his debut album called "The Golden Age." It was a curious choice for a main-stage opener. Woodkid, aka Yoann Lemoine, is a French film director and graphic artist as well as a musician. His appeal skews much younger than the jazz crowd. Woodkid's 2013 Montreal Jazz Fest performance at Metropolis was one of the most talked about shows of the 34th edition (you can read my report of it here) and helped convince Ménard that he was ready for the outdoors.

"I saw him in London two years ago and felt that this was a tremendously elaborate concept, with the visuals and other elements," Ménard says of Lemoine's eye-catching show. "And it's very intelligent music, very ambitious music. It starts out melancholic and builds to this loud drumbeat and it's theatrical with all of the orchestration and the number of performers. I thought it would go over well as an opening show."

It's also no coincidence that Lemoine's fans are more used to YouTube than MTV. "The average age of the festival attendee is 40 so we do have a preoccupation to bring younger people in," Ménard notes.

Serving the next generation of music fans, whether they be jazz lovers or not, is crucial for an event that employs 2,500 people and attracts more than 2 million visitors each year, roughly one-third of them from outside of the Montreal area.

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