Back in the groove: Alberta’s jazz festivals are in full swing again, amidst resounding support from their communities

Full Text:

The phoenix is rising from the ashes of two once long-standing jazz festivals in western Canada, and organizers of the new Edmonton and Calgary events vow they won’t get burnt again.

Their lineups of world-renowned musicians are a little trimmer than in the past, but still artistically powerful. Once again, Edmonton and Calgary are on Canada’s jazz festivals circuit, meaning better access to top international acts. From June 18 to July 2, such jazz luminaries as Joshua Redman, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Garrett, Dave Brubeck and Madeleine Peyroux will play stages from Victoria to Winnipeg. And after being courted for more than a decade, Sonny Rollins will at last return to Vancouver’s festival and also debut at Victoria’s.

When Edmonton’s famous Jazz City crashed in 2005, a belly blow was felt across the country by fans of the music, festival organizers, sponsors and volunteers, hosting venues and the musicians themselves. Jazz City was the longest-running international jazz festival in Canada. If Edmonton could fall, who might next?

Answer: Calgary, a year later.

Jazz Festival Calgary announced the news only six weeks before opening night: there would be no festival, due to “funding uncertainties, the timing of notification of ever-decreasing government funding, and unexpected demands from some of our creditors.”

back-in-the-groove-albertas-jazz-festivals-are-in-full-swing-again-amidst-resounding-support-from-their-communities-1

But on both occasions in both cities, the show did go on–albeit a different version than planned–thanks to a grassroots rallying of citizens and performers.

“For 25 years, Jazz City was a significant festival on the global scene, and it came to an abrupt halt,” recalls Kent Sangster, executive director of the new Edmonton International Jazz Festival. Sangster credits the Edmonton Jazz Society (operators of the 50-year-old Yardbird Suite jazz club) as the primary reason a festival was created that year. “In six weeks we put together 60 performances of local and national talent and the Edmonton audience was very receptive to that focus,” he says. International artists Dave Holland and Sheila Jordan agreed to appear on the strength of the Yardbird Suite’s good reputation.

Sangster says that with this year’s changeover to the new Edmonton International Jazz Festival organization “we’re not trying to recreate Jazz City, which became a huge pyramid of international artists with some local acts.” This year’s festival is an inversion of that pyramid with Edmonton and Canadian talent comprising the majority of the shows. But international acts are in demand, evidenced by the early sellout of Madeleine Peyroux’s performance at the gigantic Winspear Centre. “Things look very positive,” Sangster says. “We’re building slowly, with the help of Jazz Festivals Canada. We are truly trying to retain a jazz festival here. If we keep venue sizes realistic and don’t overextend ourselves on the large shows, we’ll be very successful.”

back-in-the-groove-albertas-jazz-festivals-are-in-full-swing-again-amidst-resounding-support-from-their-communities-2

Calgary’s revival mirrors Edmonton’s, although it had been on the brink of collapse before, in 1997. Then Jazz City’s founder and producer, Marc Vasey, took over running the Calgary festival concurrently with Edmonton’s in 1998. To some, it looked like a franchise operation. Local musicians and fans feeling disenfranchised from their own festival responded by forming C-Jazz, the Calgary Jazz Association seven years ago, to help raise the profile of Calgary talent and present a late-summer festival. It was to C-Jazz that performers turned when last June’s international event was cancelled. “The day after the announcement, I got calls from national and international groups that had been booked, asking if we could find a place for them to perform,” says C-Jazz’s Pat Maiani. With Jazz Festivals Canada’s agreement, Maiani placed most of the performers, who didn’t mind the more modest venues. Now, as producer of the new Calgary festival, Maiani says he’s almost overwhelmed by the support from the entire community: “Everybody seems to be pulling for us. We have generous new sponsors and some of the old ones have returned.”

June is ending on a high note for jazz fans in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. From the Vancouver International Jazz Festival that draws more than 500,000 patrons, to the younger Medicine Hat JazzFest that’s been growing steadily for 11 years, an impressive array of talent and styles from across North America and as far away as Denmark and Japan will wow ’em once again. Stay tuned.