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Montreal: Emerging Jazz Capital of the World

Publié le 1 février, 2009 | 2 commentaires

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The histories of jazz in New York City and Montreal flow together along a current of authenticity. As Montreal prepares to receive $120m, how can its jazz tradition further strengthen its identity as an international cultural destination?

It is no accident that the cities which have historically been centres of intense jazz activity have been those cities in which large numbers of musicians could find steady work. Montreal was no exception. The stability, spirit, and creative output of the city’s jazz community [during the 1920s to the 1960s] were directly linked to the capacity of the city’s entertainment industry to provide steady employment for musicians1.
John Gilmore, Swinging in Paradise

 Jazz Paints a Picture
Andrew Eick, Jazz Paints
a Picture
, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

Jazz in New York City

How does a city become a “jazz capital of the world”? The criteria constitute a combination of factors as unique as a chain of enzymes forming to spark a new form of life into existence. There have been several throughout the century-long history of jazz, ranging from the southern U.S. cities of its birth such as New Orleans, St Louis and Kansas City, to the urban centers of its youth in Chicago and Philadelphia. Paris had its jazz heyday in the 50s when Sidney Bechet led the way for some of the best jazz players of the time to cross the ocean to tour. A society dame and her wealthy husband helped finance the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island (now the JVC Festival) in 1954, but by 1972 it had moved to New York, only returning to Newport in 1981 as a twin-site to New York’s more formidable draw. In Switzerland, the Montreux Jazz Festival was born in 1967, but by the 1970s, it was hardly exclusive to jazz. Ultimately, New York City has reigned not only because it was a natural hub for musicians, with its extensive club districts that grew up around the speakeasies where the nescient music developed and throve, its audiences hungry for recordings of the new sounds, but also because from the time the music had been around long enough to have its devotees, it was recognized as a musical form with the potential to rise to the heights of passion, sophistication and culture, and carry its musicians and listeners aloft with it. As with its Art Deco architecture and style, these were just the things New York sought to reflect in all its aspects.

Though the music had humble beginnings in the pick-up bands, which performed in parlours of brothels and in bars, its later practitioners were drawn from conservatories and music schools that enabled musicians to compete with the complexities of classical and symphonic forms. From Duke Ellington to John Coltrane and Bill Evans, musicians were studying structure and incorporating exotic and thrilling modes and inversions into their melodies and harmonies, breaking down chords and displacing rhythms. By the mid-50s, sounds from Latin America and Africa would push their way into the mix, further broadening horizons for the sound. As early as 1948, the New School for Social Research, located in the downtown Manhattan, was offering a series of well-attended lectures on jazz history and theory, and by the 1950s many colleges and universities were offering jazz classes in their music curriculum. In 1945, band leader Woody Herman commissioned the cosmopolitan Russian composer Igor Stravinsky to write the Ebony Concerto, a “jazz concerto grosso,” which was performed at Carnegie Hall.

The Montreal Jazz Scene, 1920s – 1960s

And what was going on in Montreal during this explosive period, when Swing gave way to Bebop, Hard Bop, and Free Jazz? The same factors that had elsewhere caused jazz to ferment in musical (and urban) ghettos were working up north as well. Racism and segregation had caused a large black community to gather in the area below the railroad tracks in the St Antoine district of downtown Montreal, as this was where porters and rail workers—mainly black—were hired and trained. Prohibition in the States also contributed to an influx of freedom-seeking club-goers, who flocked to clubs whose names they recognized from their originals in Harlem, like the Roseland Ballroom and Connie’s Inn (“Bringing Harlem to Montreal”)2. The famous names of New York’s 52nd, or “Swing” Street, like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, could be found late-night at Montreal’s Café St Michel and the Terminal Club, sitting in for jam sessions with the locals, while Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Jimmy Dorsey brought their dance bands to the Chez Maurice in the 40s, with Ellington’s former trumpet player Louis Metcalf returning to Montreal in the mid 40s to bring the Bebop sound to Montreal, at the Café St Michel. But influence wasn’t all one-sided: Oscar Peterson brought awestruck musicians up from New York on a regular basis3.

White musicians also persisted in finding ways to spread ‘authentic’ jazz, like Willie Eckstein’s band, who were some of the first generation of francophone musicians to play jazz4. The all-black Canadian Ambassadors, an entirely indigenous Canadian band, had contracts at The Montmartre and Connie’s, later featuring Montreal native Steep Wade, formerly piano player for Metcalf’s band, who would keep them at the St Michel for years. Rockhead’s Paradise, begun in 1928 by one Rufus Rockhead, the first black club owner in the city, showcased black talent up to the 1960s. Montreal was fortunate in having more integration and generally less militant racism than the U.S. In one legendary incident, The Ritz Carlton Hotel refused to allow the Johnny Holmes Orchestra to play its date because it did not allow blacks—in this case, Oscar Peterson—in the hotel5. But the organization who had hired the band, (the “International Daughters of the Empire”!) called the manager to insist on Peterson’s being allowed to play. “Not content with the moral victory, Holmes kept Peterson in the spotlight…calling one piano feature after another all night long”6.

Montreal, however, could not maintain its musicians with steady work after World War II, when many clubs closed down due largely to a crack-down by formerly corrupt police and local government officials who then wanted to “clean up” the city. Also, the advent of television made it difficult for musicians everywhere, but the black community was hit especially hard, with contracts being withdrawn as demand for live shows waned. With Oscar Peterson in Toronto, and local talent split up due to unemployment, the jazz scene shifted away from its traditional roots to morph into the sound-track of the “Quiet Revolution” in the 1960s, with the birth of Musique Nouvelle, or Fusion Jazz, played now by young Quebec-born musicians like those playing in L’Infonie, Walter Boudreau’s “orchestra of the infinite”7.

A City, A Plan: Montreal

In the near future, Montreal, with the largest jazz festival in the world that in 2007 attracted over two million people attending shows by over 3000 jazz artists from 30 countries, may begin to give New York a run for the title. In November 2007, Mayor Gerald Tremblay of Montreal, the Honourable Michael Fortier, Minister of Public Works and Government Services and minister responsible for the region of Montreal, and Premier Jean Charest of Quebec, publicly announced the allocation of $120 million dollars—$40 million from each level of government—to finance the Special Planning Program for the Quartier des Spectacles, intended to “transform the Place des Arts area [where the Montreal Jazz Festival takes place each year]…to position Montreal as an international cultural destination8. It is precisely because Montreal considers a strong jazz community an emblem of high culture that the jazz community has a lot to hope for from this legislation. As New York City has its “Jazz at Lincoln Center,” run by its Artistic Director, the Pulitzer Prize winning trumpeter and composer Mr. Wynton Marsalis, Montreal may hope to see a year-long jazz concert season in the Place des Arts’ Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, its premier performance venue.

A Tale of Two Managers

How does this translate into making Montreal a centre for jazz in today’s world? For a perspective fresh from the ranks of those living the jazz life alongside the musicians and their audience, I went to Mr. Joel Giberovich, owner of the Upstairs Jazz Club on Mackay Street in downtown Montreal. The club, coming into it’s 13th year, was invited to become an official venue of the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2007, in recognition of its commitment to jazz in the city. As luck would have it, I arrived to find in attendance the club’s most famous regular, Mr. Len Dobbin, Canada’s world-famous jazz critic and life-long chronicler of Canadian jazz, writer, and broadcaster for many years, an authority on the scene as one who lived it.

I asked them whether it would be significant to jazz if part of the focus of the Quartier des Spectacles was to create a specific “jazz village.” Has there been an irretrievable decline in the number of indigenous musicians playing jazz in the city since the destruction of the St Antoine district as a centre? Joel answered first: “To create a district definitely helps; even ten years ago, if you were in New York, you could go to the Vanguard, and if the music’s not what you’re looking for you could go next door to the Blue Note, and there was Sweet Basil down the street down there, feeding off each other as long as each one had its own niche. The Village Vanguard is a very different club than the Blue Note, and anyone who’s in the know is going to look for something different; for me, I always go the Vanguard because I look for the purity of the scene. But it’s all good as long as they complement each other. We don’t need two Upstairs, we don’t need two House of Jazz [another landmark Montreal club, formerly known as Biddles, on Aylmer Street], we need different club scenes to maintain the musicians, and possibly for serious clubs to work together to promote this music, because let’s be honest, you go into this business because you want this scene to last, to exist. All over the world, jazz is turning less into a club music and more of a concert or festival music. I mean, I went to Italy for my honeymoon and I couldn’t find one jazz club, and I looked. But I found jazz music at a festival.”

Mr. Dobbin offered further observation: “We’ve got a lot of young, talented people from different parts of the world because of McGill, which offers a Master’s Degree in jazz, and not that many universities offer that degree, so we’re getting some wonderful players here, at least for a short time; and some stay.”

“Concordia and the University of Montreal also have undergrad programs; we have a record label, Just In Time, which is a major label in the jazz world, we have the Conseil des Arts, specifically to promote music and the arts. You don’t want Montreal to be New York; it’s a small city with a big-city feel.”

“New York is a proving ground,” says Len, “people go and establish their worth there. I find, you pull up in a car in New York, and you feel the vibration.” I ask if there are any Canadians who play more jazz than others, and why I seem to meet so many from Winnipeg.

“Winnipeg has a very strong jazz society,” says Joel. But talent tends to stay local until it has a reason and an opportunity to take it to the next level. “If you look at this club all year round, Montreal musicians play 70% of the time, and on Friday and Saturday we bring in musicians.”

“Great musicians come from all over Canada,” Len interjects, “look at Nanaimo BC, what do they have in the water out there? They have the Jensen sisters, Seamus Blake and Diana Krall, all from that town, they all went to school together!”

What about the Quartier des Spectacles? Will it bring stability to the club scene?

“It depends on who’s running it,” Len observes dryly, but then offers a practical answer, “Air travel has changed jazz as much as anything, you don’t have to live near the clubs. In the heyday, bands would travel by bus, a long tour with a lot of dates spread from coast to coast. Now? You can play a weekend gig.”

To get some insightful perspective from the New York scene, I arranged a telephone interview with Mr. Jed Eisenman, who has been the manager of New York’s most famous jazz club, Village Vanguard, since about 1984. The club, located in the Greenwich Village area of the downtown west side of Manhattan, was opened in 1935 by visionary Max Gordon, and is the only one of the original district, (which included Eddie Condon’s, The Blue Note, The Village Gate, and several others) to have survived the test of time. Not one of the most important artists in jazz failed to play the club multiple times over the 7 decades of its vigorous life, and recordings “Live from the Village Vanguard” are some of the best ever made. What did he think of Montreal’s jazz ambitions?

“New York will always be the world-capital of jazz simply because so much of the music and the history was made here, but Montreal has a great, strong jazz scene—people seem committed to their identity as a centre for jazz in the world. But the old days of a jazz ghetto, where musicians would be able to percolate the sound, to learn from each other and riff off each other—those days are gone. Festivals are the trend, and clubs have to adjust. There was a Greenwich Village Jazz Festival for a while, but it wasn’t commercially successful. I’m sure clubs like Smalls and Sweet Rhythm have a lot of business from being near the Vanguard, but once you’re a fan of jazz, you tend to be loyal to the music.”

So that’s what it takes: an authentic history, decades of participation in the process, a city with a love of sophistication, culture, and liberality, that stays passionate about the arts, which bring people together to both educate and delight them, bring the whole world to join them in a public party that celebrates what it has helped to create. “Ultimately,” Jed concludes, “when a city has that vital, year-round jazz scene, it’s a capital of jazz.”


1. Gilmore, John. Swinging in Paradise. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1988: 13.
2. Marrelli, Nancy. Stepping Out: The Golden Age of Montreal Night Clubs, 1925-1955. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 2004: 22.
3. Lees, Gene. The Will to Swing. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1988.
4. Gilmore, 47.
5. Barris, Alex. Oscar Peterson: A Musical Biography. Toronto: Harper Collins, 2002.
6. Gilmore, 105.
7. Gilmore, 239.
7. 2006-2008 Partenariat du Quartier des spectacles. “$120 million at the Rendezvous.” <http://www.quartierdesspectacles.com/en/nouvelles/fichenouvelle.asp?id=52> emphasis mine.

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2 Responses to “Montreal: Emerging Jazz Capital of the World”

  1. John Gilmore
    octobre 28th, 2011 @ 06:23

    It’s nice of you to attribute my book, Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montreal, as the source for your summary of the city’s jazz history. But your summary is highly selective and in some places inaccurate! Just two examples: The Canadian Ambassadors (1930s) came before Metcalf’s band (1940s). And the nightclub and jazz scene was at its peak in the years after WW2; it wasn’t until well into the 1950s that city hall began cleaning up vice.

    Also note that there is a second edition of Swinging in Paradise, published in 2011 by Ellipse Editions, and available at Lulu.com.
    The Vehicule Press edition is out of print. A French translation of the book is published by Lux Editeur, titled Une histoire du jazz a Montreal.

  2. Rockhead
    juillet 14th, 2012 @ 00:12

    As a Grandchild of Rufus Rockhead i enjoy reading article about him and Rockhead Paradise. History is important….