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As the Montreal Jazz Festival Turns 40, its Visionary Founders Take a Final Bow

André Ménard reflects on great moments over four decades, including the Canadian singer-songwriter they could never land.

The 40th edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, which comes to a close this weekend, marks the last time festival founders André Ménard and Alain Simard curate the 11-day showcase of top-notch jazz players along with hundreds of artists playing all styles of music in a variety of settings. The 2019 edition was held from June 26 to July 6, and like in previous years, mixed free outdoor shows with paid indoor concerts.

Known for its progressive programming and welcoming milieu, Montreal Jazz is much like Austin’s South By Southwest in that the festival has grown mightily from its humble beginnings and has become an annual destination for music lovers. Variety sat down with Ménard to look back at some of the fest’s milestone moments.

After 40 years of guiding the Montreal Jazz Festival, what can you say about the relationships that have impacted on you during that time?
Ours could be one of the last industries that is people-driven. You meet great people, you hear great people, and you try to make something out of all this. The greatest person I met in that respect was Alain Simard. He had this idea in the late 1960s when the pop festival business was booming of being[based] downtown with concert halls where people pay to get in, and then the free outdoor stages. He knew that Montreal could do something different. We became partners in 1977 and created what we call the Montreal formula, because other festivals followed us, Les FrancoFolies and the Just For Laughs festival, it’s all based on the same principle and the same neighborhood as well.

You moved into programming over time, not necessarily from the beginning?
Alain used to be the one who would choose the artists and speak with the agents. I really started programming when I did the Charlie Haden sessions in 1989. In the first years I would put up microphones, put fruit in the dressing rooms and hang posters. I’d go to the record store and take the money back to the hall. It was a big learning process. We found out by ourselves, which makes it more interesting as far as I’m concerned. There were no schools for that. We created it on the spot for quite some time, finding the right way to do things and how to interest people, because we wanted something that would be very inclusive. It wasn’t about just the “happy few,” it’s never been, and jazz had that kind of elite image in the late 1970s, of being either club music or just for the initiated. This is something that we really set out to change.

The Montreal festival has always been known for its diversity, how do you think that came about?
Throughout the 1970s, the dominant force in jazz was fusion, which was very close to other music that we happened to enjoy, like progressive rock. So when it came to defining what the Montreal Jazz Festival should be, quite normally we went for something that was diverse. The jazz programming is still the main trunk, but you have leaves of many colors. Jazz has always been about integration. … What people call pure jazz has always been part of the festival, and we’ve been trying to illustrate that music needs to refresh itself with new influences and a different approach.

How has your festival changed the face of Montreal and made it a destination city?
Because of the festival, the size it has taken and the responsibilities that have come in terms of tourism development, the real estate downtown has changed because of the entire neighborhood that we have created. The festival has come to embody what Montreal has best to offer. Montreal is a very peaceful place — it’s multicultural, everybody lives side by side and there’s no political unrest about that. The festival gave Montreal a showcase that maybe it did not have before. True there were the big events that preceded us, like the Expo and the Olympics in 1967 and 1976, but by 1980 there was a longing for something. [Today[, it’s about … great concert halls, great sound, and artists with limitless time to ply their craft. And then the outdoor thing — a carousel of stages for music that you would never hear on the radio otherwise.

What are some of your personal highlights from 40 years of the festival?
Becoming a friend to Dave Brubeck. He had an open invitation, basically. Every year that he wanted to play and was available, he just had to tell us by March and we’d do the rest. Otherwise, dealing with Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis and Tony Bennett was really fantastic. Early on we booked Wynton Marsalis when he had his first record and he came to represent something quite novel— doing classic jazz and prolonging this style instead of considering it dead.

The first time we worked with Diana Krall I thought she deserved better visibility than she had for her first two records. So, we managed a ten-night series with her in a club doing a tribute to Nat King Cole that became her first record on Impulse! Her career really took off from here. I wouldn’t take credit for that but it was interesting to see a jazz artist cross over without compromising.

How did the World Music component of the festival become so prominent?
Jazz belongs to America, but it has traveled a lot and it can come in many forms and colors. This is why we always made a point not to book only American artists. There are great European or South American artists like Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, who played his first North American concert at our festival in 1984. Accordionist Richard Galliano from France played again this year, and that’s 15 times in 30 years! We brought Jan Garbarek here as often as we could, and percussionist Zakir Hussain… all great musicians who’ve really made a difference in the way they express their craft.

I’m proud that Americans would travel here to find music that they wouldn’t hear in America. It’s doubly gratifying to know that people were trusting our good taste. I remember we had a band from Romania one year and saxophonist Ornette Coleman was in town. He was walking by and stopped on the spot and listened to them for about 15 minutes. He was on his way to sound-check but he had to hear that music. Ornette was shaking his head and watching.

Who is your one White Whale, that is, what artist did you try to book for the festival that always got away?
Our eternal frustration is to have never been able to book Joni Mitchell. When we tried a first edition of the festival that didn’t really take off in 1979, it was the year Joni was doing the Shadows and Light tour with bassist Jaco Pastorius and guitarist Pat Metheny. We could only dream that she would return to the road with those guys, which she never did. But we kept offering. To us, she was a great icon and a true representative of the non-compromising pop artist whose approach and sense of musicality was so in the spirit of the Montreal Jazz Festival. We never managed to get her to play here, that was a bad disappointment. We also tried for a long time to get Ry Cooder to play and finally it happened last year.

Do you feel the festival is being left in good hands?
Our programmers have that spark, energy and will to prolong the fun and do it their way. They don’t need to repeat all the ideas that we have had before. They have mastered the art of taking risks but stay very relevant, and this won’t change. I’ve known for quite some time that the festival will survive its founders. I’m leaving the VIP area, and no regrets there. I’ve had a hell of a ride being backstage but I’ve never let the backroom activity take precedence over the music and the performance. To me, the bonus is to be able to be at a show. The rest is work, the rest can be fun, but it is never as good as when I’m in a concert hall with people, listening and reacting to what they are hearing and seeing. So from now on, I will be at home a bit more, but at the concert hall every night, as it’s been since my teenage years.

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