Festival De Jazz International Montreal

By now, the resounding success of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is self-evident. But it’s been almost three decades since what became the biggest festival in the world was little more than a twinkle in the eye of founder Alain Simard, whose unshakeable belief in the event finally made it a reality — as is often the case with innovators such as he.
Back then, the passionate music lover had already brought the likes of Chick Corea, Larry Coryell, John Lee Hooker, Weather Report, Dave Brubeck, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee to town through his association with Kosmos Productions. He’d travelled to New York with Denyse McCann to discuss the festival project with Georges Wein, founder of the esteemed Newport Jazz Festival. And then came a visit to the Vermont Jazz Festival with new partner André Ménard with whom he had just launched the company Spectra-Scene. Because what Alain really wanted was to “launch a jazz festival of truly international scale. A festival that would bring thousands of American tourists to Montreal,” as he wrote on his first grant application in 1978, an application which was refused, incidentally, as were others until the 3rd edition of the Festival in 1982.

Despite initial disinterest from governments, Alain and Spectra associates André Ménard and Denyse McCann didn’t give up, going ahead with a press release in early 1978 to announce the launching of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. But they didn’t just wait around for it to happen: to prove their point, they went ahead to produce jazz and blues shows featuring the biggest names in the biz, including Charles Mingus, Jean-Luc Ponty, B.B. King, Oregon, Bill Evans, James Cotton and Gary Burton. In the spring of 1979, when the 1st edition of the Festival was announced only to be cancelled 3 months later for lack of financing, they remained undaunted, launching shows at the Théâtre St-Denis featuring Keith Jarret and some young guitarist named — wait for it! — Pat Metheny.
Finally, in the summer of 1980, thanks to Alain De Grosbois of CBC Radio and the sale of TV broadcast rights to Radio-Québec, the first Festival International de Jazz de Montréal actually took place on Île Sainte-Hélène. Featuring Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Ray Charles and Vic Vogel, the event was enthusiastically attended by what then seemed a huge 12,000 visitors. But the Festival had nonetheless already established the magical format that secured its future success, creating an easy-going atmosphere conducive to partying and musical discovery where international names in jazz rubbed shoulders with local talent. There was an abundance of eclectic programming and free shows and even a roaming Dixieland band direct from New Orleans to keep things hot on the Festival site. Even back then, the essential details of the ultimate Festival formula were established, with an official free yearly program, a membership card and even a black T-shirt with the famous Festival logo on it.

The baby grew up fast, doubling in size and becoming an autonomous non-profit corporation. Starting with the 3rd Edition, the Festival began to receive the support of its first sponsors, re-locating the party to St.Denis Street, Montreal’s “Latin Quarter”, although it quickly outgrew that location as crowds increased yearly. Attendance grew in proportion to the big names coming to town, and public enthusiasm for the event was matched only by that of the stars, including Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Stéphane Grappelli, Pat Metheny, Astor Piazzolla, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan. By its 5th anniversary, the Festival was already touted by both journalists and musicians from abroad as the best in the world, serving as an international springboard for local musicians, too, through its Concours de Jazz (jazz competition). Things were moving fast: André Ménard took over programming from Simard, who was succeeded by Charles Joron as production director. Luc Châtelain took charge of administration and Denyse McCann took the helm of commercialization, finally joined by Jacques-André Dupont, in marketing, and Jacinthe Marleau for government relations.
1987 was a turning point: after a financial crisis threatened its very survival, the Festival finally received the support of Montreal City Hall and entered into partnership with Alcan and Labatt Bleue, breathing new life into the event and adding more activities to locations on St.Catherine Street. In July 1989, the event found its permanent and official home in the heart of downtown, becoming a global village centring around Place des Arts and the Complexe Desjardins, but spreading out into nearby streets, as well. Closed to traffic, the downtown center was now magically transformed, visited annually by tourists from around the world. Ten concert halls offered indoor shows to paying audiences, and another ten exterior stages provided free entertainment for the masses, bound by a strict policy of quality at no charge, and also no direct commercial solicitation. People were free and secure to move at will about the site, immersing themselves in musical and cultural discovery. And thus began what can only be described as a social phenomenon, when crowds from anywhere and everywhere began to gather daily, united in musical celebration as if for Sunday mass, but with master musicians from around the world as their officiating priests.
For its 10th anniversary, more than a million people — and a new record — showed up for the Festival, now recognized globally as among the best attended and most appreciated musical events anywhere. The Oscar-Peterson Award was created to annually honor the best Canadian performer and, for the 15th anniversary, the Miles-Davis Award was established to reward innovation on an international level. The Special Big Event, mid-way through the Festival, had also become a Montreal tradition, a popular event that attracted an average of 100,000 visitors to the downtown area for a free mega-show by the likes of Urban Sax, Pat Metheny and South African Johnny Clegg. Then, in 1995, almost 200,000 showed up to pay homage to the music of Cirque du Soleil and its composer René Dupéré! In all, that year the Festival boasted some 1.5 million spectators (of whom a full 20% were from out of town) and who together dropped at least $100 million as they passed through! The event became family-oriented, as well, adding the Parc musical for kids and the Petite école du Jazz to initiate youngsters to the rhythms and instruments of jazz, with the Festival’s mascot, “Ste-Cat,” never far away.

For its 20th anniversary in 1999, the Festival enjoyed a number of special celebrations and several TV broadcasts, consolidating its international position as the biggest musical event anywhere. For that occasion, we announced the creation of the Ella-Fitzgerald Award to annually honor jazz vocalists, and also launched CD and DVD collections to be distributed internationally by Universal. To hail in the 2000 edition, a huge party at the Palais des Congrès culminated with a farewell concert by Oliver Jones as he went into retirement. Now sponsored by General Motors Canada, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, even after so many prizes and honors on an international scale, was named the 15th most admired company among Quebeckers, according to a poll conducted in 2001. In 2003, president and founder Alain Simard was honored as the “most influential personality in the cultural sector” by the daily La Presse. The Festival launched its annual art gallery, too, presenting exclusive works by Miles Davis, Riopelle, Tony Bennett, Frédéric Back and official festival artist Yves Archambault, among many others. A temporary radio station, Radio-Jazz was launched, whetting Montrealers’ appetite for a year-round jazz station. And because the Festival was committed to remaining non-profit, organizers began to re-invest any surpluses in the presentation of a popular series of concerts Jazz All-Year Round, faithful to its mandate of promoting jazz music both from home and abroad.

The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal now annually offers about 500 concerts, of which three-quarters are free of charge, hosting about 2000 musicians, give or take a few, from over 20 countries. About 2 million visitors come from all over the planet to an event has become THE international jazz rendez-vous and a laboratory for the creation of new talent, most recently contributing to the successes of artists such as Diana Krall and Norah Jones.
Much more than surpassing the wildest dreams of its founders, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal has become an event for the history books.


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