American blues and reggae musician Corey Harris performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival. (Shelly Runyon photo)
|Chris Rob’s Vicious Keys perform at Jello Martini Lounge on June 30. (Astrid Lium photo)
MONTREAL – At each Montreal Jazz Festival, jazz and other genres of “intelligent” music are brought to the forefront of discussion for just a moment.
This year, festival musicians and revelers came to the Place des Arts in Montreal to have a good time, hear great music and discuss the state of jazz and its role at the festival.
On a stage in the club Metropolis on St. Catherine Street in Montreal, the recent cutbacks of jazz programming at Boston’s public radio station WGBH, was the buzz before a much anticipated concert by Esperanza Spalding and her band, the Radio Music Society.
The concert began in full drama.
A mock boom box radio sat on the stage, and tuned into different stations. Each of the stations was a bandmember who then performed a quick solo. And, after the last bandmember was introduced, the audience knew it was time for Grammy award-winner Spalding to come on stage.
But the boombox dialed to WGBH: “This is Eric Jackson. And this – is us.”
The band picked up and as the audience cheered wildly, partly because of the arrival of the Grammy award winner but also for the voice of Boston jazz, Eric Jackson. At the end of the first song, the crowd stood silent waiting for her first words. Referring to the recent cuts to the Jazz programing at WGBH, the Berklee College of Music alumna said, “We wish that soulful, intelligent music stays on the radio.” And then the first set began.
Somerville native, Manny Laine, 26, said that he felt the cuts to WGBH’s programing were unfortunate. “That was a big part of my upbringing, and me coming up as a musician in Boston … really helped.”
He was in Montreal playing drums for the New York-based funk group, the Chris Rob Band, and the members all weighed in on the topic.
Guitarist, Shelton Garner, 38, said that the emphasis on and enthusiasm for diverse music in the United States is waning. And, in other countries, he notices a big difference.
“People appreciate music more, they appreciate arts more,” he said. “We used to all take music and art and they cut that out. People don’t know the difference between a bass and a saxophone now in the United States. In Europe, they always know; always.”
Chris Rob, lead singer and keyboardist, offered a theory that music in the United States took a turn when hip hop came on the radio. “If you notice, when hip hop music came out, and it really started emerging and becoming more popular, all the stations became really stylized.
“That’s when everything was like, ‘oh we play smooth jazz music’ or ‘we play adult contemporary music,’” he said, “It was a new style [and] people weren’t ready for it.”
He said that he didn’t believe there was a racial motivation behind this musical compartmentalization, though other band-mates disagreed.
Rob said that the issue is really about money and that it’s difficult to support specialized music genres in the United States because the market doesn’t support that kind of diversity. “Until they figure out how to make the money,” he said, “mainstream music will stay as it is. It’s based around the dollar.”
In Montreal, especially during the festival, the locals have a different experience. Locals milling around the festival know jazz and blues, they all appear to be music lovers, eager to talk about the music and to discuss the changes in the genre.
“It’s a dying breed,” said Montreal resident Damon Jackson. Jackson believes that festivals like the one in Montreal help maintain diversity in the music scene and that he appreciates it. Each year, he and his friends come out to see the shows and listen for something new.
This year, he came with two friends, Dwayne Charles and Ronald Patrick. He said the jazz festival is about “bringing all the cultures together to have a good time.”
Oftentimes they come to the Jazz Festival and don’t listen to jazz. They come for the big names and are introduced to new types of music. Memories of famous musicians like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles from festivals past stuck out in their minds, but they said that they have seen genres like reggae and drum and bass at the festival, both of which were represented this year.
Charles, 32, was undecided on the mixing of genres. “I guess it’s bad because it’s a jazz festival,” he said, pausing to reconsider his statement. He continued, “A majority of jazz means something different for different people.” Part of the benefit of coming to the jazz festival, he said, is to experience the “market diversity.”
Jackson agreed. He said that the best show they had seen this year wasn’t jazz at all, but it wasn’t mainstream either. It was a 17-year-old from Chicago with his 13-year-old guitarist on an outdoor stage playing the blues.
“We had no idea what was going to happen,” said Patrick, 41, also from Montreal. “That’s what I like — the element of surprise, not knowing anything, not being influenced … and just waiting around, listening. Then, bam! They knock your socks off.”