SOME YEARS AGO, few could conceive of jazz festivals as centers for the music’s activity. Born with blatantly commercial ambition, the first festivals may have brought together the best performers in the music, but not always under the best circumstances.
The musicians rarely played at their highest level (a notable exception was the Ellington band at Newport in 1956). Instead, the after-hours jam sessions — and, to a lesser extent, recording sessions — were tide pools for the music’s creativity. Festivals, on the other hand, suffered from the simple logistics necessary to bring so many performers (and don’t forget the audience) together in such a concentrated space and time.
Musicians regularly complained of being hustled on and off stage, and of having little time to acclimate themselves to the room and the audience, let alone play anything of significance. Like everything else, however, things have turned around. The after-hours club died with the rest of the club scene in the late 1960s. Today’s high-tech recording studios are no longer cost-efficient for the spontaneity jazz demands.
Add in the public’s steadily decreasing leisure time, and these concentrated gatherings called festivals become more attractive. Given the economic realities of the music business, festivals have now become the town meetings of jazz. The music has outgrown the interplay of thriving club scenes, and even recordings. There are just too many players scattered across the planet, bringing new refinements and old wisdom to the music.
It can’t be assimilated through clubs and recordings alone. Today’s only opportunity to take in the music’s “big picture” in the present tense is at festival time. For the past seven years, an ever-increasing number of die-hard Buffalo jazz fans have religiously made the two-hour drive to Toronto just to experience the fervor of a major jazz festival.
It’s an ecstatic gathering of musicians and fans that Buffalo fans envy — even more so since the demise of Joe Rico’s Milestones, and the once jazz-dedicated Tralfamadore. It wasn’t that long ago this story was reversed. Yes, I know Buffalo never played host to a major jazz festival.
Still, the club scene here was once sufficiently brimming with international names compelling Toronto jazz fans to make the drive to Buffalo to witness performances by any of the music’s major practitioners. As recently as two years ago, Toronto jazz fans were still venturing here between their festivals for our limited, though still more active, club scene.
Toronto’s club scene may have taken its time coming around, but it’s here in full force. If there’s one purpose behind any city jazz festival, it’s that the quality of the scene as a whole will be intensified. Since the 1990 festival, two venues, the Bermuda Onion and the Top O’ the Senator, have committed to regular jazz schedules.
They book not only the biggest, but the most daring names in jazz. A secondary purpose to jazz festivals is to intensify the music itself, raising the artistic level, pushing it beyond the status quo. For all the music’s individuality and singularity, promoters, like Toronto’s Jim Galloway, fancy bringing together just the right personalities to make jazz history.
Imagine the opportunity to introduce a future Dizzy Gillespie to a future Charlie Parker. Or, more likely, introducing such a team of creative prospects to its first large, impressionable audience. Why else would jazz promoters like George Wein go beyond the mere scheduling of established groups to create thematic nights for New York City’s JVC Jazz Festival?