In the festival’s 40th anniversary year, both Ménard and Simard are retiring from active roles in rallying the party. Qwest TV spoke with Ménard about the festival’s history, his role as artistic director and what his highlights were.
What today is the largest jazz and beyond festival in the world (2 million visitors to 500 concerts on multiple outside stages and seven indoor concert halls) was launched 40 years ago as a modest gathering of 12,000 in the French-speaking Canadian city of Montreal. A couple of years earlier the city had hosted the Expo 67 World Fair and the 1976 Summer Olympics, both of which had impressive cultural programs.
Inspired by this, the co-founders of the city’s L’Équipe Spectra concert company, André Ménard and Alain Simard, jumpstarted an annual jazz festival based on their experience of hiring such jazz stars as Dave Brubeck and Weather Report. It has since grown to present all the major jazz icons—from Miles to Ella—and an eclectic display of top-tier pop acts including Prince, Public, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and a variety of African musicians. This year Festival International de Jazz de Montreal presents 3000 musicians from over 30 countries for the ten-day event (June 27-July 6).
How did you and Alain jump into the festival realm?
We had been thinking along these lines for a few years and finally in 1978 Alain went to New York to talk to George Wein, who was the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival. George told Alain, “Welcome to the game. If you want to lose your shirt, go ahead. But I’m not sure Montreal is such a great market.” We started with no sponsors, public money, specific venues and no real way to make ends meet so we could pay the artists. We scheduled concerts with Keith Jarrett, Ray Charles and Chick Corea with Gary Burton. What saved us was a decision by the French Canada state broadcasting to televise the shows.
You originally started the festival at the Expo 67 venues, but then decided to move into the center of the city in 1982.
We moved to the Latin Quartier on St. Denis Street, which is when the festival really jelled. There were bars there and concert venues that we used every night. In 1986, we expanded to have the festival also move to La Place des Arts. It connected two parts of the city together. We had stages in the streets, making it a free outdoor party with ticketed concert halls. The festival matured in the ‘90s, and it helped to unify the French-speaking and English-speaking communities which had been experiencing [separatist] tension. The jazz festival became a state of grace where the political differences were set aside, and everyone got into the party atmosphere.
It must be a huge job to be the festival artistic director. How do you do it all?
I’d go to 300 to 400 performances each year in Montreal and around the world. Since I was young, my life had been all about music. I listen to music in the morning, spend time with friends in the afternoon and then go to concerts at night. I like recorded music of course, but the live experience can’t be beat.
When did you begin to scale back on being artistic director?
As the festival got bigger, I couldn’t do everything. So much of the job went to Laurent Saulnier who has been the vice president of programming for the last 20 years and Maurin Auxemery who has been with us for the last five years as the central programmer of the festival. I’ve never been the big boss guy. I have the title, but I listen to all the opinions and we all come to a consensus.
You present the jazz stars of the day, but have also diversified with artists beyond jazz.
Before the festival started Alain and I were into putting on prog rock concerts, stuff like Genesis where these bands took tunes into 15-minute jams, which to us is close to the spirit of jazz. The improvised parts in popular music today stems from what jazz has achieved, people like John McLaughlin and Miles Davis. As early as 1983, we were presenting reggae, salsa and African musicians. In that way Montreal was inspired by some of the European festivals, like Montreux.
What have been your best pop-oriented shows?
The ultimate was Prince. Then there was Bob Dylan. He’s a peculiar guy and I didn’t dare talk to him backstage. I sat in the house, and my God. Then there were the three nights of Leonard Cohen in 2008, his first time performing in Montreal in 17 years. My greatest regret was not getting Joni Mitchell to the festival. We tried many times but were not able to do it.
What about your jazz highlights?
Obviously Miles. He was playing here not in the best years of his life, but it was all about his mere presence. Pat Metheny has always been a champion. Of all the singers, Ella Fitzgerald sang like a bird. There was nothing contrived or forced in her. For the more modern singers, there’s Diana Krall and her integrity. We were responsible for putting her on the map. She did something almost impossible. She went from jazz and crossed over to bigger popularity by remaining a jazz singer.
You’re retiring, but the festival is ready for another big expansion beyond the Quartier des Spectacles.
We’re creating new festival centers beyond the downtown in neighborhoods that are active in culture. The first satellite site this year will be in the borough of Verdun. In this way the festival will grow to other parts in the city. City hall is pretty excited about this too as we spread the party out.