Days of Musical Bliss at the Montreal Jazz Festival
Story and photos by Tim Leffel



As a musical gathering meant for real fans, the Montreal International Festival of Jazz presents musicians bringing their A-game, impressive sound production, and an atmosphere of civilized festivity—even when a record heat wave rolls through...


Montreal Jazz Festival

As soon as I dropped my bags, I walked to the first stage in front of me and saw a big band in full swing, trumpets, trombones, and saxophones wailing while a drummer and electric bassist kept it all pumping in time. Then 50 meters away, The Mighty Swells revved up the retro surf rock sounds, taking us to an imaginary beach. The Urban Science Brass Band held court on a blocked off street, the marching band instruments' sounds bouncing off the nearby skyscrapers whilurban science brass bande a Sephora Urban Science Brass Band in the streets of Montreal during the International Jazz Festivalmake-up sample girl looked confused.

On other stages it was a jazz quintet, a Dixieland band, a Stevie Ray Vaughn tribute band, Terrance Blanchard, Bela Fleck, the "criollo electrik" of Roberto Lopez, and George Thorogood cranking up the guitar riffs that have worked for 30+ years. With 35 shows a day across a dozen performance spaces, the Montreal Jazz Festival is a music lover's dream manifested.

Where the Record and Gramophone Were Born

Most of the shows at the Montreal Jazz Festival don't happen until early evening onward though, so on my first full day I took a cab ride out to a place that made the whole music business possible. The Emile Berliner Musée des Ondes honors an inventor who plays second fiddle to Thomas Edison in the history books, but had much more to do with the evolution of popular music. While Edison worked on wax cylinders and was mainly focused on voice dictation at first, German-born Emile Berliner worked with Alexander Graham Bell on the microphone after emigrating to the USA, then invented the Gramophone on his own in 1887. Eventually he commercialized the flat-disk record and player inventions and on the site where the museum now sits, he established the Berliner Gramophone company in 1906. Later it then joined with what became RCA Victor in the 1920s.

RCA museum

It was a strange feeling for me to see what's in the glass displays of this museum because I spent seven years after college working for RCA Records. The image of Nipper the dog tipping his head while the music plays was an iconic part of the schwag I collected and gave to relatives while working there. Jackets, mugs, salt and pepper shakers, pins...you could put that image on nearly anything. In an appropriate circle back in the end that Berliner would have appreciated, the American company I worked for became part of a German one soon after I started: Bertelsmann's BMG Music.

The main room of the small museum takes things 50+ years forward though, with "hi-fi stereo" systems from the 1960s and '70s, when the design was as important as the sound. There's a groovy chair with built-in speakers and, futuristic looking consoles. In those decades we were coming off the age of giant wood TV/music combos then that dominated the living room. These sleek designs were a huge leap forward. They had newfangled plexiglass, nods to the space race, and speakers that you could actually move around—a novel concept for the home.

Other parts show the evolution from shellac to vinyl, different types of gramophones, clock radios, and recording equipment. Berliner had a hand in all of these, as well as—oddly—the pasteurization process for milk.

Hot Shows in Montreal

When I emerged from the museum in the afternoon sun, it was feeling like "fry an egg on a sidewalk" weather. A major heat wave was hitting this part of North America and the mercury would tip 100F degrees for several days. Six residents of Montreal died from heat exposure during the few days I was there, when the heat index topped 45 Celsius. Thankfully this festival was more enlightened than the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest I'd been to a couple months earlier, where the only water you could get had to be purchased in the form of a throwaway plastic bottle. Here in more progressive Canada, there were water filling stations near most of the stages.

Jupiter OkWess

Plus if you got tired of the beer served at the festival—where not a single brand was from Canada—you could go get a cold local one from a nearby bar. Since this festival has no admission charges, only tickets for specific indoor events, festival goers could come and go as they pleased. The food stalls were doing a good business, but at this Montreal festival anyone can walk a block and sit down for something divine instead. In the air conditioning.

The blistering heat was putting a damper on attendance, which was not so great for organizers, but terrific for those of us in the audience. No pushing through a crowd was required to get near the stage or bounce around in front of it. Those who had brought along their lawn chairs could enjoy an unobstructed view without standing up. Smaller crowds combined with the innate Canadian politeness made this the most chilled-out festival I've ever been to. Perhaps the fast evaporation kept the alcohol from having much effect, but I didn't see anyone falling down drunk and no fights broke out anywhere.

Urban Science brass band

This didn't mean it was easy for the performers though who were playing outside. Clingy shirts and expanding sweat marks were the clothing design elements of the day. When I got up close to a performer, I would see faces that looked like they had just emerged from a swimming pool. The only artists on stage who didn't seem to be fazed by the heat were Jupiter & Okwess on the international stage. They danced, they jumped around, they prowled the stage and never stopped. But then again, they're from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The local Urban Science Brass Band kept their A-game going the second day I saw them as they marched through the streets like a New Orleans funeral band, with the additional of dancers and megaphone rappers. As the thermometer kept rising though, they seemed to be going through gallons of water on their breaks. One of the tuba players laid down in a patch of shade in a pocket park and was still there an hour later when I walked by, in the same position.

Brass Bands and Cross-cultural Rap at Night

Lowdown Brass Band

The heat abated slightly at night when the main stage performers came on to rock the outdoor crowds. A favorite of mine was the LowDown Brass Band from Chicago. A little New Orleans, a little Tribe Called Quest, and a little March Fourth, they tossed a lot of great elements in a funky soup that drew a big crowd on two consecutive nights.

The biggest evening crowd I saw at a free show was for Montreal band Nomadic Massive. While I'd never heard of them before, they've been around since 2004 and have toured internationally. They were clearly a supergroup in their home city. They seemed emblematic of the modern world music scene too. Singing and rapping in multiple languages, with members floating on and off stage to play different instruments, they're an embodiment of the fluid musical borders where mash-ups are more common than historic rigidity of styles and forms.

Deva Mahal Montreal Jazz Festival

On another stage was Deva Mahal, daughter of legendary Taj Mahal, then on another stage Afrikana Soul Sister. One of the beauties of this festival is that is only takes five or ten minutes to walk from one stage to the other, so I circled what I wanted to see on the giant program but often just left it to serendipity to make some great finds.

Intimate Jazz and the Power of Silence

The Montreal International Festival of Jazz goes on for 10 days, with the majority of the shows being free. To make that work financially there are lots of big corporate sponsors, but also ticket charges for the very biggest acts. I went for three of these and got blown away each time.




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