The annual Montreal International Jazz Festival is one of the must-dos events of the summer in Montreal. It’s also an excellent reason to make the trip to the city, especially if you’ve never been. Currently in its 31st year, the festival is one of the biggest music events of its kind the world, drawing close to two million visitors and featuring literally hundreds of concerts.
Performers range from home-grown bands, stepping into the spotlight for the first time, to international superstars. Past headliners have included Oscar Peterson, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan. This year, on opening night, Lionel Richie had thousands of fans on their feet, singing along to such chart-topping hits as Say You, Say Me, Dancing on the Ceiling, and All Night Long.
Not Just Jazz
The name is a bit misleading because, although jazz is featured, the festival is really more of a celebration of music that inspired jazz and music that jazz has inspired. That explains why this year’s line up includes acts as diverse as sixteen-year-old Jazz singer Nikky Yanofsky (whom you may recognize from the Vancouver Olympics closing ceremony), legendary R&B singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson, and electronic music guru Misstress Barbara.
Free For All
In addition to the phenomenal ticketed indoor shows, there are dozens of free outdoor concerts every day. With seven easily accessible outdoor stages, you could spend an entire day (or an entire week) wandering from one fantastic show to another. The Planète Jazz tent, located just in front of Salle Wilfred-Pelletier, is a particularly good spot to see jam sessions up close: the musicians are playing just a few feet away from you.
Top Ten Ways to Enjoy the 2010 Jazz Festival:
- Dream Big. The Jazz Fest brings legendary acts to Montreal that you might never otherwise get a chance to see. Treat yourself to the opportunity of a lifetime by booking tickets to one of the festival’s major concerts. On Monday the 28th, Smokey Robinson will be playing the festival’s largest venue, Salle Wilfred Pelletier. On Sunday the 4th, Gipsy Kings take the stage and on Monday the 5th, it’s the Steve Miller Band. Information on how to buy tickets is available is at the festival’s website.
One of the biggest nights of the festival will be closing night, Tuesday, July 6th, when a massive Mardi Gras parade will make its way through downtown Montreal all the way to the main stage for a blow-out concert featuring Allen Toussaint and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. The concert is free but it will be crowded so get there early for a good view.
- Be Adventurous. You probably won’t know many (or if you’re me, most) of the bands that are playing the hundreds of free concerts clustered around Place-des-Arts. But each one has been handpicked by the dedicated musical programmers and is sure to be fantastic. Take a chance on someone you’ve never heard, or heard of, and you might just discover a new favourite band.
- Be Informed. As you will quickly discover, the Jazz Fest is incredibly well organized. The free program, which is nearly 200 pages long this year, not only has an easy-to-read schedule of events and a map, it offers detailed descriptions of each band’s heritage and musical style. Pick up a copy at any tourist information centre or download the free iPhone application.
- Try “Le Balmoral” Bistro. This bustling French bistro, which opened last year, has seating for 200 and a fabulous view of the festival area (though not of any of the stages). The food is excellent and as a non-profit, any revenue the bistro makes is dedicated to supporting free activities in the Maison du Festival (the Jazz Fest’s headquarters).
- Scope Out the New MSO Building. You see that concrete shell of a building located behind the construction barriers at the corner of Saint-Urbain and de Maisonneuve streets? That is the site of the future Montreal Symphony Orchestra building, scheduled to open in the summer of 2011. Take a good look because by next year’s Jazz Festival, you may be attending a concert inside.
- Be Patient. During the festival, Montreal closes the streets in the festival area, giving pedestrians free rein. Even so, with thousands of visitors milling around, things move slowly, especially in spaces where traffic flow is limited. These include the area around the main stage (at the corner of Saint-Catherine and Jeanne-Mance streets) and all of Saint-Catherine street east of Saint-Urbain street, where construction on the road has reduced all pedestrian traffic to a single sidewalk. Take your time and go with the flow.
- Take Public Transit. The Jazz Fest is located just east of the downtown core, in an area called Place-des-Arts, directly above a subway stop of the same name. Although it’s tempting to think driving to the festival will be more convenient, especially if you’re traveling in a group, the lack of parking in the area can make car travel a nightmare. Save yourself the hassle and either walk, take the subway (which is clean and quick) or use Montreal’s incredibly fun public biking system, Bixi.
- Dress for the Weather. Usually I give people advice about not overheating during the Jazz Fest but this year, perhaps because the festival is being held a little earlier, things have been a bit cooler with the threat of rain. All Jazz Fest concerts are rain or shine, though, so if you’ve got your heart set on a particular outdoor show, come prepared for whatever the skies throw at you.
- Take Advantage of Message Boards and “Lost and Found”. There’s something charmingly old fashioned about the message boards that the organizers have erected in various spots throughout the festival grounds. If you opt to leave your cell phone at home, or if you simply want to try it out, leave a note for a friend at one of these little kiosks.
The organizers also have a stellar “Lost and Found” service. If you misplace something during the festival, call 514-288-1971 to track it down (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) during the festival, or 514-871-1881 after the festival ends.
- Plan to Return Next Year. Year after year, just when we all think the organizers of the Jazz Fest can’t possibly outdo themselves, they go ahead and prove us wrong. Keep an eye on the festival website to see what they have up their sleeves for 2011.