The houselights dim, and only candles in amber glasses and anticipation of the awaiting crowd illuminate the darkness. A few anxious fans stir the cubes at the bottom of their glasses and strain their eyes for the arrival of a jazz legend. A shuffle on the stage, the curtain separates and shadowy figures slide into position behind drums, horns and microphones. The rat-a-tat of stick on cymbal stirs the darkness; the bass shakes the silence. The legend emerges, snakes an arm around the mike and eases out a few lazy lyrics, the hazy tones pouring over the audience like bourbon over ice.
When the first act takes to the stage at Toronto Downtown Jazz, June 20 to 29, it will be continuing a tradition that has brought the jazz elite to Toronto’s clubs and outdoor venues for 17 years. Since 1987, the sultry sounds of sax and snare have echoed out the doors of small and large clubs on June nights superheated by scorching jazz riffs. For a few short weeks, aficionados and recent converts alike swarm the city to feel the music made famous by Coltrane, Davis and Fitzgerald. In the past, such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Moe Koffman, Oscar Peterson, Harry Connick Jr., and Cab Calloway have graced the stages at this festival and this year’s lineup is no less potent.
Launching the festival in a teaser concert a week before the music gets into full swing is Dianne Reeves, an emerging vocalist whose pitch-perfect voice descends to soothing depths and soars to startling heights. Reeves, who has drawn comparisons to Sarah Vaughan, basks in every note, turning even the largest venue into an intimate affair. On June 12 she will test the acoustic veracity of Carlu, a recently refurbished concert hall that, in its first incarnation as Eaton Auditorium, once featured such luminaries as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington.
After the audience has sufficiently cooled for a few days following Reeves’ sizzling performance, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, under the leadership of industry icon Wynton Marsalis, rolls in for another preview concert on June 19, this time at the Hummingbird Centre. The LCJO, composed of 15 handpicked master musicians, honours a century of all-stars and performs newly commissioned pieces as well. The orchestra is presenting its 10th anniversary road show, titled Rhythm Is Our Business, featuring the works of Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, John Coltrane and Marsalis himself.
The jazz series truly hits its stride on June 20 when dozens of performers land in clubs all over the downtown core. Hometown favourite Molly Johnson offers up a soulful blend of jazz, blues and rock on June 23 at Nathan Phillips Square. The warm yearning in her voice in tunes such as “My Oh My” will move you, but Johnson is ever the entertainer, peppering her set with wit and charm. The Dave Holland Big Band offers a hefty 13-piece ensemble, featuring not only the big sound you’d expect from a large group, but also well-timed solos on June 21. Jason Swincoe brings the Cinematic Orchestra to the stage at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, blending jazz and rhythm, June 30. Another popular act will be the Wayne Shorter Quarter, a vigorous mix of the popular and the progressive, June 24.
Headlining the festival in a rare appearance is piano legend Ray Charles who, with his big band, adds more than a half-century of jazz brilliance to an event already packed solid with talent on June 27 at the Hummingbird Centre. In his distinguished career, Charles has brought jazz to a mainstream audience, drawing on his experience in rhythm, blues, gospel, even country and western. For the first time in a long while Toronto can indulge in his unique talent.
Ask Toronto Downtown Jazz artistic director Jim Galloway about the virtues of this year’s festival and he’s nearly overwhelmed with his excitement. A renowned saxophone player in his own right, Galloway finds it difficult to pick a favourite. “I follow Ellington’s philosophy that you shouldn’t compare art,” says Galloway. “There are some great acts coming to the festival. Johnny Frigo, for one. He’s an 86-year-old jazz violinist. He’s a monster. I mean, where does he get the energy from? He’s been playing for something like 70 years.”
Frigo is but one of the “new” faces at Toronto Downtown Jazz. “I’m really looking forward to hearing David Murray.” says Galloway. A master of the tenor sax and bass clarinet, Murray has been on the artistic director’s shortlist of must-have acts for years. But what truly amazes Galloway about the talent at the festival is the surge of interest in local acts and lesser-known bands that will win new followings. “I find that the most interesting things come from unexpected sources,” he observes. “More than half of the performers are Canadian. There’s a huge pool of great talent. Toronto is known as a jazz city year-round, much like New York.”
Why is Toronto Downtown Jazz such an important festival on the international scene? “We have much stronger European participation than many of the U.S. festivals, a fairly healthy representation of European music. There are some extraordinary French groups going back to the origins of jazz. And they don’t take themselves too seriously.”
It’s not easy corralling dozens of top acts, coordinating indoor and outdoor venues and ensuring that there’s something for every fan, but for Galloway, who has been a part of the festival since day one, this truly is a labour of love. “I’ve found that in putting this thing together, the fun outweighs the agony.”
LIVE AND LOCAL
Whether it’s festival time or not, Toronto has several live jazz venues that keep the music alive throughout the year.
Relatively new to the city’s bustling jazz scene, Alleycatz Live Jazz Bar (2409 Yonge St., 416-481-6865) is an elegant uptown space showcasing a toe-tapping array of music, made complete by the impressive martini menu and Mediterranean- fusion cuisine.
Located slightly off the beaten track and featuring a seductive mix of local and international artists, Montreal Bistro & Jazz Club is an inviting venue for everything from modern to New Orleans jazz. A French-inspired menu provides an added decadence to the sultry atmosphere.
Found on hip Queen Street West, Rex Jazz and Blues Bar offers a live music haven for jazz mavens. With about 60 spots a month being showcased, the Rex is the perfect place for an impromptu evening or weekend afternoon of some of the best jazz in the city. Don’t miss the Classic Jazz Jam every Tuesday night.
Sitting above the Torch Bistro, Top o’ the Senator is one of Toronto’s premier jazz spots featuring an impressive lineup of internationally renowned acts. With an ambience that takes its inspiration from the golden days of old jazz, this spot is an ideal setting for cocktails, cigars and a taste of Toronto’s musical past.
-Susan Murray—Jim Gifford