The Doobie Brothers are a jazz act?

Purists take issue with the Montreal jazz festival’s ‘junkyard’ of headline acts

by Martin Patriquin

By Robert Etchevery

Several questions come to mind during a recent listen to Nights In White Satin, 1967’s ode to alabaster bedware by English band the Moody Blues. How many Britons were conceived during the quivering seven minutes of the song? Who, exactly, invented the classic rock flute solo, and why haven’t they been punished? And how in the name of Sonny Rollins can this schmaltz possibly be considered jazz?

Of course, no sane person would dare equate the Moody Blues with the likes of Rollins, Miles Davis or Wynton Marsalis. Yet when Festival International de Jazz de Montréal organizers announced this year’s headline acts, the Moody Blues were front and centre. So were the Steve Miller Band, the Doobie Brothers and Boz Scaggs, along with a host of distinctly un-jazzy boomer favourites like Cyndi Lauper and Lionel Ritchie—“the king of slow dance classics,” according to the festival press release.

What does it say about the state of the genre when the largest jazz festival in the world must prop up its offerings with a cabal of graying ex-arena rockers—many of whom have long been relegated to the casino circuit? And with the auteurs of Nights In White Satin hogging much of the spotlight, does Montreal’s jazz festival even warrant the name?

Jazz purists, generally a prickly bunch, don’t seem to think so. They have pooh-poohed the festival’s big name (and non-jazz) indulgences for nearly as long as it has been around. “Let’s admit at the same time that what we once proudly called the world’s best jazz festival has become something else again—more of a music festival than a jazz festival, more about packed hotels and marketing deals with airlines than about fresh, exciting and risk-taking jazz,” wrote the Gazette’s Peter Hadakel in 1999, a year in which techno DJ Carl Craig headlined. “It seems locked into a formula of booking acts that will fill sprawling venues.”

Even festival organizers admit that purists will be all the more peeved this summer. “Are there more popular acts this year? Maybe,” says André Ménard, co-organizer of the festival for 31 years. “The most extravagant one, I’ll admit, is the Moody Blues. It’s a bit marginal.” The festival once hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Byrd, and Buddy Rich, among dozens of other jazz luminaries; today, jazz—Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Ron Di Lauro, along with a host of other notables—is sandwiched between hip hop and Latin in a list of 21 musical genres hosted by the festival.

“Out of commercial necessity, jazz festivals now stand for a junkyard of genres, music scraps if you will, rather than a showcase of the masterful art form,” says noted jazz historian and critic Marc Myers. “Festivals have little choice but to have rock and contemporary groups masquerade as jazz acts to fill out schedules and act as mousetrap bait for older boomers who recognize their names.”

Jazz is a genre of understatement and nuance, and critics (Myers included) bemoan the festival’s emphasis on large crowds, big noise and acts that are about as jazzy as creamed corn. It may be a surprise, then, that the owner of the city’s premier jazz club loves everything about the festival, classic rock and all. For 16 years, Joel Giberovitch has run Upstairs, a 60-seat jazz joint in downtown Montreal. It is as genuine as you can get this side of Chicago: Giberovitch books jazz acts seven nights a week; famed Montreal jazz critic Len Dobbin called Upstairs his office before he keeled over and died at the bar last summer. It is a laid-back, word-of-mouth type of place that, Giberovitch says, owes much of its success to the jazz festival and all its non-jazz digressions.

“If you ask people what they know about Montreal, they’ll say the Cirque Du Soleil and the jazz festival,” Giberovitch said recently. “Jazz is promoted just by having the word in there. Look, jazz clubs are closing all around the world. It’s a tiny market. If people go to the free shows, dance and have a good time, it creates awareness for the music.”

Juan Barros, the chef at Upstairs, puts it this way: “You have a kid who doesn’t like green beans. So what do you do? You cut them up very fine and you mix it with squash. That’s what you have to do with jazz.”
It is in this mix where jazz purists can find respite. There are some 500 jazz shows during the 12-day festival, many of which are free—all subsidized by a handful of those despised boomer rock acts. Ménard’s message to the jazz police: think twice before deriding Nights In White Satin. It’s part of the reason there’s any jazz at all.




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The Doobie Brothers are a jazz act?

  1. Jazz festivals turned into jazz and blues festivals decades ago and now they are simply music festivals with a few actual jazz headliners and the remaining jazz acts playing at small venues. It's time to call the festival what it really is – "The Montreal Music Festival". Why not create an umbrella brand that includes a jazz festival, blues festival, world music festival etc instead of using the misleading name the festival currently. Ménard doesn't get it – we like the Moody Blues – we don't have to think twice, just don't try to justify including them as an act in a JAZZ FESTIVAL!

  2. You article is rude an offensive as I love the Moody Blues, and I am a very sane person. Sorry but they are the best, and too bad people such as yourself continue to snub this wonderful band. Was it really necessary to include this put down in your article? I like the stones, but they never created beautiful melodic songs as Pinder, Hawyard, Lodge, Thomas, and Edge have. These men are all first class acts without the wild high jinks of bands like the Rolling Stones.

  3. To Bearie Manilow, et al,
    The article is not a put-down of Moody Blues or its fans; rather, it is a lament that the Montreal Jazz Festival promoters feel a need to dilute the jazz format with acts from the pop world. As a jazz musician and jazz fan, I don't like the idea of a jazz festival wherein the reach for revenue means that a "Satin Doll" needs "Knights in White Satin" to rescue it.

  4. Juan Barros, chef: please stay in the kitchen. Don't compare a vegeatable with an art form that the best have spent years learning to master. No art form should be hidden or force fed. There's nothing wrong with NOT liking jazz or the Moody Blues or Picasso or Margaret Atwood. Bring out the "good for you" argument and you'll turn people off. (And Richard's right, except for "Satin Doll", one of the weakest-ever Strayhorn/Ellington works).

  5. While the festivals may be well attended, I urge the interested jazz fan (or critic) to ask the jazz musicians in most towns how they feel about festivals, how they are treated and remunerated.
    How do the great local players feel about losing work to the likes of The Cowboy Junkies (see Montreal last year) ?
    How have we come to this?

    The definition of jazz is now so broad that it has essentially become meaningless.
    This may be because the use of the word jazz is one of the most bastardized in English.
    Admittedly, jazz is very hard to define. Still, one must try, and I maintain that some people have a very good idea of what jazz is. Who are these people, who have a good idea of what jazz is and where it belongs? The answer is surprising. Wait for it.

    Here’s the basic problem with our lack of clarity about what jazz music IS.
    As far as JAZZ festivals go, the label ‘jazz’ seems to INCLUDE everything. Music from all disciplines and locales is fair game. However the mainstream of jazz music itself is EXCLUDED from all manner of music festivals with labels like Mariposa, Caribana, Folk, Blues, Classical, Mozart, and so on. (I’ve never seen a BeBop band invited to play at The Mariposa Folk Festival or a BLUES festival for example, even though there may be as much blues in any Bebop band as there is in any bluesy blues band, and the be-bop band is made up of Folks!)

    Therefore, it seems that the world’s non jazz-music festivals have no problem defining ‘jazz’ and understanding where it belongs, or more to the point, where it *doesn’t* belong! Yes, THESE are the people who know what jazz is! And it sure as hell isn’t going to be in their festivals!

    It would be wonderful if the jazz impresarios had the same understanding and clear definition of jazz music as the non-jazz venues’ booking agents!

  6. I'm a jazz purist, however bringing in pop legends just adds to the popularity of the event. I was born in Mtl and remember the nights at Lindsy's upstairs listening to Nelson Simonds and Charlie Biddle, this to me was the purist form of jazz you could ever hear. I've been living in Calgary since the early 80's and have been back to Mtl. many times but not during the fest, this yr I wii be there during the fest and hope to indulge all that the Mtl jazz fest has to offer

  7. I totally disagree – If you want to see haw jazz should function go to Portland Oregon – they are smart over there – They have about 10 Jazz clubs and about the same in blues and what they do is put on Jazz festivals on all around town – the Mt Hood fest– the Cathedral park fest – Sandy fest – Oregon City fest – they bring in a few big names for each one but in different areas of town all through the summer – we have one big blow out for two weeks than jazz dies for the summer – no one wants to go out for the locals after that – we move on to Just for Laughs – Franco Follies – the Gay fest– ect. – in the old days we had big names that came in all year from New York and other places – Like Sonny Rollins – Rollin Kirk at the Rising Sun – Art Blakey at In Concert in old Montreal – the Breckers at Cafe Campus – Chet Baker at the Local 406 Union hall – Even big bands at Ler de Temp on st Paul – Tigar at the Nelson – (I can go on) — this has all dried up– the big names only come now for the fest and the local clubs have to struggle using local bands and free jam sessions all year – the Montreal Jazz fest even removed the small stages now that the locals used to play on and they have cut us down to half the bands and hired more clowns instead – go to Portland Oregon and see how it really should be done – nice park festivals on the grass (no street stuff and construction) but all summer all around town

  8. Lionel Richie? What a joke!

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