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.