One City, Two Great Jazz Festivals

By Melissa Crawley

Toronto is a town that loves its music and the city’s two jazz festivals are now firmly established events on the city’s social calendar. Both the Toronto Jazz Festival and the Beaches International Jazz Festival have been up and running since the 1980s and now attract large numbers of musicians and fans during the summer months.

Toronto All Star Big Band at the Beaches Jazz Festival - Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Toronto All Star Big Band at the Beaches Jazz Festival – Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Toronto Jazz Festival

The Toronto Jazz Festival started up in 1987 and takes place in mainly indoor venues across the Greater Toronto Area. It began using only three venues but now spreads across over 40 bars, clubs and stages, attracting up to 500,000 people during the festival period which is usually across the last two weeks in June. Since its modest beginning the Festival has hosted 25,000 jazz artists, attracted approximately 8.5 million people and delivered over 1900 concerts to the music-loving public, free of charge. The event has tried to bring jazz that will appeal to all audiences, combining traditional jazz with ground-breaking new acts. Some of the internationally renowned artists to have appeared at the event include Miles Davies, Dizzy Gillespie, Etta James, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett and Harry Connick Jr.

The Toronto Jazz Festival traditionally has Nathan Phillips Square as its centrepiece and provides a 1200-seat fully-licensed Mainstage Marquee and outdoor stage. It celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2011 with a festival that is looked back on with affection by all those who were involved. With the help of a Celebrate Ontario grant, the opening night party began with a free Aretha Franklin concert for 18,000 people. Toronto’s outstanding jazz talent was featured on stages across the city, as were musicians from across Canada and 15 other countries around the world. The festival also presented outstanding performance and training opportunities for emerging jazz artists and audience members of all ages.

From humble beginnings, the event is now one of the key cultural events in the city. Estimates suggest that the event has contributed over $460 million to the GTA economy and the fact that it relies heavily on local volunteers means that it is an important event in rallying community spirit across Toronto and the surrounding area. The event relies on donations from its patrons and supporters to be financially viable and there is a Friend of Jazz facility where people can donate and become part of the local community that supports the arts.

Jazz has always been a part of Toronto culture and there are separate projects where jazz musicians are able to put something back into the community. The We Are One Jazz Project was founded in 2008 to use the power of jazz to promote social change which would inspire young Canadians. It uses established musicians to work with youngsters that are at risk of poor outcomes and encourage them to discover the joys of music along with habits of hard work and self-discovery. It is a fitting way to use jazz to steer young people away from a life that might involve alcohol and drug abuse. The likes of Miles Davies and Ray Charles who have performed in Toronto both struggled with heroin throughout their careers and doubtless they would approve of seeing the music they loved being harnessed to keep young people away from the dangerous world of illegal drugs.

Beaches International Jazz Festival

Toronto’s second major jazz event dates back to 1989 when a number of top jazz acts were booked to play a summer event at the Key Beach Bandshell. Since then the festival has continued to expand so it is spread over 10 days and well established as a jazz event on the world stage. Directed by Bill King and produced by Lido Chilelli, the Beaches International festival has also brought many impressive acts to Toronto including David Blamires, Molly Johnson, Mark Jordan and Jesse Hill. The people behind the festival state its mission as being to “introduce its audience to good, primarily Canadian jazz in a non-exclusionary and culturally inclusive fashion”. Alcohol is prohibited on the city’s beaches in any case and the festival is one in which excessive behaviour is not encouraged. The popularity of the event shows that the jazz scene can still capture the imagination of the Toronto public. Some of the old-school clubs such as the Colonial Tavern and George’s Spaghetti House, where customers drank cocktails and smoked into the early hours have long gone but Toronto will always be a place where people will want to listen to live jazz music.

The key locations for the festival are Woodbine Park, Kew Gardens and the Beaches Boardwalk while a street-fest takes place for two days along Queen Street East where dozens of Canadian bands entertain crowds with a mix of Swing, Big Band, Dixieland, Smooth, Post-Bop, Funk, R&B, Soul and Afro-Cuban tunes

The Beaches International Jazz Festival will run between July 18th and 26th in 2014. The festival will kick off with at Woodbine Park with a main stage and an Afro-Beat stage starting the 25th anniversary celebrations. Kew Gardens will showcase bands that have made an impression on the international scene and also have the National Youth Jazz Combo playing. The Beach Boardwalk stages will feature a Latin Square and a Big Band Stage and introduce the sound of salsa to the festival.

Like its sister festival, Beaches International relies on local volunteers and donations to make the event a success each year. Let’s hope that the tremendous levels of local support continue and the festivals are seen in years to come as part of Toronto’s rich heritage.

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