Vancouver Opens Its Doors to Jazz
Du Maurier festival's snappy schedule values improvisation over strict styles
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — `IF anyone here's waiting for Pink Floyd, you're in the wrong place,'' joked pianist Oliver Jones at the opening of his Saturday night show at the Vogue Theater, one of the many venues at the du Maurier International Jazz Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia. Jones was probably not the first festival performer to make a crack about Pink Floyd, mega-rock stars whose two shows last weekend at a 60,000-seat stadium stole some of the jazz festival's opening-weekend thunder.
Call it an object lesson in the hierarchy of the music marketplace - no jazz festival in the world could draw more than 100,000 people for two shows at $30 a pop. Yet when all the Pink Floyd fans had dispersed, allowing Vancouver's overtaxed city-service sector to relax, there were still six more days of the jazz festival, a ninth-annual event that was projected to draw 250,000 music lovers to 22 venues for more than 200 performances. It continues through Sunday.
Although artists such as Jones and, later, jazz record-industry darling Joshua Redman, acted as if the Pink Floyd hordes were a different species, what was to be made of New York alto saxophonist Thomas Chapin peeling off a quotation from rock band Deep Purple's ``Smoke on the Water''? You could almost imagine a Floyd fan stumbling onto this event and going away convinced that this jazz stuff is pretty hip. Indeed, such would be the desired effect of the du Maurier affair, which marketing director John Orysik terms ``a populist festival.''
Not that the festival is about to put screaming rock-and-rollers onstage - although guitarist Bill Frisell, whose quintet played at one of the larger halls, does consider Jimi Hendrix his main source of inspiration. The event featured blues artists too - Chicagoan Mighty Joe Young, Walter Wolfman Washington from New Orleans, and the legendary Kansas City crooner Jay McShann. And gospel: The Mighty Clouds of Joy perform tonight. Fans of unadulterated Texas soul got all they could handle from Delbert McClinton, and those who like their jazz funky - or their funk jazzy - grooved to British guitarist Ronny Jordan.
The festival also covers the world-music scene. Senegalese Afropop singer Youssou N'Dour headlined a show that also featured Brazilian Celso Machado. Salif Keita, a brilliant singer from Mali, is set to close out the festival's shows at the Commodore theater.
Although there are enough of these nonjazz events to comprise a small festival, they don't amount to more than a blip on the du Maurier schedule, which is really concerned with the many facets of improvisation, with no restrictions on form. Jazz-festival programmers in the United States who are afraid of presenting anything that might challenge audiences need to take a hard look at what's happening in Vancouver.
THIS festival operates from the common sense, yet radical, assumption that if you offer music that is great, regardless of the style, people will come. And by running in the black and growing at a 15- to 20-percent clip every year, according to Orysik, the assumption has been borne out.
``We're coming from the music,'' says Ken Pickering, the artistic director of the festival and the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society that puts it on. ``The festival is put together by people who love music and respect it. Over a 10-year period we've developed an audience by presenting music in a spirit of adventure.''
To an American jazz buff used to such institutions as the JVC Jazz Festival in New York or the Monterey Jazz Festival near San Francisco, the Vancouver Festival is a revelation in both the programming and the audience enthusiasm for it. It's remarkable to witness 700 or so people listening raptly to a free-form band such as the Thomas Chapin Trio. This is the kind of group snubbed by the record industry and generally relegated to tiny, scruffy venues like New York's Knitting Factory.
Chapin was performing at one of the festival's free outdoor shows in Gastown, a restored former commercial district in downtown Vancouver. On the first weekend of the festival, Water Street is closed to traffic so that music lovers may easily stroll between the festival's two Gastown bandstands.
The free shows are key to the festival, a reflection of what Pickering calls its grass-roots nature. ``Because the record industry ignores this music, and the media by-and-large doesn't deal with it, there isn't a lot of access for the public. So making the music available for free is part of an educational process. It demystifies the music and shows that there are entry points to it.''
The concept has not entirely eluded programmers at other festivals. New York's JVC warhorse, in danger of atrophying over the past several years due to strictly ``big-name'' bookings in high-priced halls, has expanded its free outdoor presentations.
Of course, offering free concerts isn't cheap; it requires a skill for rustling up sponsors, and the folks at the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society excel at this. According to Orysik, 70 percent of the festival's $1.7 million budget comes from sponsors. For festivals in the United States, the breakdown tends to be more like 40 percent sponsor to 60 percent ticket sales, or 50-50.
The Vancouver festival, which features many European acts, also depends on assistance from the musicians' home countries.
For most US jazz festivals, seeking support from other nations isn't an issue because European jazz is not even acknowledged. This is a pity, because the record industry has been hammering jazz into a narrow pigeonhole - only be-bop-, swing-, or pop-related jazz permitted, thank you. The Europeans, and Canadians as well, have been advancing the jazz tradition on all fronts.