This story began one summer in a small town in the South of France where I decided to work as an assistant to a carpenter. I left that village to visit Paris, where I met the carpenter’s son, M. We attended a concert, an after-party, and then a bar before we bought beer and jumped over the fence at Cimetière du Père Lachaise, where Honoré de Balzac, among others, had been buried. We carried on, drunkenly debating the difference between American jazz and European jazz, and I expressed my disdain for music known as jazz in name alone. It was an opinion based on my father’s career as a musician, and my reaction to the show we had seen, though I did not speak about this at the time.
I returned to the South of France with shingles and did not recover until the end of the summer, when the carpenter gave me books to read that I still do not have the skill to translate. I wrote a passage about someone resembling him in my first novel, but it didn’t make it into my final draft. Patrick has passed on now. Rest in Peace.
This year, my brother and I attended the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, where Patrick’s son M was working. I wanted to amend what I had said about jazz, in that cemetery, five summers ago, so I began to write, avoiding all that was familiar in the genre, trying to push aside preconceptions that were caused by my relationship to the way things were, or their given names.
Photos taken by the author.
The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal began in 1979, though its first season was canceled, as the infrastructure was not in place to support the spectacle. Now, the festival is located in downtown Montréal at the Place des Arts, it is state-sponsored, and brings in many millions of dollars worth of business. I had attended the previous year on another writing assignment; a jazz journalist named S played Taylor McFerrin and Anderson Paak’s remix of Hiatus Koyote’s “Laputa” in the pressroom. Six days from today, Anderson Paak would perform at the festival, though I would miss it. The pressroom was less crowded than I remembered, and the TV was not on, so my brother and I walked downstairs and arrived in L’Astral, which had a seating capacity of three hundred (six hundred standing), where Jowee Omicil was playing.
The band combined elements of Afro-jazz, soul, gospel, and kompa. The sounds made me dance even though we were standing by the bar but before two songs had passed, we moved on to Club Soda to hear Jacob Collier, whose remix of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” has over two million views on YouTube . The performance was held together by two things: videos of Jacob playing different instruments that were projected above him as he played, and the amplifiers that looped each sound perpetually and cost as much as the musician’s fee to transport and operate. The crowd was in their teens and early twenties and seemed to enjoy the music, but we left Club Soda before the concert was finished to attend Puma Blue’s concert at Savoy du Métropolis. He was in the middle of a standard, that is, a song that has been recorded many times by many musicians.
Not for the first time I thought, “I am not equipped to give a review of this musical performance.” I did not want to be sitting down and listening to that blues at that moment, so I fought with my preconceptions for a while before getting a drink and making my way to the Colin Stetson show at Maison Symphonique de Montréal, where we arrived for the last song, in the last minute, no less, where Colin was holding onto his final note.
We returned to L’Astral, and the Los Angeles-based electro-pop duo Knower were playing. The drummer began rapping, “The government knows when you masturbate.” I was so distracted by the lyrics that I forgot to record a section of it before we ended up behind the TD Stage, where the 150th anniversary of Canada Day celebration was going on, as it was the first of July.
My brother and I had VIP passes to this show, “Dischotèque!” There was a tent there, in case it rained, which it would, and there was a bar there, where everyone who was allowed inside was enjoying refreshments. I was unsure what to make of the show because I did not like nationalist celebrations, nor did I like pop or disco, but I moved to Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance.” I drank more. The rain continued. The Buffalo Hat Singers came on stage. Norman Achneepineskum led them. He is Anishinabe (Ojibway Cree) and has performed in powwows for over twenty years. My brother and I were surprised that Canada would choose to acknowledge its indigenous roots, even if for a moment, in such a public space.
I began a dance that was influenced by the men on stage and what I had seen performed at powwows in American movies. On my mind were the transgressions of the United States government’s agents while enforcing the implementation of the Keystone Oil Pipeline. I thought about the assault on the Environmental Protection Agency, the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Of course, these were not the musician’s issues, but I projected them onto the stage, took them in with the music, before I began to feel silly. As if the implications of my conversation with M—to engage with music whose roots you have not taken the time to understand is an act of cultural violence—all of those nights ago, had been lost on me. I danced harder. The bands came on stage for a final bow.
I scrolled down my Facebook newsfeed and saw a video about the oppression of Native Canadians, which had been taking place for over 150 years. My brother and I arrived at the festival late, and carried on with a very personal conversation, before returning to where we were staying.
The pressroom was full and I began speaking with jazz journalists. I met a radio personality, D, who lived in the same town where I had attended college. He told me there had been a Black Lives Matter protest on the festival’s Rio Tinto stage the day before. Then, R, a DJ from XM radio, interrupted our conversation. He asked for an interview. I agreed, not quite sure if this was wise, as my mind had become focused on nepotism, and I did not know if my brain could move past it.
I tried to speak in a controlled manner about my debut novel As Lie Is to Grin . I found tenuous tie-ins to jazz music. In 1954, Dizzy Gillespie headlined the University of Vermont’s alumni weekend event called the Kake Walk . Sidney Bechet wrote a book that was referenced in my novel. When the interview was over, R played Bechet’s “Petite Fleur.” Later, D approached me again, and admitted that his family had attended the Kake Walk. He could remember the performances from his youth, the white men in black face, though he choked back the memory before telling me that later in the ’60s, his mother banged on every door in the neighborhood to protest redlining. She did change things. I mentioned the hate group that had posted hate flyers on the homes of minority families in that city this past fall. He shook his head before we shook hands. I saw D once more at the festival, in passing.
The concert experience was what I wanted that night, so I bought two beverages for the Stanley Clarke show in Théâtre Maisonneuve because you could drink in the theater. We listened to a song and I was reminded of a debate I had with myself about the electric bass. I thought, “I really don’t like it when the bass amp is turned up,” when the instrument becomes unintelligible, like a synthesizer, like the theme song from Seinfeld. Then, two things happened that I did not expect. First, Stanley began to play the acoustic bass. Then, the band began a song, which I could not place, that was familiar to me. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which was on Charles Mingus’s Ah Um (1959), an album I listened to many times in college. My knowledge of the melodic references ended there. I had not sought out much of the music from the ’70s, so I did not know George Duke’s “Brazilian Love Affair” when it was played, nor the rest of the songs that were not named. In the end, most of the crowd appreciated the performance we had experienced and signified this by clapping and whistling.
We had planned to come to the festival on Tuesday and stay until Monday, the third of July, but our friend K’s father Terry passed away, so we stayed in New York and attended the funeral on Friday. Rest in Peace.
The fourth of July was a day we had not planned to be in Montréal. I strolled through the library above the pressroom called Médiathèque and was struck by a magazine with Geri Allen’s face on it. She was a pianist from Detroit who had passed away in June as well. This was a great loss to the jazz community. Rest in Peace.
R from XM was interviewing the singer Kellylee Evans in the library. She had gone on leave for eighteen months as the result of a severe concussion. It reminded me that Donald Trump’s regime was attempting to undo the public healthcare infrastructure that was established under Barack Obama’s regime. That interview and these worries about the empathy of government caused me to remember that the performers needed health care, compensation, and all of these things that could not be budgeted, in most instances. I had the desire to find out how the exchange between artist and producer had become so uneven, so I opened a copy of Portrait d’un Festival, the event’s 25th Anniversary book, to see if the answer would become obvious once I learned the official history, from the beginning. Although, I did not trust there would be any of the small, personal details that I usually liked to read about, I looked inside anyhow.
I searched for the origin of the festival’s name before finding the answer in the form of a hypothetical response.
“‘Why jazz? Because it’s a universal music’—Alain Simard [the festival’s founder] would respond—‘that cares nothing about cultural frontiers and that thumbs its nose at linguistic barriers. A music born a hundred years ago in the Louisiana cotton fields . . .’”
A bit heavy-handed, I thought. There was not much history in that book, nor the answer to the question for which I was searching, though there were lovely pictures of musicians. There was Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Benny Carter, Elvin Jones, Michael Brecker, and Ornette Coleman, to name a few: Rest in Peace to all of the musicians who have passed on.
It was my second-to-last day at the festival. There were two acts performing at the same hour: The Little School of Jazz and Swing Dixie. Neither of the names were appealing. It came as a relief to hear no bands playing outside. I had recently developed a skin condition and my chest was itching, again, so I entered the mall next to the festival grounds, happy to walk around inside the air-conditioned structure, where I could hear the Little School of Jazz performing.
It was a sloppy ending, but the product was for kids. I went outside and made my way further down Rue Sainte-Catherine, without a destination in mind, to find festival-goers huddled around the promenade. There was the sound of a familiar clarinet and the song R played after our interview.
Swing Dixie’s name brought me back to my own country, to Jim Crow and the Confederacy. I had been in New Orleans when the monument of the treasonous Beauregard was pulled down . It had menaced me anytime I sat in City Park, though I had not attended one protest. I felt my love for Sidney Bechet was tied to this same conservatism, if only because of the name, Dixie. The president of my home country had instigated a wave of white nationalism and rode it into the White House, its crests peaking beneath that Confederate flag, Dixie. The implications of our newly empowered countrymen would not be felt until later that season, when a man would kill a woman in Charlottesville for protesting racial hatred. Her name was Heather Heyer. Rest in Peace.
I left the festival to eat with my older brother before taking a picture of the cross atop Mount Royal that had been planted by Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve in 1643, well before the founding of Canada. And I didn’t want to show you this picture because it is badly out of focus and I did not take it on festival grounds, but don’t you think that hollow symbol looks comical in such proximity to that electric pole? Granted, at night, the glowing, orange cross hovers above the skyline alone.
Then, we were following the spectacle as a programmer again and returned to L’Astral for the Montréal-based band Lucioles, before walking by the man with the electric guitar in the AC/DC shirt on Rue Sainte-Catherine on the way to Flavia Coelho, then Harfang.
Supposedly, Harfang sounds like Radiohead, though I did not know either band’s catalog well enough to reach such a conclusion. Then we were outside again, passing by Walk Off The Earth, standing in that same VIP section where we had watched “Discothèque!” Here was a pop cover again, this time Bruno Mars, and I thought, “I dislike this significantly more than anything else I have heard except ‘Discothèque!’”
To the right, there was a spotlight and a performer for the deaf. Someone seemed to be recording me. Then, we went to Salle-Wilfrid Pelletier to see Feist.
A former teammate had told me to listen to Feist’s music. A former girlfriend had listened to Radiohead. I was happy to become familiar with sounds that I had not paid proper attention to in the past, even if I had only heard the latter’s derivative. But I wondered, was this jazz? Did it matter? Think about the difference between your R&B and your grandmother’s R&B. Then, I was in Métropolis, not du Savoy, to hear Charles Bradley, Rest in Peace.
He told a story about the stomach surgery that nearly forced him into early retirement and went to the side of the stage to pick up a bushel of roses he then threw out to the crowd. I imagined the flowers being stripped of their thorns before we returned to Club Soda for Deluxe at 22:00, and I was reminded of the previous year, when the festival hosted a European man who performed under the name “Chinese Man.” I did not like this. Supposedly, Deluxe were his protégés, so I projected my ill sentiments unto them.
It was the worst of new jack swing or jungle, I thought, though I could not remember the latter genre’s name, just a tune by Dizzee Rascal—and what is that fool in the hat doing to the left of the camera at the eleventh second? But everyone was having a good time, which caused me to laugh, drink, and dance in a self-conscious way. Then it was 23:59, and Franky Selector’s soul-pop-funk experiment was going on at Savoy Du Métropolis.
The band seemed to be in transition, which made me feel as if I were witnessing something authentic. This could have been a reaction to the sounds I’d heard before. Franky was wearing sunglasses. My mind was playing tricks on me. When performers wear shades, it makes me think of Miles Davis, Rest in Peace. Sonny Rollins.
On the final day of our trip, I watched Rosalía and Raül Refree play. They had two shows: one at 17:00 and another at 19:00. I stopped by the first set, and the stage was incredibly hot. The guitar and vocals competed against sounds from the street, waiters serving beer, loud patrons, and bad acoustics. I walked over to the Casino Stage, but the experience was interrupted by a text from a friend named P who was in need of my assistance. He was going back to New York from France, but had been forced to stay in Canada for another week, waiting for the certification of his visa. We moved his bags to where my brother and I were staying before returning to the festival for the end of Rosalía and Raül’s 19:00 set, where we continued our conversation about subjectivity and objectivity; or rather, I was comfortable explaining what I understood of the concepts in English.
He said, “She sings well, objectively.”
I said, “No, she is singing, objectively; she sings well, subjectively.”
As we continued, a woman in sunglasses rushed by us, chiding, “Sounds deep.”
Then, I said, “This is just a bad explanation of existentialism,” and P mentioned Heidegger, and I said, “Remember Hegel,” before my understanding of the subject faded to nothing save the conjunctions and devices I was using to hold it all together.
We made our way to Métropolis where Flipp Dinero was playing. The crowd was in their teens and early twenties, and it seemed that every other person was wearing a baseball cap or athletic jersey. Dinero ran out of breath a couple of times. This was just the opener.
Then, M texted me from L’Astral, so we were heading in his direction when I spotted Raül Refree standing next to the venue. I told him what I felt about the duo’s second performance, about the beauty of competing with the street, and he seemed to appreciate that I enjoyed it. He told me that some people did not like what they played because they did not consider it real flamenco. And I thought, that is funny because as someone who does not know much about flamenco, I cannot perceive which part of the performance an enthusiast would object to. We exchanged emails before I found myself back in Métropolis, where I stood at the back of the venue, near the bar.
I had listened to Joey Bada$$’s music before. His album 1999 was one of the last rap albums I willfully bought. What I liked in hip-hop, at that point, were sounds produced by black men from New York in the ’90s (Biggie, Tribe, L), which could never be replicated. This made it hard for me to listen to the music, as I accepted that nothing would be as good as those originals and those originals were not as original as I perceived them to be. Joey had beef with a fellow Brooklyn artist who made a record that poked fun at the suicide of a founding member of the music group Bada$$ had cofounded. His name was Courtney Jamal Dewar Jr. Rest in Peace.
The fight seemed to be about what was “real” in Brooklyn. Was “real” a group of kids who became famous and rapped about the ills of society through limited personal experience, or was “real” the former/current drug dealer who was a voice for the streets? Was either of these young men the proper representation? The latter rapper became involved in a gun dispute with a blogger. One of his bodyguards, Ronald McPhatter, was killed. Rest in Peace.
We went outside for a while, and stood at the Hyundai / CBC/Radio-Canada Stage though P wanted more excitement, so we all went to Acid Arab.
I could have gotten into the music but the rhythms stayed around the same beats per minute, and it felt more like MDMA than acid, though I was on neither drug. Then we were outside again, at the Bell Stage. It was ’round midnight. I was moving my feet to familiar blues music. More people began to dance along with me, and I wondered what they were dancing to. This was not jazz, I thought, but maybe this festival was not a festival but a conversation about jazz.
Simply put, the descendants of colonial powers listen to music they perceive to have been created by the oppressed to reaffirm illusions of freedom, with little regard for their names. I’m not sure when this began. We go on vacation to escape these things, those small places, but the present reality is everywhere afoot. I looked up at the Bell Stage to find the spectacle’s effect wearing off on me. I stopped dancing and began to record a video but large objects impeded my view of the performance. I panned to a dancer wearing a green hat.
Then that moment ended, and the concert did as well. Sugaray Rayford received an ovation—this was not jazz—before returning to the stage, and I asked myself, “Is jazz dead?” This was a question people liked to ask at the turn of the millennium. Then, my anxiety about the performance went away because jazz is not a live being, and music is not subject to our laws of time.
Sugaray sat down for an encore. The camera was shaking. Everyone sang along to the words made famous by Louis Armstrong. The performer pointed at the crowd to indicate the next pitch. A man yelled approval and the security guard at stage right stopped watching the performance as if the sound alerted him he was not doing his job. The singer inflected his voice to please the crowd or see how far he could reach—it seemed to me he missed a note—before putting his hand on his knee. Someone whistled encouragement. The voices from the audience trailed off. The entertainer’s smile was slight as if he knew what sound he omitted and was all right with it anyway, it did not mean anything, except what the listener wanted it to mean, then the crowd was clapping as he said the word, “world.” He held the last note.