Sunday night I’m standing in line at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to see guitarist Marc Ribot, and the guy in front of me is talking to his friend, lamenting the fact that “this used to be a real jazz festival.” And I wanted to say, “dude, you’re in line to see Marc Ribot, a musician who is anything but straight ahead jazz.” But I never use the word “dude” so I kept to myself. He had his own idea of what real jazz is, and it was different than mine, or that of anyone else standing in line.
But he was right about the fact that this festival is not just a jazz festival. He saw it as a bad thing, but I talked to others who see it as a very good thing. The truth is that most of the music at this (or any) jazz festival is undoubtedly jazz. But to sell tickets, the harsh reality is that there has to be more than jazz. So, they book blues acts like Robert Cray and John Mayall, pop stars like Janelle Monae, and bluegrass bands like Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers. Great music, all, but jazz it ain’t.
What I really like about all of this is that the organizers are unapologetic about the non-jazz because it’s all good music. Since most of the music at this festival is real jazz, purists come away happy, and blues/pop/bluegrass fans hopefully come away thinking they should add a little jazz to their musical diet.
In the end, great music is great music and each of us knows what that means for ourselves. Since last Thursday my mind has been opened up to some music that I wasn’t expecting to like, and I imagine lots of other people have experienced the same. But more than anything, this festival has reinforced my love of jazz. And if hearing more great jazz means listening to some killer bluegrass, as I will tonight, well I’m okay with that.
The TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival continues through Sunday.