Vancouver Jazz Festival Celebrates 33 Years

June 16, 2018
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The Vancouver Jazz Festival returns for its 33rd year with over 300 indoor and outdoor performances around town, including hundreds of free events.

For over three decades, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival has brought the world’s best artists together with audiences to share special experiences. This year, with over 300 indoor and outdoor performances, the Festival kicks off the summer with a rousing 10-day spectacular (June 22 – July 1).

This year’s diverse lineup includes international headliners like Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters, Macy Gray, Kamasi Washington, Bonobo, Spanish Harlem Orchestra, St. Paul and The Broken Bones, Russell Malone Quartet, GoGo Penguin, and the Julian Lage Trio.

We chatted with John Orysik, Co-Founder and Media Director of the festival.

What have been the biggest changes, challenges and success you have seen in the 33 years of the festival?
The Jazz Festival has grown from a small regional event in 1985 to a sprawling internationally acclaimed musicl showcase featuring artists from here and around the world. What’s changed? Everything. The Festival began as a seven day affair with a dozen venues and a small coterie of musicians from Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland. Today, the Festival presents hundreds upon hundreds of artists performing 300 concerts at 35 indoor and outdoor venues. The Festival has always prided itself on being accessible, so half (150) of the concerts are free to the public.

We had a small core staff at the beginning and today we employ dozens of people in various departments. Audiences were modest but respectable in the early days. Last year, the Festival drew over half a million people over the course of our 10-day spectacular. The technology has changed. There were no fax machines much less internet and social media back in the day. We sent press releases by mail. Today we can message the world in an instant. Challenges? Venues come and go so finding places that match artist with audience demo and size is always in play.

Can you take me back to the very beginning. How did the festival come about? Was there anything like it in Vancouver before this?
The Festival came about through the determination and idealism of its co-founders. With the help of like minded folks it was willed into existence. First, the founding non-profit organization was created—Coastal Jazz & Blues Society. Then, Coastal Jazz began producing single concerts with the plan to present an annual Jazz Festival in the summer. There had been earlier attempts at staging events and festivals in Vancouver, but nothing on the enormous scale and breadth of vision that Coastal Jazz had in mind.

What makes the Vancouver jazz scene unique?
The jazz scene in Vancouver is strong due to the large number of talented musicians who call the city home. And there are far more venues catering to the music than ever before. The premier jazz club is Frankie’s Jazz Club, an elegant venue centrally located downtown at 755 Beatty Street (Frankie’s is a Coastal Jazz initiative). The scene is unique in that musicians bring a co-operative spirt to bands and projects. Many work in multiple groups sharing concepts and ideas with the idea of constantly pushing the music forward. In addition, there is a do-it-yourself attitude among a lot of players. Musician-run spaces include China Cloud, Merge, and Red Gate.

What about audiences? Do you think Vancouverites’ appreciation of jazz has grown in the past years?
Part of the mission at Coastal Jazz is to increase audience appreciation for the music and the local jazz scene. Numbers have risen steadily over the years with attendance at clubs and concerts building, and with the Jazz Festival growing and expanding there is reason to be optimistic.

The festival, of course, isn’t just jazz. What other acts and musical genres are represented? And has it always been that way or is this relatively new at the festival?
From the beginning, the Jazz Festival has presented an open and inclusive artistic aesthetic. This means audiences will experience the broadest range of jazz styles as well as other related forms that have impacted jazz and vice versa. That is why blues, rock, hip hop, fusion, Latin and various hybrid expressions will always have a place in the Jazz Festival.

What have been some acts at festivals past and present that you didn’t think you’d get but were thrilled to book?
Miles Davis, Caetano Veloso, Sun Ra Arkestra, Tony Bennett, and Robert Plant

So who’s on your list now? Is there an artist, group or ensemble that you’ve been dying to book at the festival?
Keith Jarrett and Joni Mitchell.

Tell me about the Made in the UK series and Spotlight on Italy. What was the thinking behind these initiatives? Why these countries?
Jazz, long ago left its American birthplace to explore the world. Today, jazz is being played in countries where musicians bring their own unique cultural elements to the music. Because we take the word “international” in TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival seriously, we’ve always felt it important to present trending global developments in the music at our event. Think of the Jazz Festival as a summit meeting for musicians and audiences. Attendees will hear the state of the art in Vancouver on an annual basis. The jazz scenes in the UK and Italy are particularly rich and inspiring and the Festival is delighted to present a diverse cross-section of artists from both countries.

What is your advice for someone who’s never attended the festival before? What do you recommend they do not miss?
The two big outdoor extravaganzas at the Festival are Downtown Jazz Weekend (June 23 – 24) on the historic grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery/Robson Square and David Lam Park Jazz Weekend (June 30 – July 1). These presentations are a microcosm of the Festival. There is a huge array of artists performing in different styles. Its all free to the public and a great opportunity to experience a musical epiphany or two or more.

If you only see one show during the festival, what should it be?
Impossible to answer. It’s like asking a parent, “if you could only keep one of your children, who would it be?” The Festival is designed for mass consumption. It only comes once a year. Go nuts!