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Of all the Toronto festivals over the years Beaches Jazz seemed least likely to survive.
There was the question of vibe. Jazz was a downtown thing with the clubs: the Colonial, George’s. The Beaches? It had great places to walk. Jazz history — Charlie Parker at Massey Hall — happened downtown. Double lattes happened in the Beaches.
But for all of its non-coolness what has kept the Beaches Jazz Festival relevant?
Longevity, for starters. Festivals come and go with regularity, but the 29th Beaches International Jazz Festival kicks off Friday at Jimmie Simpson Park. Talk about next year is already in play. And the year after that.
Being free has helped. Bringing in some $ 70 million annually to the city has helped. Serving worlds of food on the side has helped. But there’s a deeper answer. In its happenstance way, Beaches Jazz feels somehow close to the original improvisatory nature of jazz itself and how jazz organized itself.
These days, jazz as a commercial force means diddly-squat, representing less than 2 per cent of all record sales and downloading, according to a recent Nielsen report. Soundcloud rap stars are bigger names. But jazz remains a terrifically potent idea, one which Beaches Jazz seems to get. It’s about just letting music loose to see what happens, knowing that it will all work out, socially as well as musically. Jazz has hope built in, even when it’s angry.
Musicians get this. Larnell Lewis, a prodigiously talented new drummer around town, Snarky Puppy alumnus and a Beaches discovery years back, sees the festival in personal as well as professional terms.
He was raised by the festival as much as he was playing drums in his father’s choirs in storefront churches. “I played the Beaches Festival before I entered (Humber) college,” Lewis says. “It was my first time at a festival and being connected with (artistic director) Bill King. But I’ve also been able to enjoy it as a festival. My wife and I like walking through the streets with music all around. It’s like a date night.”
Lewis himself is on prominent display first with his band at the Woodbine Park mainstage July 22 and with a drum clinic July 24.
But Beaches Jazz’s signature remains its annual street party stretching two kilometres along Queen St. E., July 27 to 29 this year.
“The festival is always about community,” says Pat Silver, organizer of the festival’s third-year A Cappella Stage, July 21 to 23 with the likes of the Ault Sisters. “Community is the whole idea behind a cappella.”
Beaches Jazz helped grow a number of regional Ontario jazz festivals in Guelph and elsewhere “when we partnered up with Rogers community TV,” says King.
“That open window as to what was happening in the Beaches in Toronto provided incentive to any viewers in Ontario who were organizing their own festivals,” says Kerry Gordon, who produced much of the early material. “I was given the impression that the performers felt a direct connection to jazz fans because of the relaxed park setting and the community event feel.”
See beachesjazz.com for concert schedules and further information. firstname.lastname@example.org