Festival International de Jazz de Montréal


Jazz, the bridge between blues, gospel and ragtime, first arose in the United States at the end of the 19th century, the direct result of African musical traditions meeting white European culture. As it evolved over time, the genre spawned several offshoots, including swing, jazz fusion, electro-jazz, Latin jazz and free jazz, and such supremely talented musicians as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett have chosen to call it their own.

The Birth of Jazz

The etymology of the word is nebulous at best. Jass or jazz? When it first showed up in a 1917 song titled Dixieland Jass Band One-Step (by the New Orleans-based Original Dixieland Jass Band), it was spelled with a double “s.” Semantic analyses hint at a number of potential origins, none of which is the subject of unanimous agreement. In its accepted slang form, the word has a sexual connotation, and some have even equated it with the French term jaser. Others point to Jazbo Brown, a travelling delta blues musician from this early period. And the debate goes on…

While experts can’t seem to agree on the origin of the term, they are generally united on the issue of its musical genesis. As a recognizable musical form, jazz first emerged toward the end of the 19th century, as three musical forerunners intimately linked with the Afro-American experience – gospel, blues and ragtime – came together some 200 years after the first slave ships arrived in America.

Hard Labour, Sublime Music

Queen Esther Marrow and her Harlem Gospel Singers

The first two genres – gospel and blues – are inextricably tied to the experience of the slaves who toiled on plantations and cotton fields. Also called the Negro spiritual, Gospel is a form of religious music steeped in the oral tradition. The blues were born in the rural American South, and eventually served as a primary influence on R&B and rock. Incorporating folk, Latin and classical influences, Ragtime, a genre made popular at the turn of the 19th century, was a syncopated and structured form of music that drew its appeal from more educated circles. Texan Scott Joplin is by far the best known ragtime musician and composer.

Jazz music thus arose at the juncture between African traditions, the American experience and a European heritage – piano and saxophone, the mainstays of jazz, are Old World instruments.

Hot Times in the Big Easy

New Orleans, the culturally heterogeneous capital of the American South, was the fertile terrain upon which jazz was allowed to flourish. Small jazz orchestras first popularized this new form of music in the cabarets, clubs and brothels of the city’s red-hot Storyville district, and before long jazz could be heard all over the Big Easy.

In contrast to classical music, jazz, with its innate swing rhythm (felt directly in the hips!), had a distinct vocation: to make people dance. Early jazz ensembles typically included piano, banjo, double bass and brass and gave a wide berth to improvisation, thus breaking from the strictures inherent in written music.

Big Bands Carry the Day

The advent of big band in the Roaring Twenties ushered in a new era in jazz. Afro-American musician, band leader and arranger Fletcher Henderson formed the first of the large jazz orchestras in 1924. He was followed by the likes of Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Glenn Miller.

It’s Gotta Have Swing

The swing era lasted from the late 1920s until the mid-1940s. In the wake of the Great Depression, Americans conceived a love affair with this up-tempo style of music that allowed people to forget about their worldly concerns. Swing became the musical lingua franca of a generation, and the large orchestras of the day – none more celebrated than those of Duke Ellington and Count Basie – were all the sensation.

Vocal Jazz

Ella Fitzgerald

The first vocal jazz artists appeared with the large swing orchestras of the 1930s. With the exception of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, the greatest voices in jazz are female, and most if not all began their careers with big bands, overcoming the prevailing chauvinist attitudes that made it difficult for any woman – let alone a black woman – to earn her place alongside the men. But Billie Holiday, Ella itzgerald (aka “The First Lady of Song) and Sarah Vaughan did just that, and today they’re considered among the finest jazz vocalists of all time.

Meanwhile, in France

Manouche or Gypsy jazz originated in Paris in the 1930s. Guitarist Django Reinhardt is widely credited with inventing the genre. Inspired by American artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Eddie Lang, Reinhardt sought to forge a synthesis between American jazz and his Tzigane culture. Together with violinist Stéphane Grappelli, he would go on form the Hot Club de France, one of the period’s leading Gypsy jazz ensembles.

Jazz with a Latin Twist

The first Latin jazz orchestras were formed in New York in the 1930s, offering a blend of jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Among the Latin musicians who found their way to the U.S. were Cuban trumpeter Mario Bauza, one of the fathers of Latin jazz, and fellow countryman and percussionist Machito. Performing with the Chick Webb, Don Redman and Cab Calloway orchestras, Bauza sought to fuse the syncopated rhythms of American jazz with Cuban rhythms. Machito’s orchestra, meanwhile, later became the first to combine jazz harmonies with a complete Afro-Cuban percussion section.

The Bebop Sound

As swing’s popularity began to wane in the early 1940s, at jam sessions in Harlem a generation of forward-looking young musicians stepped into the breach and laid the foundations for a “new jazz” called bop or bebop. Among them were saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk and a very sprite Miles Davis. Spurning the large orchestras in favour of smaller ensembles, these young musicians literally invented a new musical language more complex and demanding than that of swing; and while they drew a great deal of criticism into the bargain, their influence, today, is undeniable.

Cool Jazz

Dave Brubeck

The late 1940s gave rise to yet another stylistic upheaval, as the now-famous Birth of the Cool sessions – conceived by trumpeter Miles Davis with the help of arranger Gil Evans and numerous musicians, including saxophonists Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan, and drummer Max Roach – heralded the start of the post-bop era. With its restrained harmonic structures and relaxed, often melancholy feel, the cool jazz style of the 1950s signalled a definitive break from the up-tempo virtuosity of bop. It also placed greater emphasis on the arrangement. Other innovators emerged during this period, on the West Coast and in New York; at times incorrectly, they, too, were linked with the school of cool. Such was the case for some of the decade’s leading musicians, including Lenny Tristano, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz and Jimmy Giuffre.


In 1953-1954, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and a quintet led by drummer Max Roach created hard bop. Experts are divided on whether hard bop was a response to cool or an extension of bop. One way or the other, jazz, in this new incarnation, was the business of Afro-American musicians, who fashioned a more hard-edged sound and marked a return to the sources of bop – blues, gospel and R&B. The period’s most distinguished musicians included bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonists Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

Freedom Reigns

By patenting an original blend of bop and blues, Coltrane erred from modern jazz conventions in favour of freedom – certainly a watchword at the dawn of the 1960s. Among the free jazz artists turning the jazz world on its ear with radical ideas on total improvisation were saxophonist Ornette Coleman, pianist Cecil Taylor, multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy and trumpeter Donald Cherry. The advent of free jazz brought about more than just a stylistic change – it marked a change of paradigm.

Operation Fusion

Originally dubbed jazz-rock, fusion came into being in the late 1960s. The term refers to a heterogeneous musical style blending elements of traditional jazz with the more electric sonorities common to rock and funk. Among its best known artists are Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea with Return to Forever, John McLaughlin with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and (more recently), Pat Metheny. Closer to home, the group UZEB was at the forefront of the local jazz fusion scene in the 1980s.

Operation Fusion – 2

Erik Truffaz

Out of the jazz fusion experiment of the 1970s emerged electro-jazz, a music marked by the use of new electronic instruments and sonorities. Since the end of the 1990s, the genre has given rise to high-profile collaborations between jazzmen exploring more electronic sounds and DJs drawn to the infinite freedom of jazz. French trumpeter and tireless innovator Erik Truffaz is one of the most influential figures on the international electro-jazz scene. His style blends the ethereal and velvety sound of the trumpet with urban, techno, hip hop and drum’n’bass beats.

And What of Today’s jazz?

What we observe is the peaceful coexistence of most of musical currents mentioned above. Yesterday’s rivalries have given way to a consensus of sorts. Even free jazz, so controversial in its time, introduced the world to some exceptional musicians, yet its rebellious character is now a distant memory. That jazz is now taught in schools and played in major concert venues the world over speaks to its “institutionalization.”

By the early 1980s, the quest for innovation – long the driving force behind jazz – had slowed, as a new generation of musician marked a return to the “classics.” Led by trumpeter Wynton, the Marsalis brothers are one such example: they have helped to rekindle interest in the jazz styles of the 1950s and 1960s, and the music has since evolved along more traditional lines. That hasn’t prevented many from leaving their mark by striking out in new directions, however.

Jazz, in the broadest sense of the word, allows us bring veterans Charlie Haden, Oliver Jones and Vic Vogel under the same umbrella with rising stars like Esperanza Spalding, Christian Scott and Yaron Herman.

In step with the times, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal gives musicians young and old a prime showcase. Some, like Astor Piazzolla, have marked their American début at the Festival, while others, like Diana Krall, have seen the Fest serve as a springboard to a successful international career. The Festival celebrates the immortals – the late Oscar Peterson and Ray Charles – as well as emerging artists like singers Melody Gardot and Nikki Yanofsky. Change is the lifeblood of the Festival – a part of its DNA – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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