Fuck the Jazz Police: Celebration & Reclamation at Montréal Jazz Fest

The entrance to an open-air stage next to the Gesù

The entrance to an open-air stage next to the Gesù. (Justin Joffe)

During my first trip to the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, one phrase keeps coming up in conversation. When Leonard Cohen released “Jazz Police” in 1987, the poet monk of Montréal may have been tipping his fedora to purists of the genre, to an elitist patron class that typified the modern jazz scene.

“Wild as any freedom-loving racist, I applaud the actions of the chief,” he facetiously crooned in bad karaoke over this particularly painful entry from his schmaltzy ’80s period. “Tell me now oh beautiful and spacious, am I in trouble with the jazz police?”

Who are these jazz police and what do they want?

The history of jazz in Montréal is adjunct from France’s and New Orleans’, but nonetheless shows how much more open the French were to embracing, and appropriating American black culture. And though the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal was founded in 1980, seven years before Cohen’s tune, its founders consciously sought to preserve an openness, an inclusiveness and a variety in the festival’s programming so they weren’t just appeasing the gentry.

“We’re not too influenced by the jazz police,” festival co-founder and artistic director André Ménard tells me. “Jazz is music that’s sucked a lot of influences and has given lots of influences around the world. So it comes back in different shapes and colors, we try and take that into account when we do the programming, that this is a worldwide thing. That mélange for us is very fascinating.”

Drinking a glass of red wine, Ménard speaks up for that mélange in a manner truly Québécois. He doesn’t remind me that jazz was born on the streets of a multiracial, multicultural New Orleans. He doesn’t make any mention of the fact that Miles Davis and several of his contemporaries fled the states for Paris in the late-’40s, because they were met with the respect and reverence abroad that Jim Crow wouldn’t allow them here. But he happily talks about his own love of music, across genres, and how the opportunity to program a jazz fest has led to several interactions with these so-called jazz police.

“When Prince played here there was a piece in the Gazette on the morning that he played, and the guy would call Prince’s booking move at the festival an opportunist move at the festival,” Ménard remembers. “Prince must have read that, because he came to the stage, alone with Larry Graham on bass from Sly, and improvised one hour of freestyle music on keyboard, no lights, talking through that shitbox of Peter Frampton’s. It was totally jazz.”

German techno artist Pantha du Prince may not be jazz, but he sure is jazzy.

German techno artist Pantha du Prince may not make jazz, but he sure is jazzy. (Justin Joffe)

Walking through Downtown Montréal, I’m hopping around to several sets that, while not technically jazz, similarly fall under the umbrella of “totally jazz.”

The Brazilian singer Céu throws a sexy party at Club Soda, playing her Música popular brasileira that blends soul, bossanova, samba and baião. German electronic artist Pathna du Prince plays his dark, minimal techno as a three piece at Métropolis, slowly building his soundscapes with another person working a table of electronics to help the low-end harmonies and a third dude on drums. They’re all wearing silver masks over their heads, pulled up just enough so they can see what they’re doing.

Over at Gesù, a Roman Catholic Church that hosts live music on its bottom floor, James Carter’s Organ Trio challenges the jazz police by modernizing the standards on purpose. Calling the performance “Django Unchained,” the trio reworks the legendary gypsy jazz of guitarist Django Reinhardt as a means for re-infusing black identity back into European jazz standards.

“First of all, I’m from jazz, I’m from the ghetto, I’m black. The jazz police can suck my dick.”—Terrace Martin

“We’re going to play these great songs for you in a more ‘urban’ context,” Carter prefaces with a laugh. “We’re gonna roll up a nice little spliff and put some beef jerky on it.”

Carter’s set not only demonstrates how the organ and the horn can replace the double bass and the guitar to liberate even the bougiest of swing, but serves as a reminder of how far the jazz gentry has disassociated itself from black America. Another sax player at the festival named Terrace Martin knows this better than anyone.

Between his composing for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and his growing up with the great Kamasi Washington, Martin’s at the center of a crop of talented artists from South Central who remind the gentry that jazz started with black America.

“First of all, I’m from jazz, I’m from the ghetto, I’m black,” Martin tells me. “The jazz police can suck my dick.”

Terrace Martin: Saxophonist, Keyboardist, Storyteller

Terrace Martin: Saxophonist, keyboardist, storyteller. (Justin Joffe)

Martin’s got a right to be frustrated. He doesn’t talk to journalists often, and is sick of explaining how he blended West Coast G-Funk and jazz so masterfully.

The amazing group of modern jazz innovators that’s formed his inner circle—from Kamasi Washington to pianist Robert Glasper to brothers Ronald and Stephen Brunner (better known as Thundercat)—are all old friends, and the sounds he loves are, too.

“It’s no scientific deep-ass artsy explanation for this shit, man,” he says. “I grew up inna house, we all grew up inna house, and people play different kinds of music, you know what I’m sayin? I don’t brand that shit! That’s corny as fuck. I just keep goin’.”

Taking the stage at Club Soda’s late-night set on Saturday, Martin rips through the themes explored on his wonderful solo joint, Velvet Portraits, released earlier this year on his own Sounds of Crenshaw label.

“Jazz is always evolving, the history and language is always evolving, and you have to keep up with it.”—Cory Henry

Themes and motifs from his Kendrick songs sneak into the set, a run from “For Free?” here, a riff from “Untitled 5” there. He turns “These Walls” into a slow-burning sing-along that features the up-and-comer Taber Gable on the Rhodes piano. Gable just graduated with his masters from Julliard, as has Martin’s guitarist Andrew Renfroe, and these members of his East Coast band reinforce Martin’s commitment to engaging a younger generation of players and looping them in on his genre-bending explorations of groove.

We learn about the members of Martin’s band that night because he tells us their stories. More than just mentioning their names, Martin talks about their connection to each other, be it with his words, his sax or his sampler. It’s not uncommon for bandleaders to infuse some banter into their sets between tunes, talking about the origin of old jazz standards or how they’re modifying them.

But Martin takes it a step further and tells us the about his journey to the stage that night, of his growing up in the Crenshaw district of South Central, and how jazz saved his life.

Terrace Martin watches Taber Gable crush it on a solo

Terrace Martin watches Taber Gable crush it on a solo. (Justin Joffe)

With his words, Martin tells us of his band’s shared legacy, that Gable, Renfroe and drummer Jonathan Barber all live together in CT. He tells us about how he linked up with Rose Gold from Baltimore, a tremendously talented young singer in his band who he’s working on a new project with.

With his horn, he shows us how his past, present and future are all merged. The set is a refreshingly transparent evening with a man who’s not only grateful to be playing his first headlining gig in Montréal, but cognizant of how he got there and who helped him out along the way.

Earlier in the day he recounts years taking sax lessons with Kamasi Washington’s father at their home, likening it to a temple.

“Nine times out of 10 the motherfuckers that’s purists ain’t even live the life we live, they don’t even present the music in a proper manner.”—Terrace Martin

“Kamasi saw something I didn’t see,” he says. “Kamasi saw, if we stayed together we’ gonna be something. If we stay together we gonna be O.K. If we separate, we gonna die young, ‘cause we all crazy and got fucked up things going on. But if we stay together, as brothers, Kamasi saw that.”

Perhaps this is why Martin’s got no time for the jazz police. He maintains that this music is for everyone, but draws a distinction between getting in on a party and making it your own without giving back to the community that started it.

“That’s the problem with the culture of our music now,” he says. “Aint’ shit theirs.”

“Nine times out of 10 the motherfuckers that’s purists ain’t even live the life we live, they don’t even present the music in a proper manner. These motherfuckers ain’t been through nothin’. The jazz police don’t know what it’s like to really have to play to make sure your light stay on, extending the light bill because you got a family.”

Rose Gold is signed to Martin's label, Sounds of Crenshaw

Rose Gold is signed to Martin’s label, Sounds of Crenshaw. (Justin Joffe)

Other artists playing the festival have less concern for the politics and the cultural associations informing their music.

Cory Henry, best known as the keyboardist for jazzy jam group Snarky Puppy, released a fantastic live record called The Revival earlier this year that finds him rekindling his love affair with the Hammond B3 organ. Henry takes us to a spiritual place at that old church Gesù, even if his message is wholly secular. He breezes through a mix of his own tunes with medleys of Funkadelic and Roy Ayers, encouraging us to shout along, clap our hands and rise from our seats. Old folks and young hippie kids alike are enraptured as Henry proves that good vibes know no lone genre or audience.

“I don’t try to throw the shade at jazz as dying,” Henry tells me. “I don’t think it’s dying, I just think that the people who wanna push it forward the way it’s been pushed forward is gonna continue to do that. Terrace Martin is a producer on Kendrick, but he also plays the sax and he plays the mess out of it.”

“It’s hard to teach jazz because the greatest jazz improvisers were not in school—it was learned on the streets of New Orleans.”—Cory Henry

Though he doesn’t consider his own music jazz, or soul, or gospel, Henry has a deep reverence for all of these genres. Church was simply his music school, he says, as it is for so many.

“It’s hard to teach jazz because the greatest jazz improvisers were not in school—it was learned on the streets of New Orleans,” he says. “When people try to conceptualize it as a kind of class, it’s kind of tough. You can learn the history, but if you’re trying to learn jazz you’ve gotta be in a club or in the streets, somewhere it’s being played. Jazz is always evolving, the history and language is always evolving, and you have to keep up with it.”

Cory Henry at Gesù

Cory Henry at Gesù. (Justin Joffe)

Maybe this is where Henry and Martin’s emphasis on the importance of a lived, life experience diverges from the philosophy of Montreal’s jazz gentry.

Pianist Lorraine Desmarais, who performed a lively set of jazz standards and tangos with her big band at L’Astral, comes from a classical background. Her classical training comes through in the precision of her playing, but never overpowers her yearning to improvise or sustain a groove. Desmarais is something of a legend in Montreal’s jazz community, but she just says they spoil her and calls it a love affair.

“I have developed throughout the years a method that works so [my students] can play even after one term,” she tells me. “It’s very structured, almost a classical way of learning. Most of these young people come from classical, so I try to take them from where they’re from, the classical thing, and then bring them to jazz.”

Hence, it’s a steady process. First, the students learn to transcribe a solo by Red Garland. This allows them to flex their prior skills of reading written music. Then they play along to a recording. Finally, and gradually, they start to improvise on their own.

Another pianist with a classical background, Hiromi Uehara, fills Théâtre Maisonneuve at Le Place des Artes on my first night there. She’s visibly studied or disciplined, with no seconds of hesitation or doubt about where her fingers are going on the keys next. Her fusion and post-bop stylings are further subverted by her occasional playing of a synthesizer, filling out her trio’s arrangements with further texture.

Listening to a recording of hers, you might get the vibe that the music isn’t loose enough to sound authentic, and there’s a certain sterile perfection in the execution. Watching her make faces, writhe and exclaim and jump off of her bench in concert, though, Uehara’s exuberant love for jazz becomes infectious. She hasn’t learned to play in the streets, but she’s honoring the genre as an art form by moving away from her classical background to profess her love for it.

The festival is a decidedly family-friendly affair

The festival is a decidedly family-friendly affair. (Justin Joffe)

This all goes back to what Ménard tells me about jazz fest’s mélange. By promoting such a variety of past, present and future sounds, the festival not only serves the jazz community, but the city as well.

“The city has transformed the whole area to host the festival, so that the Jazz Festival has revealed the possibility that a great cultural event with a nice inventory of concert halls and public spaces,” he says. “You add it all up and it’s a natural resource that’s not polluting. You can reuse it every year.”

Ménard isn’t exaggerating his description of the festival as a natural resource. Festival International de Jazz de Montréal brings in about $100 million a year, and the residents continue to show up.

The outdoor stages host emerging talents like New York’s own Gypsy Jazz throwback act The Hot Sardines and the all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache, providing a platform for artists to receive mass-exposure in a city that couldn’t be more open to new sounds. When the Bronx’s own Popa Chubby closes his set with a nine-minute cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, it doesn’t matter that this obese man is playing a rock and roll cover by one Montréal’s most revered sons. Everyone is into it.

The festival’s cultural appropriation is a mixed blessing. A beautiful celebration happens here when identities, styles and meanings coalesce into one big party. There’s something noble to be said for the city’s continued emphasis on jazz as a part university education, and the way that it nurtures younger musicians to make it. But there’s also something lost when an artist like Terrace Martin doesn’t see that same emphasis on education and nurturing extended to the black community. Every year, Martin and Kendrick put on a free festival at the Watts Houses in L.A.

The great Terrace Martin

The great Terrace Martin. (Justin Joffe)

“People take from the black community,” Martin says. “Fashion, music, everything. The black community needs help! People take but nobody wants to pour back in. We see you doin’ the music, we see you dressin’ like this, we see you hangin’ out, we even see you payin’ us to do your records! But we don’t see you down here. The kids wanna see you. You’re doin’ black music for a living, we wanna see you.”

To Ménard’s credit, he’s doing his part by choosing such forward-thinking minds like Martin to join the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.

This festival sets an example for how a city can embrace a cultural event that gives back to its residence without violence, pollution or any other bad shit that happens when a ton of tourists descend upon a place to party for several days. Whether or not we in the United States are capable of following suit with such love and adoration from the community remains to be seen.

“I still don’t know what music is,” Ménard confesses. “I never learned music, so to me it’s just impressions. And I like it that way. You don’t discover artists; they discover themselves.”