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Montreal International Jazz Fest returns in full after two years of limited lineups

Laurent Saulnier, he is stepping down after 23 years of handling bookings for Montreal's Jazz Festival
Laurent Saulnier
Laurent Saulnier is stepping down after 23 years of handling bookings for Montreal's Jazz Festival

The 42nd Montreal International Jazz Festival begins Thursday. The storied festival has hosted some of the genre's all-time greats, including Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Thelonious Monk.

This year, the slate of 350 shows runs through July 9. Some of the big headliners, including hip-hop group The Roots, are playing free outdoor shows. Other indoor venues are charging cover fees. It's the festival's first year back at full strength after two years of pared down lineups during the pandemic, including a virtual event in 2020.

Vermont Public's Grace Benninghoff spoke with Laurent Saulnier, who is in charge of booking for the Montreal International Jazz Festival, about the upcoming event. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Grace Benninghoff: So what does it say about where Montreal is in the city's recovery from the pandemic that you're able to return to this larger festival this year, and what does that mean for the summer ahead?

Laurent Saulnier: You know what? It feels so good, so good. Right before the Jazz Fest we did another festival dedicated to French music and it was the first real festival of the summer in Montreal. And we saw people with a smile on their faces. We saw people happy to be back downtown, with family, with friends, and all that stuff.

You know, the Jazz Fest is kind of the flagship for the festivals here in Montreal. This is not the only one, but the Jazz Fest is the oldest and the biggest one of all those festivals. So it's a big deal for the city because it means that the tourists are back in town, and Montrealers are more than happy to rediscover the downtown Montreal.

I think people are just waiting to go back to normal life, with a lot of people singing, dancing, drinking and having fun, all together watching a concert.

With all that said, it sounds like the festival is really back in full swing — lots of shows indoors, outdoors, lots of people expected. Are there any concerns with COVID as the festival begins?

Oh, for sure there is. But in the meantime, you know, it's the first time that we can act almost as it's a kind of normal life. So I think people are quite excited about it.

But for sure we are concerned. Because each and every week we have some cancellations from acts that are supposed to come to Montreal for the Jazz Fest. One member has COVID. The other has COVID, etc, etc. So, we we're very aware of that, and we're trying to do our best to stop this thing.

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But in the meantime, what can we do? We are asking everybody to be really safe. Be careful about it. But we're trying to act like it's a pre-pandemic world.

How did scaling back the festival during the last two years impact the local community?

Back in December 2020, that was when we did the virtual Jazz Fest. There was nothing going on in downtown Montreal like many other cities in the world. At the time, there were no tourists in the city, [and still] even in 2021.

Last year, our intention was not to do the Jazz Fest for tourists because it was kind of difficult to go across the border from United States to Canada, but we did it mainly for Montrealers at the time.

I think people are just waiting to go back to normal life, with a lot of people singing, dancing, drinking and having fun, all together watching a concert.
Laurent Saulnier, Montreal Jazz Festival

And it was important because we knew at that time that it was something that made the people feel good, feel better. Music is healing sometimes. And I think that the fact that we did this mini Jazz Fest in 2021 gave hope to everyone that maybe in 2022 there will be a real Jazz Fest. So here we are, almost three years after the last real Jazz Fest — in downtown Montreal, full capacity, without any restrictions and all that stuff.

Is there an overarching theme you want to achieve with the bands and artists you've booked for this year's festival? What can people expect?

It's maybe our largest edition. If you consider only the outdoor programming — each and every night at 9:30 p.m. on the big stage there's a kind of all-star programming. You will see people like Corinne Bailey Rae, Kamasi Washington, The Roots for the closing night; some local acts also. We also have a special night with the Jireh Gospel Choir on a Sunday night. For sure for gospel, there is no better night than a Sunday night. We have a blues stage. There are so many things to see and to hear.

You've been booking acts with the festival since 1999, but this is your last year before you leave to jump over to the management side of the music business. How has the festival changed over your time here?

I remember when I first started 23 years ago, we were waiting for confirmations by fax. Just by saying the word fax we can measure how the world changed over the years.

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The festival itself didn't change a lot. What I mean is, it's still a very jazz festival. Jazz is always the center of our attention. But in the meantime, during the years, the festival opened to different kinds of music that was kind of influenced by jazz or music that influences Jazz. Take hip-hop, for example. Without jazz, there wouldn't be hip-hop. So we integrated more and more hip-hop during the years. Same thing with with soul and with R&B, you know, music like that, that is really influenced by jazz.

What do you hope for the future of the Jazz Fest now that you're leaving?

I think it's important to to let the younger people go with the Jazz Fest and make the Jazz Fest what they want to do with this festival. I think that the tradition — the heritage is very important — but I think also that we don't know what the future will bring to the music business in general. And I think it's up to them right now to do the best that they can with this famous jazz festival.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with Grace Benninghoff @gbenninghoff1.

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