This spring, the climate for jazz in Toronto will change in a major way, thanks to a newly formed education and advocacy group called Art of Jazz.
Founded by a group of musicians and jazz educators, Art of Jazz intends to make jazz more accessible -- in every sense of the term -- to the Canadian public, with programs that include everything from workshops and classes to an annual festival in May. As Bonnie Lester, the group's president, puts it, "Our mandate is about securing the vitality of jazz for the long term."
In addition to Lester, the group's founding directors include jazz educator Howard Rees as well as two notable Canadian jazz musicians, saxophonist Jane Bunnett and trumpeter Larry Cramer. Art of Jazz was formed as a not-for-profit organization with charitable status, and has established its base of operations at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts at the Distillery District in downtown Toronto. The organization has big ambitions, with plans for monthly jazz concerts, a repertory ensemble called the Art of Jazz Orchestra, and an annual High School Jazz Conference. The group also plans to offer workshops, open rehearsals and master classes, as well as interactive performances to help educate listeners. There will even be an outreach program, to bring jazz to under-served communities. But nothing concrete has been announced.
At the moment, there's only one event inked on the Art of Jazz calendar, and it's likely to make quite a splash: The annual Art of Jazz Celebration, a five-day festival (running from May 17-21) designed to pay tribute to a pair of jazz greats. "We decided amongst the four of us that it would be nice to honour a musician -- one international/American, and a Canadian," says Cramer.
This year's honorees are the great bebop pianist Barry Harris, and the B.C.-born multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson, and the concerts are being structured to present a sense of each musician's musical history.
For instance, the Harris tribute, on May 18, will feature pianist Hank Jones, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, tap dancer Jimmy Slyde, bassist Earl May and drummer Leroy Williams, and will be something of an old-home week for the musicians involved. Rees reports that Slyde, upon hearing that Jones was on the bill, said, "I haven't seen him since Cab Calloway's band in the thirties, when we were touring together." For the Thompson tribute, on May 19, the guests will include guitarist Jim Hall, alto saxophonist John Handy, bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist and pianist Phil Dwyer and drummer Terry Clarke.
"They haven't been able to get Jim Hall here for 25 years, and were amazed that we were able to get him here for this," says Rees. "And the reason he's coming is the respect and love and appreciation he has for Don Thompson."
"I think musicians need more of that," adds Cramer. "Not just empty honours, but these kind of events where people look at what they've done in their history."
But the Art of Jazz Celebration won't be just another festival, because in addition to the concerts there will be workshops and clinics, so that the musicians can learn more about their craft and listeners may learn more about jazz. "Hank Jones is giving a clinic," says Rees, "and when I told Barry [Harris]that, he said, 'Sign me up right away!' Don Thompson said the same thing. . . He thinks every pianist in the city should be there."
Part of what Art of Jazz hope to achieve through the event is establishing a sense of community, where musicians can hang out, tell stories, catch up and connect -- something that doesn't often happen on the hectic festival circuit. "People don't have the time, because they're trying to make all the festivals," says Bunnett. "It's just in and out."
The group also hopes to draw listeners into that community. "We are interested in education," says Rees. "But not just education for musicians and students -- it is also for the general listening public. Through its various programs (information on which may be found on the group's website, ), Art of Jazz hopes, says Rees, "to raise the discernment level of the listening public so that they're a little hipper. And when they come out to listen to music, they'll know what they're listening to."