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‘We turned a negative into a positive’

One of the Beaches International Jazz Festival’s many stages includes for big band.

When it rejected the Beaches International Jazz Festival's standard application for funding this spring, the Ontario government hit a bum note among opposition parties and fans of the free, 25-year-running affair that is thought to be the largest of its kind in Canada, with some 500,000 lovers of jazz and various upbeat international music genres expected to attend the annual east-end party (July 18 to 27). Such was the outcry that the provincial Liberals relented and found alternate funding for the event. We spoke to festival founder and director Lido Chilelli about the funding furor.

When you found out this spring that the Beaches International Jazz Festival wouldn't be getting the $75,000 it was expecting from the Celebrate Ontario program, what changes to the festival went into effect?

We definitely scaled down some of the higher-end entertainment. We had a couple of headliners we were looking to book, but we couldn't afford it. We also eliminated two or three bands from Street Fest. But, over all, we were forced to become more aggressive in trying to secure sponsorships. In that sense, we turned a negative into a positive.

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Did the province give you a reason for the cut in funding?

I don't know the reason. All I can tell you is that we were successful applicants for the last seven or eight years. And because of the Celebrate Ontario program, it really enhanced the festival experience. We started out 25 years ago as a one-day festival. Over the years, through partnerships with various levels of government, we've become a tourist magnet and an economic impact magnet.

Does it draw much from outside of the city?

When the word got out that we were denied our funding, we had people from all over the world in shock. People from England, from Rome and from Germany were asking us,"how could this be?"

The Liberal government said Celebrate Ontario program received about $35-million in requests this year, and could only grant a little under $20-million. Is it possible that compared to new, hip Toronto festivals such as Field Trip and T.U.R.F., that the more community-orientated Beaches Jazz isn't seen as sexy an event?

I actually think we're the premier festival in Ontario. It's a leader. It attracts hundreds of thousands of people. It's a model which other communities, such as Burlington and Orangeville, have followed. Other festivals have copied us.

What are they copying, specifically?

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People are attracted to the emerging artists we book. They're new, and the opportunity for artists to perform in front of large crowds helps them get other jobs. It's an important festival in that respect.

So the artists get exposure, and they're able to sell their CDs to large audiences. But has Street Fest become too popular for its own good? Is it too crowded now?

Street Fest is very busy and very full. That's why we've expanded to Woodbine Park, where we have multiple stages in a 20-acre park. We have a big-band stage, a Latin stage, a Caribbean stage and main stages. We have workshops and a photograph pavilion. It's a whole experience.

There was an uproar after the festival was initially denied provincial funding. Eventually, you received a grant through another program, but what do you make of events such as Drake's OVO festival, a highly successful ticketed concert headed by one of the wealthiest and most successful Canadian musicians on the planet, getting a $300,000 grant?

The public outcry was phenomenal. People were wondering how the province could fund festivals that charged money and were sold out. How can you not support a free event like us? It was hard for people to digest. My own opinion is that it's important to support festivals like ours. If you have a strong foundation, it pays back a lot of dividends that will foster pride and a sense of community. It's about stability.

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