The 2001 Canadian Jazz Expo

The 2001 Canadian Jazz Expo
November 2-4 in Toronto
By Mark Ruffin

There was only one thing missing at the very first Canadian Jazz Expo, held November 2nd- 4th in Toronto, and that was people. The other slight cracks in the maiden voyage of this event were very minor compared to the lack of passengers aboard the ship. For three days, those Canadian jazz professionals who did take advantage of the Jazz Expo were treated to an astounding first rate event that was well rounded in its scope, focus and goals.

Canada was very well represented at exhibits presented by radio stations, smooth and acoustic, as well as instrument manufacturers and jazz artisans. A couple of the multi-national labels were present, as well as some top independents from both Canada and the U.S.

The events were held in three large rooms at the Queen Elizabeth Complex, which is one of many huge buildings slightly north of downtown collectively called Exhibition Place. The streets that wind between the structures reportedly make it an excellent place to hold the Toronto International Grand Prix, but there are many better places for jazz people to network, workshop, lecture, exhibit and give recitals.

Two organizations that have huge conventions, IAJE and MIDEM, were among the 40 exhibitors. And the very culturally active government was also represented in many ways, but in no way greater than at the booth for Metronome.

Metronome is an incredible public and private venture that has been dubbed “a United Nations of music.” With a futuristic-yet-retro cubism architectural design, Metronome is a multi-purpose building that will hold a music playground, an extensive education center, a Canadian music museum, theatres, cafes and restaurant, and most importantly, ample common areas for music professionals to set up shop.

While we in America have been salivating over the way culture in other countries is aggressively supported by their government, more than one Canadian said that golden era is beginning to end for musicians and artists in Canada. Reportedly, the government is adopting more an American approach, depending more on the private sector to support the arts. It’s another one of our bad ideas that our neighbors to the north have absorbed for use.

Ricky Schultz SeminarIronically, the panel discussions and workshops were tremendously successful for the same reason the Jazz Expo was hurting; a small number of participants. Ricky Shultz, owner of Zebra Records, may have had only ten people to mentor on running a record label, but he was able to administer on an extreme one-on-one basis.

His group was so interesting, smart and thirsting for knowledge, that it when it was time for the session to end, Schultz made room for the next seminar, but found another place to continue his until the inquiries of the attendees were exhausted.

Frank Malfitano of the Detroit and Syracuse Jazz Festivals, along with Bill Royston, Artistic Director of Portland’s Mount Hood Jazz Festival, did the same with their small group. The two men, who obviously had much experience at the convention/seminar game, seemed to revel in educating such a small group on what it is they do.

No other seminar witnessed by this writer had more than ten to fifteen people in it at a time. Music recitals were a different story. Well, sort of. Okay, not really. It just that the Canadian Jazz Expo got off to such an optimistic start for me.

Somehow, an employee of the building let me into the wrong door, in the back of the building.. The Expo was only held in a little over a third of the giant edifice, so I walked through the hallowed hall and heard loud music and lots of voices.

Deanna Witkowski QuartetOne of the very slick Jazz Expo programs was on the ground, and I inadvertently turned right to the letter Oscar Peterson wrote for Expo goers. As I walked towards a thick black curtain, reading and hearing the animated sounds on the other side, I felt optimistic that the event would be a success.

On the other side was what seemed like a whole school of very young kids being thoroughly entertained by a group called Little Jazz Cat School, who played humorous jump tunes and silly bebop pieces to make kids laugh.

Little did I know that that would be, by far, the best-attended event. When the kids left, so did a lot of the air of the event. The Canadian Jazz Expo, however, never lost its heart, and that was evident everywhere. ,

As far as notoriety, it may be kind calling most of the musicians who played ‘B’ level players, but regardless, all performers were on their “A” game. Plus, each day, the performances seemed to be better than the day before.

With inventive arrangements, like a hip up-tempo take on “Detour Ahead,” it was pianist/vocalist Dena DeRose who set the pace on Friday. She also displayed an interesting display of singing behind the beat on a very original version of “Alone Together,” that had a syncopated bass line that belied the relatively straight forward melody line of the song.

She also did an arrangement of “If I Should Lose You,” Barbara Sfragathat had more than one person commenting on the semi-conspicuous absence of Canada’s biggest jazz star, Diana Krall. Creatively, they are not that far apart, and with a switch of fortunes, DeRose could easily be in Krall’s shoes.

The next day, singer Barbara Sfraga eschewed that typical style of jazz singing with a daring set that put spun contemporary rhythms and a thorough exploration of melodies into the standards she sung. Then the avant-garde leanings of Andre Leroux with the Francois Bourassa Trio delivered a buzz to the crowd that was still palpable the next day in conversations.

Doug Riley QuartetDoug Riley’s organ quartet smoked the stage on the last day of the show. Not to knock any of the other performers, but the seasoning of these veterans made obvious the youth and inexperience of most of the other players heard over the weekend, including pianists Sarah Jane Cion and Paul Tobey. With Riley was legendary Canadian drummer Terry Clarke along with Jake Langley and Chris Mitchell on guitar and sax respectively.

The last performer was singer/pianist Deanna Witkowski, a creative composer who has an irresistible wordless vocal style that complement her very Deanna Witkowskiprogressive and intricate melodies. It was a kind of complete-the-circle moment, that should’ve had some Canadians thinking about lost opportunity, when, like DeRose on the first day, Witkoski delivered an emotional version of “If I Should Lose You,”

Her stunning, but short set had most people in the sparse audience rushing up afterwards to find out more about her and how they can get her music. It was a perfect example of why gatherings like these are important to the survival of jazz around the world.

The creator of the Canadian Jazz Expo, Nancy Houle, is to be congratulated on a world-class event. It’s just too bad that it seemed the Americans, English and Japanese outnumbered the Canadians.

“That’s okay,” she said three days after her nightmare ended. “we created networks and circumstances that (the Canadians who showed) wouldn’t have gotten.otherwise.

“The main problem is that I suffer from eternal optimism,” she said eluding that maybe she was too ambitious. “There’s no way I would’ve put this event on had I known it was going to be poorly attended.”

She went on to say that the Canadian press, both in Toronto and nationally, couldn’t have been more helpful in getting the word out, and that she didn’t totally understand the lack of participation.

“But now there is an educated network of Canadian musicians who are aware of what we’re doing, and it will grow,” she insisted.

“Our goal was to improve opportunities for Canadian jazz musicians and Paul Tobeyprofessionals,” she concluded, “and the proof is in the pudding.”

She was beaming over the fact that the delegation from Japan, had finalized contracts to have Canadians Paul Tobey, Francois Bourassa and the Suzie Arioli Swing Band play at the 2002 Yokohama Jazz Festival.