26 June 2022

Enjoy Montreal's fabulous festival of music
Montreal and all that jazz
Musician Chris Jagger, brother of Mick, lapses into schoolboy French to enjoy the unique attractions of this city's great music festival.
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ontreal is full of surprises. Although I have visited North America many times and am well versed in their way of doing things, I found this city refreshingly different. To counter the British influence across the vast country of Canada, Montreal has remained arrogantly Francophile and, as the metropolis of Quebec, insists that its occupants speak both languages – and that is what I liked. Voila! I could practice my schoolboy French and then revert back into English when I stumbled. I really felt like I was on holiday. Montreal has flair and panache, good restaurants and an interesting mix of people. First and foremost, though, I went to play in the famous International Jazz Festival which is at the end of June and runs into the first week of July.

The first worry for any foreigner, particularly one working in that country, is immigration procedure. Apart from the natural anxiety, it may mean long queues and facing officers who are trained to scrutinise your every twitch. However, I merely mentioned I was playing their festival and they immediately stamped my passport and told me to enjoy myself. Montreal is built on an island of the St Lawrence River and was the centre of a lucrative fur trade many years ago, becoming a major commercial centre with its port facilities serving the huge swathe of country stretching north right up to the Arctic.
Enjoy a variety of bars and restaurants in cosmopolitan Montreal
But now the money men have largely switched to Toronto, leaving Montreal as the cultural capital of Canada. You can wander into the old commercial area which houses touristy attractions, and down to the waterfront where I strolled round a market. I paused by a pleasant old
The Jazz Festival attracts big crowds
"The action during the festival takes place in the Latin Quarter "
hotel where a tour guide was announcing to his party ‘and last year The Rolling Stones took over the entire hotel for their entourage!’ How about that? I had arranged something more modest: an apartment right in the centre of town. This worked out far cheaper and better than a hotel as I was on a pretty strict budget. There were no maids fussing around but I actually prefer having my room messy as then I know where everything is.

Right around the corner was St Laurent, a long street with funky clothes shops, a good bakery, endless restaurants and a smoked meat place which always had a queue outside whatever time you passed by. Even better, I was close to the Latin Quarter where the action takes place during the festival. In the evening it’s closed to traffic and people throng the piazzas and streets to enjoy the atmosphere, the parades and the music. There is a lot of good free entertainment. There are bandstands on many street corners and temporary stages on parking lots. The first band I caught was from Brazil and was led by a flute player to the accompaniment of a big bass drum, two guitars and a silver conga drum. There is the more traditional-style jazz too, and groups from all over the world come to play at what the Guinness Book of World Records bills as the biggest jazz fest on the planet.

We were to play some days later on one of these outdoor stages and, true to the tradition of the English summer, we brought the drizzle with us. It was a good place to play, however, and an enthusiastic crowd appeared from nowhere to support the Limeys. Being British, my only complaint was the frothy beer. Across the city generally you may find some interesting beers from micro breweries but the best deal is probably the wine, much of which, unsurprisingly, comes from France.

During days off, fellow musician Charlie Hart and I took in some acts, including Seun Kuti at the afrobeat party, free in the main square. Seun has a hard act to follow, for his father Fela was a legend in Nigeria and for many years a thorn in the side of successive governments there. It’s his father’s band, basically, and the music is a heady blend of West African Highlife with James Brown horn riffs and a little jazz thrown in. Another evening, I watched Bela Fleck, an incredibly dexterous banjo player who defies categorisation, then popped to the Spectrum Theatre to see longtime favourite guitar player Bill Frisell, went round the corner to witness a young Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca with his band in the crypt of a church, before ending the evening checking out a large British contingent called The Cinematic Orchestra.
The Club Soda where the Brits were playing was packed with young people and the music was loud. I disappeared up the street around 1am and found a shop still open where I ate a sandwich, drank a tea and bought a dress for the wife. The main theatre venues are top-rated shows and command high entry prices. On offer was Bob Dylan at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Dylan has finally got hold of a good band and they are having fun, too, which you can enjoy in such an intimate venue as it holds maybe 3,000 people.

I also caught Van Morrison there but it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Even the musicians were quiet. Music seems a serious business in this town, and after sponsoring the festival for nearly 30 years, the organisers deserve credit for bringing in tourists and giving a strong international cultural identity to the city. People who have appeared include Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Oscar Peterson, B.B. King and even Prince.

All the street concerts must end by 11pm but in the bars and joints around the main centre there is music going on till much later. Unlike many cities in the US, the food in Montreal is diverse and of a high standard, with French cuisine the norm, albeit with many regional specialities. Food and music traditionally go together and here we were lucky as the Quebec people like the fiddle and accordion which we feature in our group Atcha! I even have some songs in ‘cod’ French which they enjoyed, as well as the general vibe of the Louisiana Cajun influence that we veer towards. Back in the days of General Wolfe, the French in Quebec didn’t take too kindly to being discriminated against by the Brits, so many of the original settlers moved south to Louisiana, which also had been colonial French at one time.

They also moved there from Acadia, in Nova Scotia, which is where the word ‘Cajun’ derives. In Louisiana, the settlers maintain a simple rural life and stuck to traditions, which revolved around old fiddle tunes that were brought over originally from France. The music helped give them identity and to my mind it has some lovely cadences and dancing tunes which are a nice alternative in our more mechanised society. If you have the chance to visit Montreal at the time of the festival, you will have a good time before heading out to explore some more distant parts of that huge country. We took time to visit the Alpine-like area of Mount Tremblant, a top ski resort in the winter. Next year I hope to travel further north to other parts of Quebec which has managed to hold on to aspects of its European culture and which go to making a holiday special.

Original article published in Apr 2008. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
"Food and music traditionally go together and here we were lucky. The food in Montreal is diverse and of a high standard, with French cuisine the norm."
Montreal in the Fall is a festival of colour
The Jazz Festival attracts performers from all over the world
A popular street cafe
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