‘A Graceful Exit’

By Victoria Wasylak

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There’s a lot to recall over the almost 40 years of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, but co-founder André Ménard remembers it all: the five times Miles Davis took the stage, Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic concerts of the 80s, giving Diana Krall her first big break, staging the return on Leonard Cohen, and every set in between. The Montrealer recites it all from memory, down to the year of each performance, as he mentally parses through the history of the world’s largest jazz festival at a press luncheon for FIJM in April.

After four decades years of guiding the festival into the heart of jazz itself, and another prior 10 years in the music business in general, Ménard is at peace with retiring after the 2019 edition year at 66 years old. Ahead of this year’s festival, Ménard chatted with JAZZed about preparing his replacement, the ever-expanding footprint of FIJM, and the international flair of modern jazz music.

I wanted to ask you probably what everyone’s been asking you about – you’re retiring this year.

It comes after 40 years of the festival, but I truly had started in the music business as early as [when] I was in college in the early ‘70s, so it’s more like 50 years than 40 years. I don’t really mind. I’ll be turning 66 in December. Leaving the company does not mean leaving the music world. I’ve been on the street every night for all of those years. I still see 200 to 300 gigs a year or attend all sorts of events. It’s not like I’m giving up on this, but I’m giving up on going to the office and doing what I’ve been doing for so long now. Throughout the years, I never lost interest into the creativity and whatever artists have to propose. I lost interest in bureaucracy, for sure. It’s normal.

I still am fascinated by the achievements of the artists in terms of starting from nothing and out of thin air creating beauty at the tip of their fingers, or whatever they’re doing. It applies to many forms of arts, but my preference goes to music all the time. So how do you retire from that? It’s never been a real job for me, so I might have to find a real job now.

It’ll be different but I’m not that nostalgic after all. People that would try and impose nostalgia on us – you know, like, when you start doing your festival, many jazz fans would think that jazz had stopped being jazz in 1960 when they plugged in the first electric piano and Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock started playing it. It’s not like that. Music is a big corpus, and it’s nice being able to witness and take part into some of the evolution that have been taking place for the last 40 years. Music has changed a lot, the way it’s being played, being circulated – everything has changed. I felt like, for me, I think I have known a great era of music.

And my partner and I had been preparing the replacement for many years. The head of program in our festivals, especially the jazz festival, has been there for 20 years now. The main programmer of the jazz festival has been in place for five years. It’s not like after us it’ll be a catastrophe. Quite to the contrary, these are well-prepared people that are already very active making decisions without always getting approval because we trust them. So this is, I think, the right way to make a graceful exit.

How hard it is to find a successor – or successors – to you?

Well, they do reveal themselves at some point because we have never shied away from surrounding ourselves with talented people, be it in terms of programming, you know, showing good taste in music but also in terms of communicating what we’re doing. We’ve had strong employees. Some of them have left us to a very high post, you know, in Canada at the CBC, for example, or Cirque du Soleil, and we take pride in having been instrumental in their progress. And same for the jazz festival, lots of younger people that worked for us in the first place because they really wanted to try their hand at doing something with us, and then reveal themselves very talented and very forward-thinking. The new president is a guy we hired in 1987, So if we’re talking of continuity, there’s no problem in that respect.

What do you hope for the festival going forward after you’ve retired?

We made up our mind long ago, Alain Simard and myself, about the fact that this festival will survive to its founders, which is great. I would love it to remain in the public eye, very open-minded, very relevant in terms of content. Taking chances sometimes. It’s better making mistakes sometimes than always doing the same thing over and over again. To us, music is a very moving body, especially jazz, the way that jazz has taken all of its influences throughout its history.

I was last week in Barcelona for five days upon invitation from the Catalonian state to listen to some of their jazz offerings there. I saw real greatness already achieved in what they had to offer. Very diversified, very cool. And this is where I see that jazz has become an international music, it’s no more American-only. Obviously, it belongs to America. America invented jazz, but it has traveled, and it comes back in echoes in many forms and ways.

What would differentiate the Montreal Jazz Festival from the festivals in America was that we were not only America-centered. We would have musicians from Europe, and from Africa, and from Australia, and from Japan. This is the true nature of a festival – to offer discoveries, not only artists that you know about.

So if the Jazz Festival in Montreal still can take that into account, still has the means and the will to go and find out about all of this talent, this great music, and share them with the public, this, for me, is a dream come true. It’s been already done, and I hope that it keeps being done in different ways, in different manners, you know, in the presentation. The jazz festival site is almost saturated now. It seems like it’s gonna spread to some neighborhoods on top of the central site of the festival. I see it as having a very bright future, very different. I won’t be part of the making of this, but I sure will witness as long as I’m alive. The future, to me, looks bright, and I can’t wait to see it happen, even if I’m not involved.

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