A Little Festival History

L-R: Ken Pickering, Jeff Turner, John Orysik, Paul Plimley


They say necessity is the mother of invention.

Some 35 years ago, a group of passionate music aficionados convened to create an organization by which jazz concerts, workshops, and events would be presented on an ongoing, viable footing. After much meticulous planning, determination, and hard work, the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society and its preeminent jewel, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, were born.

Before the formation of Coastal Jazz, the city had, for the most part, experienced an intermittent, now-you see-it-now-you-don’t jazz scene. Clubs, concert events, and entities would suddenly emerge to inject excitement into the community and then, for a host of reasons, fade into oblivion. We felt it necessary to break the boom and bust cycle. A strategic vision focusing on sustainable long-term growth and development became a foundational principle of the Society’s operating playbook.

The idea was to present year-round concerts, workshops, special initiatives, and co-presentations culminating in a spectacular annual international jazz jamboree during the summer. The Festival would accommodate a wide variety of concert series reflecting the entire spectrum of jazz from its early roots to hybrid forms to the most adventurous contemporary expressions—a glorious global summit meeting you might call it. We’d invite collaborations between artists from here and over there (these meetings often grew into lasting associations). BC-based performers would play a significant role in the program and have an international platform. And when the Festival concluded there would continue to be an important jazz presence throughout the year.

The inaugural Jazz Festival launched in 1985, mainly in clubs around the city. It was a weeklong regional event, partly self-financed, featuring bands from BC, Washington state, and Oregon. There was one international heavyweight—Hungarian bassist Aladar Pege who spoke no English. We had zero Hungarian chops, so discussions about food, lodging, performance details, and so on turned into comedic episodes worthy of Monty Python. Nonetheless, the man was a master musician who, when performing, communicated brilliantly.

The Festival exploded out of the gate in 1986. The World’s Fair (Expo ‘86) was in town; we had major sponsorship in tow; and programming expanded to include theatres, clubs, outdoor bandstands, and six venues on the Expo site. It was a musical extravaganza the likes of which the city had never seen. The artist roster was extraordinary: Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Coleman, Bill Frisell, Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya, Albert Collins, Koko Taylor, John Mayall, Tony Williams, Bobby McFerrin, Tito Puente, Steve Lacy, Tim Berne, Roscoe Mitchell, Paul Plimley, Phil Dwyer, Ran Blake, Jay Clayton, Renee Rosnes, Mal Waldron, Jane Ira Bloom, Lance Harrison, Jim Byrnes, Kate Hammett-Vaughan, Skywalk, Kenny Wheeler, Celso Machado, and so many more.

This outstanding cast was a story in and of itself, but an incident at the ‘86 Festival took place that drew international media attention and is now a part of jazz history. It was the infamous showdown between Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis. Briefly, Wynton Marsalis appeared on stage uninvited and ready to play during Miles Davis’s performance at Expo Theatre. He’d been feuding with Miles during this time and there was friction between the two trumpet titans. When Davis eventually realized what was happening he confronted Marsalis, upbraided him for his temerity, and then ordered him off the stage with language not suitable for all audiences. The next day, my phone started ringing off the hook with inquiries from New York and Los Angeles and beyond. “What on earth happened between Miles and Wynton?” The Jazz Festival was on the map!

Wynton Marsalis & Miles Davis. Photo by Chris Cameron.


As its popularity grew throughout the ‘80s, and ‘90s, the Festival continued to build on the Society’s heartfelt mission—to connect artists and audiences through the transformative joy, passion, and power of jazz. There were more venues and more artists, as well as a burgeoning fan base eager to discover new sounds. By encouraging access to free concerts and workshops, potential barriers to the music and its practitioners were blown away. Widespread media recognition from local, national, and international platforms extolled the visionary programming, collegial atmosphere, friendly volunteers, cultural inclusivity, and a variety of pioneering achievements that are now trademark staples of the Festival.

Today, attendees have come to expect exceptional concert experiences. And we deliver with traditionalists, innovators, genre-benders, emerging artists, and student bands from far and wide all contributing to our ethos of nurturing creativity, encouraging collaboration, and building community. I’m often asked about some of my memorable moments: Sun Ra’s out-of-this-world performance at The Commodore; the rapid rise of Diana Krall from resident artist to international star; the zany concert antics and awesome talent of Dutch master drummer Han Bennink all leap to mind. Equally unforgettable is trombonist Ray Anderson jamming with John Zorn and the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet late into the night, and Brazilian singer/songwriter Caetano Veloso’s mesmerizing show at the Vogue Theatre. And I’m only scratching the surface.

From humble beginnings, Coastal Jazz and Blues Society has built an enduring legacy of which all can be proud. In fact, dare I say, that no other entity has had as profound an impact on the local jazz scene. Credit goes to dedicated and resourceful team members past and present. They’ve helped the organization assume a leading role in the cultural life of the community as it strives to elevate Vancouver’s artistic scene, forge partnerships, promote economic growth, increase tourism, and foster positive social development. One may ask, why was all this effort expended over the years and particularly now in the midst of a global pandemic? Because dear friends, we believe great music and great art can change things for the better; but most importantly, because necessity made it so.

John Orysik is the co-founder of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.