But is it Jazz?

Snotty Nose Rez Kids at Downtown Jazz, 2019. Photo by Rebecca Blissett

Over its 35-year history, the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival has cemented itself as a cultural institution in Vancouver. Year after year, its programming has reflected the rich, shifting musical landscape of our local, national, and international jazz scenes, always with one eye on the future while honouring the past.

Every summer since 1985 swaths of the world’s finest musicians have descended upon the city to bring top-shelf blues, swing, bebop, improvised music, fusion, avant-garde, contemporary jazz, and more to stages across Vancouver. To many, jazz means something very specific (whether flashy big bands, tight bebop combos, or far-flung free improvisation), but most people can find their favourite flavour of jazz in the Festival’s regular programming.

But as time has progressed, so, too, has the tone and variety of the Festival. While it has always had an ‘out’ streak (due in large part to late Artistic Director and co-founder Ken Pickering’s penchant for highly innovative avant-jazz), recent years have seen Festival lineups shift in new, dynamic directions, guided by the deft hand of Managing Director of Artistic Programming Rainbow Robert. Artists many naysayers consider decidedly non-jazz can now be found at all levels of the Festival, from rap and hip hop groups (Wu-Tang Clan, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Missy D) to EDM acts (Bonobo, Thievery Corporation, DJ Kookum) to rock bands (Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters, Dirty Projectors). The TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival is not alone in this. The Montreux Jazz Festival has programmed Pulitzer Prize-winning rap phenom Kendrick Lamar and hip hop darling Anderson.Paak played both Halifax and Montreal festivals—one would be hard pressed to find a major jazz festival worth its salt that hasn’t made similar booking choices.

Kendrick Lamar at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2013

This also is not entirely a new phenomenon, especially for Vancouver. In the ‘90s and early 2000s the Jazz Festival’s New Groove series brought DJs, Senegalese dance bands, avant-rock groups, and more to the Commodore and Performance Works stages.

Given the ever-increasing presence of “non-jazz” artists at Jazz Festivals across the globe, the question often comes—are they still Jazz Festivals at all? Consider this: if we are asked “Is this jazz”? about any one act, we may be inclined to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on our own notions of what jazz is. If jazz, to you, only lives in the world of Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, or Ornette Coleman, then it’s easy enough to say Wu-Tang Clan doesn’t quite pass muster.

Wu Tang Clan at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in 2019

But perhaps the more important question, and one that helps situate these bold programming decisions in our vibrant musical present, is “Does this embody the spirit of jazz”? Jazz is, after all, fundamentally protest music, Black music, a music that is constantly shifting, defying expectations, and escaping definition. Jazz improvises. Jazz breaks the rules. Viewed in this light, all of the Festival’s most questioned programming suddenly fits right in.

There are also, of course, very clear historical through-lines that lead directly from jazz and blues to almost all popular contemporary music. There would be no Wu-Tang without Ellington or Robert Plant without Bukka White. But understanding that hip hop, R&B, and EDM are direct descendants of jazz is not enough. To pit contemporary jazz—or a jazz festival—against its own history and past definitions is to do a disservice to the work of all the musicians, activists, artists, and thinkers who brought it to life and keep it alive.

From Vancouver to Montreux, jazz festivals are moving in a new direction. You will still find great blues, swing, funk, avant-jazz, and more on Vancouver stages every summer; traditional and contemporary jazz genres are the beating heart of the Festival’s history and will always be a part of its artistic mandate. But audiences will undoubtedly continue to see performers in Festival lineups that push the boundaries of what they believe jazz can be. So when faced with a bit of programming that puzzles you, instead of asking “is this jazz?”, ask instead “could this be jazz?”— your answer may surprise you.