The Vancouver Jazz Scene

Festival MC, podcaster, record label honcho, and Jazz fella-about-town Tim Reinert tells us his view of Vancouver’s lively scene:

Growing up in northern B.C. in the early 1990s, jazz wasn’t something I had a lot of access to, despite being absolutely obsessed with it. But CBC Radio played jazz, and I was gobsmacked to learn that a lot of it was made in Vancouver. I learned who Hugh Fraser and Brad Turner were before I learned about Prince and Madonna. And so, when I finally moved here, and discovered that I could go to tiny places all over the city and listen to the musicians I’d heard on the radio, it felt like I’d moved to the moon.

A few years later, I attended my first Vancouver International Jazz Festival. I was overwhelmed by the opportunity to see bona fide international legends like Jackie McLean and Randy Weston. But I also remember being distinctly impressed by the musicality of local heroes like Mike Allen and Francois Houle, both of whom still make their homes here and are an integral part of this year’s festival — 25 years later. Hearing people who weren’t famous, yet who affected me emotionally in the same way that the famous did, made me realize jazz is a music for which it’s not fame or geography that matters. It’s the talent. And this city is stuffed with talent.

I also learned that the most important part of the festival wasn’t the international part; it was the Vancouver part. The musicians who live here are the reason we have a festival that’s the envy of cities all over the world.

In 1914, trumpeter Freddie Keppard, backed up by the Original Creole Orchestra, was the first real jazz musician to play in Vancouver. A few years later, pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton did a two-year stint in the house band at Pat’s, a local watering hole that’s still open and still features live jazz every week. It didn’t take long for local musicians to pick up the baton, and jazz has been an integral part of this city’s culture ever since.

Dal Richards led big bands here for over 75 years, and the NOW Society was founded here in 1977. Hugh Fraser’s VEJI Orchestra and John Korsrud’s Hard Rubber Orchestra got their start in this city. Cory Weeds built a small jazz empire here, and countless musicians who would go on to become household names in the jazz world got their start in Vancouver.

John Korsrud’s Hard Rubber Orchestra at Gastown Jazz

But this isn’t about some long-ago “glory days.” The scene today is just as strong. Before COVID-19, you could find live jazz of all stripes every night of the week in Vancouver, at a wide variety of performance spaces. Even during the pandemic, several of those venues have provided a space for us to listen. and for local musicians to ply their craft. While a jazz festival like ours provides a great opportunity for local talent to get featured on a larger stage, these people are working hard 365 days a year — sometimes performing several gigs in a single day.

While the pandemic has definitely slowed down local performances, other opportunities were created almost immediately, with many of the scene’s stalwarts taking advantage of this “new normal” by performing online concerts, or releasing that live record they didn’t had time to mix before, or getting familiar with new technology and recording that album they’d had sitting in the back of their head for years. Creativity endures. Talent endures. Jazz endures.

There’s a reason this festival is here — and it’s our players, our venues, and the collective commitment to this music. If you’re lucky enough to live here, you get to experience them all year ’round.

Tim Reinert hosts the Infidels, a podcast about jazz, and recently started a record label of the same name.