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Is the Calgary jazz scene a glass half empty or half full?

Cheryl Fisher Jazz Singer

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With the Calgary jazz scene facing challenges over the past few years insiders offer some hope for resurgence


Jesse Yardley

By Jesse Yardley


The Calgary jazz music scene has suffered a series of setbacks since 2010 when the city’s annual jazz festival was cancelled.

In the few years leading up to 2014, the jazz scene continued to flounder: Mount Royal University (MRU) mothballed its jazz program and the city’s most well-known jazz club, Beat Niq, closed its doors.

Talk to different people and you’ll get a variety of opinions. Some see the jazz situation as a glass half full. Others see it half empty.

Kenna Burima, local musician and host of CJSW’s Wednesday morning jazz show, says Calgary has a no shortage of great musicians and is easily on par with any other Canadian city, but concedes that venues are still a problem. For her, the ideal venue for jazz should be a small room that holds around 50 people and provided an intimate setting for listeners. She says Lolita’s Lounge is helping meet the demand for jazz.

“If you go to Lolita’s you know there’s going to jazz, there’s going to be some Spanish flamenco and there’s going to be some pop, but generally speaking jazz is kind of taking over the programming there,” Burima says.

According to Burima, thinking jazz is suffering because it doesn’t regularly draw mainstream-sized audiences is missing the point.

“It’s a niche genre,” Burima says. “There’s just not that audience for it. But if you really think that the jazz community is suffering in Calgary than you’re just not doing your part.”

Kevin Shredder, entertainment co-ordinator and owner of Oiltown Entertainment, says the closures have been very disappointing. Shredder is a saxophonist and a graduate of MRU’s jazz program when the institution was still a college. He thinks Calgary can improve its jazz scene and hopes to help turn a negative into a positive.

“You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” Shredder says, referencing Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi.” “These types of things, with this type of loss, can make people search out for it more.”

Shredder has been contracted by Downtown Calgary to bring musicians to the streets of Calgary as part of its #IAMDOWNTOWN initiative.

Downtown Calgary operates under the Calgary Downtown Association (CDA) and funds the musical acts via taxes paid by downtown businesses.

Shredder says over the course of 2014 he has hired a variety of acts including talented jazz performers like Ellen Doty, Sheldon Zandboer, Prime Time Big Band and, most recently, Cheryl Fisher.

Fisher, an award-winning jazz vocalist, thinks Calgarians would be more inclined to seek out jazz venues if they were exposed to the genre more often.

On Sept. 20, Fisher performed a mix of covers and original music for lucky passersby on Stephen Avenue. She sees public performances as a way to entertain listeners but also as a means to educate people about the unique complexity of the genre.

“It’s composition on the fly. You know, that’s what improvisation is. And that’s why I love it. It’s ‘cause it’s a challenge. I never know what’s going to come out of them and what I’m going to react to,” Fisher says. “And so I change with every instrument, it’s like, you know, I’ve said this before: You can never make the same fire twice.”

Eric Allison, Fisher’s husband, a saxophonist, says jazz is so diverse that it can throw people off at first. Fisher, a recent inductee to the South Florida Jazz Hall of Fame, met his future wife at UNIVERSITY. They recently moved back to Fisher’s hometown of Calgary.

“So you have New Orleans, Dixieland, you’ve got swing, you’ve got bebop, you’ve got cool jazz, you’ve got fusion, you’ve got avant-garde, you have all these different styles and they’re all jazz. And so a lot of people, when they hear the word jazz, they just automatically say, ‘Oh I don’t like that,’” Allison says.

However, he adds, when people who haven’t had much exposure to live jazz hear the music they say, “’Hey, this is great! This is jazz?!’”

Zhenia Iskra and her boyfriend Kambiz Jahromi were walking down Stephen Avenue around the same time Fisher and her band were setting up to perform on Sept. 20. Seeing a group of colourful lawn chairs, the two decided to sit down and listen. The couple says they like jazz but had no idea there was a free concert going on.

“I think the marketing is what hinders it. People don’t know what’s going on in Calgary and maybe that’s why people haven’t been exposed to jazz and don’t grow to like it,” Iskra says.

One group dedicated to getting the word out about Calgary jazz is the volunteer-based organization JazzYYC.

Kodi Hutchinson, artistic director and board member at JazzYYC, says the organization acts as a consolidated voice for local musicians as well as a presenter and organizer of jazz events.

“We present eight concerts a year in our Illumin8 concert series and we’re going to be running two separate jazz festivals, one this November, the JazzYYC Canadian jazz festival, and then next year we will be launching our inaugural summer jazz festival in June.”

Although the Calgary jazz scene has faced some setbacks, there are still many ardent fans and supporters. Hutchinson says jazz fans are looking for organizations they can depend on and will “be here for the long haul.”

Hutchinson is about as tapped into the jazz scene as one can get. He runs his own group, the Hutchinson Andrew Trio, he’s the Saturday host of Time for Jazz on CKUA radio and Western Canadian Music Awards recently nominated his label, Chronograph Records, for outstanding label of the year.

According to Hutchinson, when Beat Niq closed and the jazz festival collapsed “it really left a gap in the city where fans of the jazz scene were like, ‘Where do we go, what do we do, because there’s nowhere to go.’ But fortunately what’s happening now is that things are starting to pop up.”

Hutchinson points to Friday nights at Lolita’s and the Cliff Bungalow Jazz Series, which runs the first Wednesday of every month, as signs that jazz is still going strong in Calgary.

“They are very grassroots, presenting only Calgary artists and they sell out every single show,” he says.

Both Hutchinson and Fisher both see jazz making a comeback in Calgary because of strong support by the public and key organizations that help promote the art.

“Thank heavens for CBC and CKUA and those radio stations that still soldier on with making diversity of music one of their strong mandates,” Fisher says.

Yet the future of jazz in Calgary is by no means guaranteed. Public support is nice to have, but the struggle to fund arts and culture is an ongoing challenge.

“Being in the arts, whether you’re a performing musician, or a visual artist or a dancer, or any of the classical, you know an orchestra member, it’s always an uphill struggle,” Allison says.

“You’re always trying to get the municipalities, the province, the country, the governments to invest more in arts because it just adds to the quality of life in the communities. And it’s proven in surveys and studies, time after time, that it also benefits the economy greatly and benefits the quality of life.”