Your Ultimate Guide to the Vancouver International Jazz Festival

This is it: the year you’re actually going to Jazz Fest. Here’s all you need to know.

Despite having been pronounced dead more times than Kanye has rapped the word “Kanye” (or Donald Trump has tweeted the phrase “witch hunt”), jazz lives. It’s a slippery genre to pin down, rooted in protest and improv, and it’s a constant, disruptive influence on pop culture—from De La Soul and Nas using Ahmad Jamal’s piano riffs in the ’90s to Jay-Z sampling Nina Simone last year. (In this vein, in September former A Tribe Called Quest producer Q-Tip will be teaching the young’uns at NYU an enlightening course on the jazz roots of hip-hop.)

Over the past 30 years the Vancouver International Jazz Festival (June 22 to July 1) has carved out a sweet spot in this ongoing global conversation. If you don’t know our backyard jazz scene, it’s a perfect first foray into a rich mine of local talent. It’s also a way to check out incoming headliners, which this year include Macy Gray and two-time Grammy nominee Roberta Gambarini.

The fest’s big-tent definition of jazz (Robert Plant?) elicits grumbles from some purists, but the upside is that there’s something here for everyone.

You can filter for your tastes, somewhat, by venue: Pyatt Hall for traditional, classic jazz; Ironworks, the Imperial and Performance Works for more progressive, crossover fare; the Vogue for rootsy R&B, folk and salsa; Civic Plaza in North Van for danceable grooves; and the Queen Elizabeth for a mix of headliners that varies from rock to jazz.

(Photo: Treble Five Records.)

Stay Up Late

To know the heart of the fest, says Keith MacLachlan, jazz percussionist, trumpet player and writer of The Jazz Shed blog, don’t miss the late-night jam sessions.

“The sessions are the truest part of whole event. They’re a mix of whoever shows up, locals or out-of-towners—a good spicy gamble where you’re guaranteed to hear some of the best jazz during the festival. People who have never met before get up on the stand, call a tune and bring down the house.”

Late-night jams are held at Frankie’s Jazz Club on Beatty Street from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. (roughly), led by Vancouver saxophone heavyweight Mike Allen and his quartet.

What Not to Do at a Jazz Show

Just like there’s good naked and bad naked, in a jazz venue there’s good noise and bad noise. Chatting with a friend is bad noise. Of course you’re smart and amazing, but nobody is paying to hear you talk. Don’t confuse a jazz show with a pub crawl.

Clapping after a solo, on the other hand—or appreciative hoots or whistles when the band is cooking—is good noise, part of your job in keeping the energy up. But be tuned into the energy of the room, and if the players ask the audience to hold applause till the end (which a few occasionally do) then of course be mindful of that.

Don’t necessarily expect to get up and dance, no matter how many kir royales (or joints) you’ve had, unless you’re at a dance-suitable venue and with an artist who is clearly about that. There are several at this year’s fest who will get you on your feet, like Coco Jafro, or the Ayrad and François Houle Trio.   

As one local aficionado put it: “Conduct yourself like any good jazz musician. Keep your eyes and ears open, read the mood of the venue. Listen, be respectful of the players, and don’t get in the way.”

Ones to Watch

The fest features local Vancouver musicians you should know by now but probably don’t—established players like pianist Miles Black and saxophonist Cory Weeds, along with up-and-comers like bassist James Meger and teenage vocalist Maya Rae. Here are four solid bets among the dozens available.

Kamasi Washington // 8 p.m., June 24  // Queen Elizabeth TheatreThe L.A.-based tenor saxophonist’s groundbreaking three-sided concept album The Epic was a Pitchfork album of the year for 2015.

Vincent Herring Quartet // 7:30 p.m., June 25  // Pyatt HallHerring is an alto saxophone powerhouse with the chops to pull off hard-charging bebop and the soul to turn standard ballads into lingering, meditative arias.

Maya Rae with Miles Black // 7:30 p.m., June 30  // Pyatt HallAt 16, Maya Rae possesses lovely, assured vocals that have already earned her high praise, including being dubbed one of the “35 best Canadian jazz artists under 35” by CBC Music.

Drip Audio Night with Sick Boss, Jesse Zubot and Ken Vandermark, Fond of Tigers and Peregrine Falls // 9 p.m., June 29  // The ImperialExpect a boundary-bending and riveting sampler evening featuring the virtuosi of Vancouver’s Drip Audio label. Words like indescribable, cacophonous and sublime are all in the ballpark.