This week's 'Conversation with...' puts the spotlight on Pat Taylor, co-founder and producer of the Toronto Jazz Festival and a certified "Jazz Hero" — as voted by the Jazz Journalists association (JJA).
Co-founding the festival in 1987 with the late saxophonist Jim Galloway, the inaugural season line-up featured Miles Davis, Roberta Flack and Tony Bennett. Since then, the annual has grown into one of Toronto's largest music festivals in the calendar year, attracting as many as a half-million people to its menu of events. This year's TD-sponsored 10 day Festival runs June 18 - 27. Bill King caught up with the energetic fan, promoter and general good guy earlier this month. What follows is a worthy read with some humorous anecdotes guaranteed.
Bill King: Back in 2001 the honourable mayor of Toronto, Mel Lastman gave himself a self-inflicted wound at your jazz festival.
Pat Taylor: He gave himself a black eye answering his mobile phone so fast. That was the year he didn’t want to go to Africa because he thought cannibals were going to eat him. And then, we didn’t get the Olympic bid. He came on stage with a black eye and we knew he had just had a run-in with his wife. This was after she was abducted by aliens.
B.K: Who was the first dignitary to open the festival?
P.T: Alan Tonks was the first I remember —he wasn’t the mayor but a city councillor. It was a different body as we knew before GTA. Every year they gave us jazz week proclamations and he was a very senior politician. Of course there were mayors Art Eggelton, Barbara Hall, and David Miller. Rob Ford never came by much.
B.K: Didn’t he escape north to that family thing? Has the city been consistently supportive through the years?
P.T: The city really never had much to do with us. We were never a political event. We didn’t reach out to the politicians at all. We fought our own battles. Kyle Rae was the councillor in our neighbourhood and never gave a damn about us —it was all about Pride with him. I went to him once with a legitimate problem —they were closing us down because of the garbage strike. I told him we look after our own garbage and always have so why are you shutting us down — we want to continue with the festival and his advice was just find a new location to do it. This is a week before the festival. We just bulldozed over him and everyone else and reminded them the garbage strike doesn’t affect us —we clean up after ourselves.
City politicians, whether they were mayor —popular or unpopular — didn’t help us at all. We had to fight our own battles with “special events” at the city and they called the shots about what’s going on at Nathan Philips Square.
B.K: Who was the most cooperative? David Miller was a jazz fan.
P.T: David Miller attended a lot. He suffered along with the rest of the city through the G20. I remember David Miller telling the public — “do not come down to the city” and I had to go to David and say,”we are on your doorstep and we have a sold-out show with Herbie Hancock —please don’t tell people not to come down —it’s business as usual with us.” He got back on the radio and said, “O.K. folks —don’t forget about the jazz festival.”
B.K: With any year of the festival it’s difficult getting the message out and this one in particular with so much attention paid to Pan American Games and the piling on of other events. What’s your strategy for reaching your audience?
P.T: As you well know it’s very competitive out there. Toronto has always been a very competitive market, this year more so than past years. We have a good product and social media is very important to us but we aren’t doing any more of that than we did last year. We’ve been involved with all sorts of media for a number of years. We rely heavily on radio and print —word of mouth, mailing lists. People are coming and buying tickets. We are going to kick things off with Dumpstaphunk, Morris Day and the Time, and George Clinton and Parliament & Funkadelics for free. That will get a lot of people’s attention. I don’t care what Luminato’s got going, Pride, or NXNE because we’ll have our audience come out and love every minute of it.
B.K: I would expect that event will grab people’s attention and possibly drive them to buy into others.
P.T: That’s possible. We are trying to partner up with Tourism Toronto with each of the events and they are giving each a good kick at the can as well as letting tourist know they have several options.
B.K: I would think the big dog in the house is Pan Am…..
P.T: Panamania took away most of our headliners whether it is Flaming Lips, the Roots, Trombone Shorty —on and on. They are free shows and at least it isn’t taking entertainment dollars out of the public. A good part of our festival is free but a big part of our revenue is ticket sales. We get concerned when there are so many ticketing options. Right now you can go to Luminato for free or buy a ticket. You can go to the Waterfront festival for free. NXNE for free or buy a ticket. We are sharing that entertainment dollar at this point.
B.K: It takes imagination in programming a festival year to year and with many of the big guns long gone how did you arrive at this line-up?
P.T: We always go back to our roots and that is jazz. You’ll see Christian McBride and his big band —Al Jarreau, Branford Marsalis and Robert Glasper and Charles Lloyd. That’s where we started from and those shows in theatres are selling very well. Jamie Cullum is sold out. Snarky Puppy is sold out. Things are doing well on the jazz side. On the commercial side it’s important to get the numbers out to support our other efforts. That’s why you’ll see the Toronto Mass Choir, the Shuffle Demons, Tyler Yarema on our first weekend along with the Count Basie Orchestra and Tower of Power.
B.K: Was there a particular artist you went after and just had to have here?
P.T: Jamie Cullum! It was difficult and hard and then at the last minute he agreed and we hired a big band to back him up —it’s Toronto guys —John McLeod’s Rex Hotel band basically. He asked a week ago if we would add twelve more musicians to his roster. He was only doing a five man show.
I always like working with John Pizzarelli and his Radio Deluxe. We are about the only festival he does his Radio Deluxe Show from and Alex Pangman will be our guest with Jessica Molaskey. That will be a nationally syndicated show in a few months from now.
I think right now the Toronto GTA has twenty-one jazz festivals.
B.K: There have been many iconic jazz figures who have played your festival that have passed. Who do you miss the most?
P.T: I miss all of those characters. I mean they were characters from Doc Cheatham, to Joe Henderson to Miles Davis to Ella Fitzgerald. It boggles my mind that they worked with us in this town.
Oscar Peterson – gone. Dave Brubeck – gone. I can’t imagine that, they were here so many times.
B.K: You develop personal relationships with these people.
P.T: With a lot of them —not so much with Miles. The artists are family and you like to see them come back every two years. Over our twenty-nine year history I think we presented Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass more than anybody.
B.K: I was thinking about the recent passing of drummer Archie Alleyne, before him Rob, Doug Riley, Jeff Healey, Moe Koffman, Jim Galloway — they weren’t only skilled musicians, they booked bands, built bands, and promoted music and were central to this jazz scene.
P.T: Absolutely! It leaves a hole but I’m hoping what they left, not only their legacy — leaves room for these other artists to grow into their world. The young players are having as much fun as the old ones did. The old players knew how to mix business with pleasure.
B.K: Can you recall the best time you’ve ever had?
P.T: Bill, every time a band hits the stage is a good time.
B.K: I was thinking back to last year and how backstage capture some great action — Mavis and Yolanda Staples crossing paths with Dr. John. That was a moment.
P.T: A lot of the action happens in our hotels. Thursday and Friday we have thirty-five from George Clinton’s entourage —twelve from Morris Day, seven from Dumpstaphunk and then Tower of Power hits town then the Count Basie Orchestra. These folks run into each other in the hotels and can’t believe what’s going on and they are like school kids on recess.
B.K: One of the best shows was 2011, Aretha Franklin in the tent at Nathan Phillips Square. You never know what you are going to get.
P.T: I often think we dodged a bullet. Aretha Franklin is the queen. We also know she’s not the most reliable artist and Toronto got very lucky that night. She brought her “A” game and had so much fun. She stayed for an hour and a half after the show just to meet the fans. She never does that. She was so happy she took her whole band and entourage to McDonald’s for Happy Meals at midnight. That’s a good time.
B.K: How about pianist Keith Jarrett and the $2,000 mattress?
P.T: Just before Air Canada lost it along with Gary Peacock’s bass on the same flight? How do you lose a bed and a double bass?
B.K: Did you replace?
P.T: You can’t, it’s a special mattress. I don’t know if he slept standing in his closet or what he did. We did find the bed a day later. His bike made it through and he got to ride it around town. He traditionally does Toronto, Montreal, and Europe. The mattress goes wherever he goes along with his special pillows.
B.K: What’s the weirdest request?
P.T: It’s got to be Sun Ra. He was just looking for everything. He came up about six guys short in his band. They got arrested in Texas. He said they disgraced him.
B.K: Next year is your 30th anniversary. Are you looking that far ahead?
P.T: We’ve got ideas going on. This one is done in our mind and all that is left is enjoying it. It’s up to the musicians now. We’ve done what we can!
Pictured l - r: Pat Taylor with David Clayton-Thomas (© Bill King)