André Ménard numbers among the most influential figures in the Quebec artistic community. Since 1975, he has had a 40-year association with Alain Simard as cofounder and vice-president of concert production firm L'Équipe Spectra and is perhaps best known as the cofounder and artistic director of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.
His contributions to Montreal’s cultural life are as rich and varied as the stories he has about the musicians that have graced the world’s largest jazz festival. Last week Bill King caught up with Andre for an FYI ‘Conversation with…’
Bill King: Andre, you have now outlived the majority of the iconic figures in jazz you’ve booked the past thirty-six years.
Andre Menard: When I look at that number – thirty-six years; that is not what I thought I’d be doing. I have to admit much has changed too – we have more support than when I started this with Alain Simard back in 1980 and there was only four or five of us working full-time on the festival. Now we have a whole team – five programmers working the other festivals. Spectra also organises les FrancoFolies and Montreal En Lumière/Montreal HighLights as well. The advantage for us is that it keeps a skilled talent pool with us all year round so we don’t have to build a new team every year.
B.K: Do you ever feel fatigued by the pressure and work?
A.M: The bonus is I get to see concerts all year round and this is a bonus I collect scientifically every year. I get to see three hundred to four hundred performances a year.
B.K: How is that possible?
A.M: I’m on the street nearly every night and go to festivals and catch up even on down time. When I’m on vacation I can go see forty acts over a weekend at Coachella or at the London Jazz Festival. What interests me about my job is live music. Other things in music has transformed over the year – but live music? You can’t reproduce even on DVD what it’s like to be in the hall and see things unfold. That’s the magic part of what I’m doing and preserves my excitement.
B.K: You still have to book artists who put people in seats, and these days, absent the icons, I’m guessing you have to look deeper for something unique?
A.M: When we got started we could still book Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis and Dizzy. What we have now is second and third generation music heroes of the genre and other genres in the neighborhood of jazz.
The one thing I have seen changing through the years is the whole mixture around jazz. It’s held a lot of influence through the years – given a lot and taken a lot to the world of music in general and to take that in account of the mix we are booking in the festival, keeps it exciting. I prefer to do that than keep booking the same thing year after year. The festival allows us to have a large content of streaky jazz music and then some others.
We still care to give three nights to an Abdullah Ibrahim, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Avashai Cohen, and then booking a last moment a memorial concert for B.B. King. We stay pretty alert with the times but still remember the great icons that are available.
We have this triple bill of blues this year with Taj Mahal, John Mayall, and James Cotton. That’s almost two-hundred and forty years of life there. Taj is 77 the others are 80 and 81. These are guys we have collaborated with in the past. Alain and I used to book blues concerts in the seventies and these men are still around and we are very happy to be able to do this in our festival.
For the indoor concerts we like to have nights of music that don’t have any time limit and treat like separate concerts. The artists like this. Even when playing on a multiple bill, which we don’t have all the time,the playing time is not restricted. That’s what keeps it fresh. We have a night of Americana music with Lucinda Williams, the Mavericks, and Justin Townes Earle – that could last for five hours. We don’t mind and don’t mind paying overtime if that’s what people want in the house and the artists want on the stage.
B.K: This year marks the return of King Sunny Ade.
A.M: I think it has been about ten years since he’s toured North America, yet I can remember the excitement when he came in the eighties when I used to run the Spectrum. The Spectrum was my responsibility for twenty-five years. Everybody was looking for the new Bob Marley – hearing world music, he was a serious contender at the time.
B.K: There’s also the special awards: The B.B King Award to be presented to James Cotton, The Oscar Peterson Award to the late Jim Galloway, Bruce Lundvall Award to writer Bill Milkowski, Ella Fitzgerald to Erykah Badu. What is the process in choosing those to honour?
A.M: We work with those coming to the festival if they can come. The first year we did the Bruce Lundvall Award obviously it went to Bruce Lundvall. We paid for the trip and wanted him to be there. The year after, it was photographer Herman Leonard, a non-musician jazz personality. We hired him for the season and it was his last big assignment. He was here for about six days and did fresh photography. He met Dave Brubeck for the first time and it was something I could not believe.
B.K: He caught this glorious moment of Brubeck in the dressing room with camera.
A.M: Brubeck had lost a son on that day – the non-musician son who was based in L.A. who died while Brubeck was here. He decided to keep on doing his shows in Toronto and Montreal because he could not return to the west coast immediately and his other sons couldn’t join him for a few days. Instead of going home and just crying… those pictures Herman took were before, but when he exited the stage he said, “Guys, this one was tough.” I’ve known him forever dating back to 1974.
We did full tours of Dave Brubeck in Quebec – six or seven dates in all the regional towns in Quebec. He would send a Christmas card every year and his wonderful wife Iola. I remember the last time he played and she asked could she have a ticket to the show. I asked her if she wanted the edge to an aisle so you can leave when you want or do you prefer centre? She asked for centre. I said to her, “You keep watching him every, every show?” She said, “Oh yes, he’s so good.” She sat in the house all the time and watched him play. To me it was the spirit of that couple. At the memorial for Dave at Cathedral Church St. John the Divine in New York City she spoke for twenty minutes without reading from a sheet or nothing fluently about the beautiful life she had with Dave and departed maybe seven months after that.
Herman knew most of the artists when I asked him to photograph. I asked him if he knew Melody Gardot and he said,“No.” “Well, she’s a great singer,” I said. So I took him backstage and he looked at her and his background was shooting for Playboy in the 50s’ and very skilled at photographing beautiful ladies — looked at her and said, “Wow! She has the package.” He was a very funny, intelligent, brilliant man with the ways of the world. He had lived in Ibiza, France, New Orleans and the west coast. There was not a subject you could not talk about with him.
B.K: The conversations you have with these people must be memorable.
A.M: I’m not easy calling artists friends like some people are friends with everyone. In the case of Herman Leonard it was instant; Dave Brubeck, very easy – we left an open invitation and he could perform anytime he wanted. Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny were and are friends. Throughout the years there are some you keep bringing back because they have a fresh project. Not like Ray Charles who we did five times and I must admit the shows were quite alike.
In the case of Charlie Haden he was very demanding and all the promoters would ask me why I cared to do Haden all of the time? I’m sorry, but he has a new record every year with a new perspective on the music and I can’t help but support him even at times when he was near impossible to deal with. I didn’t mind.
B.K: Who was the most difficult to deal with?
A.M: Mel Torme had a bad temper, I think. He hated everything – the town, the orchestra.
B.K: How do you wrap your head around an artist like that?
A.M: I don’t like to remember that. The only artist we never managed to book throughout the years from when we got started was Joni Mitchell. In 1979 there was the Shadows and Light tour by Joni Mitchell and from day one we wanted to book her. We made offers year after year after year and at one point she came to Montreal to get an honorary degree from McGill University from the faculty of music. They arranged a dinner at a private club in Montreal and I sat next to her. I told her of all the attempts we had made over the years and the only time she played Montreal I was there in 1969, when she was headlining at Place des Nations — then part of an anti-James Bay Project rally concert at Arena Paul-Sauvé in 1972.
The last time was the fall line-up for the Rolling Thunder Review in 1975 and I told her she’d never had a big night in a concert hall in Montreal – it had always been about taking part in benefits and the like. I showed her all we were prepared to do and at the end of that presentation she turns to me and says, “That’s fantastic but basically I’m retired.” I called my partner Alain and said, “From the horse’s mouth that she told me officially she’d retired – now I hope this gets you off my back!”
B.K: What about the biggest coup – the artist you went after that seemed it would never happen, but happened?
A.M: The big joy for me was seeing Leonard Cohen doing his first dates in Montreal in 2008 after sixteen years of retirement and he decided to open the jazz festival for us. We did three nights with him then and the big tribute outdoors. To me that was the peak personally! For all those who were supporters of the jazz festival it was like the blessings of somebody very important.
The first time we did Miles Davis in 1982 – just to be in his presence. I had heard about people who had an aura and had met some very strong characters and can’t help but see the room change when they are in, but Miles Davis was way beyond that. I coined the term, “concrete aura.” It was that galvanizing. It was pretty mysterious.
After the fourth time working with him then the fifth — three nights at the Spectrum — I had the time to greet him at the airport and got a chance to talk to him. It was much easier than I thought. At that time, I could be close enough and not too nervous. He was pretty humorous about everything. It was in February and he looked outside the glass elevator at the Hyatt Hotel and says, “Welcome to winter wonderland.”
I asked him if he liked snow and he says, “No.” I say, “You see sir, this is a fair day in Montreal and sometimes there can be three feet of snow and forty below.” He says, “Don’t stay here man; you’re just an hour away from New York.”
B.K: When you step out of the main headquarters, which also houses the club L’Astral, and look across the broad jazz landscape the festival has groomed, you must get a chill?
A.M: I have to admit as early as 1987, when we were running the Spectrum, this was the fifth anniversary and Places des Arts sent us best wishes, and I asked them shouldn’t we have some kind of meeting and try and see if the city could make the neighbourhood better because we have all of this surface parking and vacant lots and there needs to be some urban planning around the whole thing. The thing that has really been shown is that the main resource of this area is the jazz festival because we use six, seven, or ten halls at the same time and then arrange our outdoor stages around the concert halls.
This is just like renewable energy — you just have to put on every summer and it reveals how great Montreal can be when we put all these resources together. For us, it was really the victory of culture over pessimism.
Montreal was looking at the past with Expo and the Olympic Games, but the jazz festival gave it a new season. The theatres in Montreal would close between June 1st and Labor Day. Now there is a wide array of events and the true source for all of this is the jazz festival. This is something I take pride in.
I can remember how inspired I was at all of the shows at Expo ‘67 when I was thirteen years old. Now all of the festivals together are what we call the Montreal formula. These address the tastes of many people. This is a great jazz festival as well as a great gathering of all the tribes on Montreal.