Catherine O'Grady
Catherine O'Grady

A Conversation With Catherine O’Grady of the Ottawa Jazz Festival

Two decades back I interviewed Hamilton, Ontario born music critic/biographer/lyricist (Corcovado) and journalist Gene Lees, who served as editor of Down Beat Magazine from 1959 - 1962 in Toronto. Long before the (Bob) Lefsetz Letter, Lees published a superbly written and thoughtful monthly, the Jazz Letter. Much like Lefsetz, Lees expressed opinions on a wide range of issues, from politics to jazz, with grand passion. Lees encountered every major jazz icon of the times. During our conversation Gene says, “how many jazz greats are alive today?” I thought for a moment, and he then says, “Bill, at one time there were five hundred, today only fifty survive. Who will fill the seats, who will influence and draw an audience when they are gone?” Lees was spot on.

I caught up with Ottawa Jazz Festival executive director Catherine O’Grady and asked her how she was adjusting to loss, change and mapping the festival years ahead.

I came to know your festival through the late Jacque Emond - his passion and vision for the festival. Much has changed with the passing of the great jazz icons who were not only visible, but put bodies in seats. How have you managed to overcome loss?

We’ve built out the audiences’ expectations to include lesser known names and jazz artists working in different areas; largely improvisation. We’ve substituted the big jazz names, who are no longer among us, with marquee artists not necessarily jazz - but still delivering musical excellence.

It seemed every time a jazz festival made a booking outside or counter to jazz purists, it came with criticism and at times unpleasant push back. Have times changed?

Yes, there is more acceptance on the audience’s part as they too realize there just aren’t the great names in jazz anymore to rely on. There’s more of an audience willing to take chances with the curated names they don’t necessarily recognize; like a lot of the European and Nordic players. We have to make money so we still invite people like Earth Wind and Fire, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, etc. There are still some bankable names, not necessarily jazz, but they too are diminishing in number.

There are so many components in mounting a festival. What have been your greatest challenges?

The increases in costs of artists and the costs of infrastructure and the lack of any kind of incremental government funding. Trying to keep ticket prices low to remain accessible to all types of incomes, but knowing that we can’t break even with cash only. The US $$$ exchange is also killing us. It just gets worse and worse each year, which of course limits out ability to invite the artists we need to sell tickets to - that broader section of our demographic.

I remember when the festival began early June, it seemed each year you faced a torrent of unforgiving weather patterns. Has a late June start become more favorable?

It depends on the year. Last year, 2017, we had perfect weather for all but the Buffy Sainte-Marie night. This year, right now, it’s snowing here in Ottawa on May 8th! We never started early June though. We moved from mid-July to mid-June in 2004.

With a seismic demographic shift on the horizon, how will you address change?

We are constantly putting together focus groups or a demographic variety to gauge what audiences might be wanting in the future. For the moment, we are finding they want things to go as they are going on, with the emphasis on great music, provided in an outdoor festival setting.

Has being at the centre of the nation’s governing institutions made it easier to communicate your needs, when it comes to funding, staging etc.?

Just the opposite in fact. Ottawa arts organizations are the least funded of any city in Canada with respect to support from government bodies - since the majority of funds go to the big institutions. It appears that Ottawa receives the lion’s share, but not so. Independent not-for-profits are treated quite poorly because of prejudice at the decision-making level.

Festival season seems to be the rare opportunity for artists to mount a significant performance schedule. How do you go about deciding which are the better match for your vision?

We must work with our sister festivals across Canada. Touring across this great country would be impossibly expensive if the costs were not amortized among many of us. We are always going to be looking at what our partners are doing and they’re looking at what we are doing. So much depends on which jazz artists want to tour in North America and which ones want to go to Europe. Often, programming depends on who’s available. There are always one’s “wish list” projects – like a week residency with guitarist Bill Frisell. Or a three-show invitational with John Scofield and Dave Holland.

Ottawa Jazz appears to have a deeper affection for jazz and the programming reflects that. The years ahead may prove more challenging. What do you see coming down the road?

Having to retune the audience’s tastes to the different kinds of jazz the young players are composing. And getting the audience on board with the new jazz and what new artists are saying with their music.

Before taking the reins of Ottawa Jazz, what was your background?

I was head of theatre at the Canada Council for the Arts and it seems like a lifetime ago. I have always managed arts organizations; theatres before I came to jazz. I feel like the luckiest person on earth to have had such extensive experience in such amazing art forms. At the end of the day, one develops a sense of excellence in art-making; whether it’s theatre or music or fine art or dance. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had great mentors in both fields and to stand side by side with some of the greatest talent of our time.

What brings you the greatest stress?

Money and cranky artists.

 What in your heart, has been the biggest success?

The first time the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis played in Confederation Park. They had never been here and the city was just a-buzz with those great artists coming to Ottawa! They play here regularly now, but that first time was a proud moment. It really felt like Ottawa and the jazz festival had come of age.

What has been the greatest set-back?

The lack of music education (arts in general) in our schools means we’re turning out twenty-somethings who are not getting an education in music; in serious music. They’re getting lots of exposure to pop music - one interchangeable band after another, but not deep music training that allows them to develop a critical response mechanism that judges good music from bad. I think we’re raising a generation of lightweights; critically speaking.

Jazz isn’t difficult. We are constantly fighting that myth. It’s incredibly diverse, malleable, always full of ideas and usually compelling. I regret that so much of that beauty is just being missed by younger audiences because they don’t know what they’re listening for. We need a venue. We need an all-year-round indoor venue that we can call our own and program as we want and have fun with.

What have you done to expand the appeal of the festival to cross all generations?

Programming of course, cost reductions, more concerts throughout the years to make the work more accessible more often, more pop concerts, but still full of integrity.

Do you travel much and explore the possibilities?

Less now, than in the past. It’s just too expensive, but I still get out a couple times a year.

What should we look for in this year’s programming that’s a must see?

St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Jacob Collier, Gary Peacock, Joey Barron, Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra with Carla Bley (I’ve wanted her to come here forever and now she’s finally here!!!) The Hudson Project, Perch Hen (Ab Baars and IG Henneman) and so many more.

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