PEC Jazz Festival – Internationally Recognized
Written by Jan Davies
At 17 years old, the PEC Jazz Festival is young but internationally famous, partly because of its determination to be a “pure” jazz festival. This year’s festival includes a 100th Birthday Bash for jazz giants Ella, Buddy, Duke and Monk that features Brian Barlow and his Big Band. One of Canada’s most recorded musicians, Brian is also Creative Director of the festival. Here’s his story.
“Have you ever heard the record we made at The Regent Theatre called One Hot Summer Night? I didn’t even know they were recording. Our pianist asked the sound guys to record the performance that night, and I found out at the end of the conert. When I listened to it I knew we had to make it into an album. Sometimes it’s better if you don’t know you’re being recorded because you really go for it, you’re not playing it safe.
I love the Regent Theatre. We are so lucky to have it. Other small towns have theatres, but there’s something about the Regent’s position right in the middle of things. Makes me happy to see it come alive. I remember it from when I was a kid. I was born in Belleville but I spent my summers in The County. I lived in Toronto but always figured I’d come back here one day. I have family here, and my friend Guido Basso bought a farm here 38 years ago, which also brought me here a lot. There’s something about this area. We lived right downtown in Toronto at King and Bathurst, and after we rented Guido’s beach house here for August two years in a row, we looked for a place of our own. We eventually found a spectacular 175-year-old farmhouse with 16-inch thick stone walls. The owner asked if we wanted to see the land and when we said yes he started to cry. He’d had it on the market 18 months and not one person wanted to see the land – 114 acres and gorgeous. So instead of a cottage we bought a farm. Commute? Yes, we commute. My partner Michele is a French horn player and if she’s doing the opera she’s back and forth all the time. I’m doing eight separate concerts at the Toronto Jazz Festival this year, but it’s worth all the driving. We love living here. The County is a magnet for all kinds of creative people, not just painters and writers, but restaurateurs, musicians and winemakers. I find I have a real connection with winemakers. Somehow what they do relates to what I do. You work really hard and you don’t always get results, but you do it because you love it.
THE JAZZ FEST STARTUP
One summer before we moved here, I was in a used bookstore in Picton with two of my daughters. I got talking to the women working in the store Jill Hill and Celia. I told them what I did, and they said “Hey what do you think about a jazz festival here?” I thought it was a great idea, but where would you do it? They said, “The Regent Theatre of course.” They ended up creating a jazz festival and I played it the second year with my daughter Emilie-Claire. The following year, through a series of events, I ended up being asked to be the Creative Director, and I’ve been on board now for 14 years.
The Jazz Festival led me to knowing even more people, and, it’s funny, being born here helps me do a balancing act between “from here and from away.” When we started, the majority of our audience was local and they didn’t know that many jazz musicians. I booked the ones they knew, and then I thought, what do I do now? It’s been wonderful introducing new people, bringing them here, making them part of the festival family. Like Robi Botos. He was just a kid recently arrived from Hungary when we first booked him. Now he’s internationally known, tours with everybody and he’s amazing.
It’s been important to us to satisfy our local audience and also bring in audiences from elsewhere. You have to do that. We’ve gone from 60% local and 40% visitors to the opposite today. The festival has also moved from it’s early days, when it took place only in Picton to events all across the County. We try to cover as much of The County as we can, and each year get new places and new people involved.
As far as growing and changing goes, we decided early on to be a pure jazz festival. We don’t present anything but jazz, and our audiences appreciate that fact. People from Montreal and Toronto enjoy our festival because they can get up close to the musicians and even get to meet them.
As often as we can we bring musicians to the County during our festival for the entire 5 days. It’s like a vacation for some of them. They get to play multiple gigs over the time they’re here and the audience get to see them in different playing situations. You can see them at the Regent Theatre with 450 other people and then the next morning catch them playing at the Glenwood Chapel, or one of our wonderful wineries.
This year we’re kicking things off at the Regent with the wonderful Laila Biali. If you don’t know her, you should. She’s a fantastic pianist and singer. As a matter of fact she toured as a singer with Sting several years ago. The next night we’re presenting a special program called Jobim’s World to celebrate music of Antonio Carlos Jobim with a wonderful Brazilian singer named Luanda Jones. The band leader’s name is Gordon Sheard, a Brazilian music freak with a PhD in ethnomusicology specializing in Brazilian music. He’s a great musician and he’ll do Friday night at the Regent, but he’s also one of the all-time great stride piano players – that’s ragtime – and on Saturday afternoon he’ll be doing just that at St. Mary Magdalene Church.
MUSICIANS FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD
The fact I am a musician and know many of these people personally makes a difference. We also have this reputation now, the PEC Jazz Festival has world recognition. Right from the start we had people mailing in applications, I never had to encourage that. From the start they were mostly from Ontario but very soon applications were coming in from all over the world, Holland, Germany, Brazil, Australia, everywhere.
What’s really good is we bring musicians out here, we get them to stay and spend some time, and an awful lot of them come back as tourists. Some come back to buy a house. Do I use The County’s charms as leverage? Kind of. That didn’t work in the beginning because most of them didn’t know where the heck we were. Some thought they were going to Prince Edward Island.
A few years ago we brought Louis Hayes and his Cannonball Legacy band to the festival. These are players who primarily work major world centres like New York, Tokyo, Paris and London. They were surprised when we picked them up the Toronto airport to learn that it was another two hours to get to the County. When the limo turned off the 401 and the scenery became much more ‘rural’ one of them asked, “who are we playing for, cows?”. They’d never experienced anything like Prince Edward County on their touring. I don’t think they were particularly thrilled about the whole thing. However, once they walked out on stage they immediately felt the welcoming vibe from the audience. You could tell. The audience went nuts. After the show the entire band came and hung out at the After Hours Jam session. They sat in and we couldn’t get them out of there. They had a ball. I know that because I picked up their bar tab. They told me that they’d love to come back anytime, and we’ll make sure that happens.
The festival is unique because The County is unique. When I thought about moving from Toronto, I knew I did not want to move to a cultural wasteland. I had looked at other places and always felt I’d have to go back to Toronto to find something to do. But I have never felt that here. No lack of culture, things to do or people to meet. I was talking to a winemaker, Bruno Francois at The Old Third, and he said he’s met more interesting, high energy people here than he ever did in Toronto. People in the city think I’m nuts doing all the driving I do. I played the Home Smith Bar at the Old Mill last week, Friday and Saturday, and I was leaving to drive home Friday night, one of the other musicians said “Why you driving? You won’t get there till after midnight.” I told them that’s okay. I’ll get out of the car and look up and see every star in the sky and breathe in the air – and I’ll be home. I don’t care about the drive. Here on the farm we have a close attachment to our neighbours and to local people and we feel a strong sense of community. It’s the best move I ever made.
LIFE BEFORE THE COUNTY
I joined the musicians union when I was 13. I got into the music business young. My mother had the Barbara Diament School of Dance in Belleville, and I danced from an early age, had piano lessons like other kids. We moved to Toronto because my mother was in show business and that’s where she wanted to be. I sang and danced with my brother and sister, played the drums a bit. I was on the CBC when I was 10. I had to join the musicians union at 13 because I was playing in a band every weekend, but I needed special permission from New York to join. I quit school at 15 to go touring with Tommy Hunter who had a CBC tv show. I auditioned because a teacher suggested it, but not in a million years did I think I’d get the job. I was fifteen.
Anyway that led to studio work in Toronto, and that was wonderful, playing with some of the best in the world. Every day you’d be asked to do different things. You never saw the music ahead of time, and it could be anything, any style, If you were good you worked every day. You answered the phone you got another job. I worked with amazing people. Being a studio musician was a wonderful life, but that whole world ended rather abruptly not only in Toronto but in New York and Los Angeles. It started to go away in the early 1990s and it was quickly all gone.
In a way it’s one of the best things that happened to me. I spent all those years answering the phone, doing great gigs, working with great people. My job was to show up and play what people wanted me to play. You try to be creative, put your own self into it, but it’s not always easy.
So the studio work disappeared and I started doing different stuff. In the late 1990’s I put a band together with my oldest daughter Emilie-Clair, and we ended up making 3 albums together over a period of about seven years. Since that first one I’ve gone on to produce 18 albums with a wide variety of artists. I don’t have my own studio but we’re very fortunate out here to have Pinnacle Music Studios in Belleville. I produced Guido Basso’s album there and a number of others, and Ken and Janet Harnden from Pinnacle Music have become good friends and long time sponsors the jazz festival.
JAZZ WITH YOUNG PEOPLE
Each spring, for the past seven years we’ve done a three-day TD Jazz Education Program. We bring in four high school jazz ensembles, up to 90 kids and not just local schools. We don’t take applications, we choose the schools ourselves and look for schools that don’t big city resources. We’ve had bands from Trenton, Napanee, Belleville, Campbellford. This year we had a school from Brooklyn, Oshawa, Whitby even Ottawa. We bring in top clinicians and music educators to work with the kids. The idea came from Blair Yarranton, a teacher on our committee thought it might be nice to have a music program for students that wasn’t competitive. The students love it. They’re not going for a gold medal, so they get to know each other and support each other. They hang out together.
There’s a strong youth component to the jazz festival overall. We bring in post secondary musicians from U of T, Humber, York and they perform at the Waring House and St. Andrews. That’s important because if this music is going to continue we need young people involved.
It’s surprising, the festival is so popular and well known but there are still people who don’t know about the youth element. Our Rising Young Star last year was awarded to Hannah Barstow from Napanee. She’s 21 now, but Hannah started playing the festival when she was 14. We hired her, paid her, to perform at 14. Then she came with her school band and participated in the TD Jazz Education Program, and finally applied for, and won the Rising Young Star Award, which is generously sponsored by Hillier House. Whoever wins our Rising Star award comes to perform every night with the main stage artists. That’s an experience you can’t get anywhere else. A past Rising Star winner is in New York right now and she’s doing really well. She first came here on a student program. It’s working I tell you! We’re doing it right. Come and see for yourself.