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Pop Goes the Jazz Fest

TD Toronto offers a mixed bag of genres and settings

Dr. Lonnie Smith at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, 2013
John McLaughlin at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, 2013
Smokey Robinson at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, 2013
Steve Martin at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival 2013

How much jazz must a jazz fest have for a jazz fest to be legit? It’s a question that has, of late, been burning with increasing intensity, and was a hot topic of discussion as the 27th annual TD Toronto Jazz Festival unfolded at the end of June. The Toronto fest is hardly alone in programming acts that blur, or sometimes completely avert, jazz lines. Indeed no major fest-not Montreux (where Prince and ZZ Top were prominent this past April), nor Montreal (with Serena Ryder and She and Him in this year’s mix)-is exempt from the discussion. But Toronto seemed guiltier than most, particularly with its grand (and free) opening night ceded entirely to Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves, neither of whom would likely know “Take Five” from “Takin’ It to the Streets.”

The argument is that quasi- or non-jazz names are necessary to build a broader audience. A broader audience means more money flowing in, money that can be spent on deserving jazz artists with smaller followings. There’s also the debatable posit that marquee names like Robinson (or Sharon Jones, or Willie Nelson or, this year’s most egregious example, the creaky Canadian pop outfit Lighthouse) attract crowds that are then enticed to attend other, more jazz-centric, performances. Still, it’s difficult to imagine an R&B festival opening with Diana Krall or a major country music jamboree shelling out for Jamie Cullum simply because they’re guaranteed seat fillers.

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