May, 2013 / Author:

Jazz Fest is first in line for Winnipeg’s festival season

We were set to meet at The Neighbourhood Bookstore & Cafe for a peanut butter and tofu sandwich. She was already there, perusing shelved books, searching for a recorded story that would inspire. This is exactly why I wanted to meet her. “Her” being Stylus Radio host Sarah Michaelson, a perennial local celebrity DJ known as Mama Cutsworth. Talking to Sarah is like slipping into a Lee Fields song: it’s full of ageless soul, blending historical wisdom with a youthful, slow-paced rhythm that still has crescendo tempo moments, leaving you nodding in gentle agreement. Seated at our table with the midday sun warming us, the conversation quickly turned to the TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, our city’s opening act to a steady stream of summer festivals; although in the tantric experience that is summer festivals in Winnipeg, the Jazz Festival is an act on its own, far from being just a foreplay necessity. 

She knows I’m not all that jazz. So she gently reminds me that even though the Jazz Fest is anchored with a capital “J,” it reaches many worlds. “Many genres are inspired by jazz,” said Michaelson. “For example, hip hop is often based on old jazz samples. So is soul and funk.” Some of this year’s guaranteed-tobe-sold-out shows like Orgone and The Roots prove this point. 

Bizarrely, it’s also the source of criticism that Jazz Fest ain’t that jazzy. This is a criticism that Michaelson feels most festivals face as musical genres are fluid and don’t fit neatly in a pre-described box. How does one describe Bettye LaVette, who’ll be performing at the festival this year? She has been singing for 50 years and can easily count Aretha Franklin amongst her peers. Is she jazz, soul, or a genre onto herself? Same challenge for young Canadian performer Maylee Todd, whose soulful but jazzy song “Baby’s Got It” is becoming a staple to CKUW listeners. But that’s also why she will fit nicely with indie powerhouse Royal Canoe, Boats and Cannon Bros. on Saturday’s indie night in Old Market Square (in case you have forgotten, the free concerts on opening weekend have become the Jazz Fest’s favourite gift to Winnipeg). 

Later that day I found myself sharing a pint with Jazz Fest – assigned photographer, Duncan McNairnay, at Cousin’s Deli & Lounge. I soon concluded that the feelings music enthusiasts get from attending the Jazz Fest is what Catholics must feel like after lent. Deprived of what we love most for most of the year, the Jazz Fest and its free concert weekend offers the first big thing, the first summer spirited gathering of Winnipeg’s most interesting people. Jazz Fest offers what it knows we want. We expect to see acts like Trio Bembe and Moses Mayes on the lineup. McNairnay chimes in with a simple explanation, saying “it’s more surprising than important. You would think it gets dull, but it ends up being what you check out, what you always come back to and end up having a great time, every time.” As an assigned photographer, McNairnay has to cover a lot of ground to capture all that is going on during the festival. And as someone who only travels by bike, he only manages because Jazz Fest is concentrated in downtown Winnipeg.

Halfway through our second pint, the pint-sized photographer admits that there are some challenges to being a photographer for Jazz Fest. He, like I, are not avid jazz followers. So often, he will be assigned a show by an artist he knows nothing about. This is where discoveries are made. “I plan to be there for two to three songs, get the shots I need and move on to the next show. But more often than not, I push it to five or six songs because I am enjoying what is happening with this unknown performer.” He goes on to state that he gets into the act, but the weight of the camera always reminds him to take a picture. “Which is why I end up taking a lot of body shots of the performer, because I get entranced with what they are doing.” 

If I learned anything from McNairnay and Michaelson, it’s that Moses Mayes will give the opening free weekend’s retro comfort closer, but the real closer and the real “what the F just happened” musical moment will come with Questlove, DJ and co-founder of The Roots. He has the last set at the Pyramid Cabaret on the last Sunday of the festival. He might spin some obscure Central American music, as he did the last time he was in town, or he may not. But he will create an experience that makes me glad that I don’t know everything about jazz – allowing a magical moment of discovery. Something we all desire in this winter-sieged town.

For a full lineup of the 2013 TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival please visit


— Eric Plamondon is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.

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