40 facts about the Montreal International Jazz Festival on its 40th anniversary

Did you know that Wilson Pickett once did a 60-minute encore in his dressing gown?

Did you know that Wilson Pickett once did a 60-minute encore in his dressing gown?

Drummer Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band perform at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, July 3, 2018. (Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images)

Montreal has always enjoyed a close association with jazz. But over the past four decades, this connection has become stronger than ever through the yearly Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, which attracts fans and performers from around the world for a 10-day musical blowout.

The brainchild of Alain Simard and André Ménard, the festival promises to be stronger than ever in its 40th edition this year. To celebrate this milestone, we've assembled 40 facts and anecdotes to help you warm up before the festival's downbeat on June 26.

Listen to CBC Music's Montreal Jazz Festival playlist while you read


  • The first notes ever heard at the festival were played by Ray Charles at the Expo Theatre on Île Sainte-Hélène. Tickets to this 1980 concert cost a whopping $7.

  • In 2004, the festival got the Guinness World Record for the largest jazz festival after attracting almost two million visitors over the course of the festival's run.

  • Incredibly, about two-thirds of the events at the festival are free and open to the public every year.

  • The festival touts that 60,000 litres of beer and 2,500 kilograms of fries are consumed on a yearly basis.

  • The festival's first edition in 1980 was put on in part through the help of CBC's Alain de Grosbois, a producer who sweetened the deal for international artists by offering them money to do live recordings at the festival that were later aired on radio.

  • Pat Metheny has appeared at the festival a staggering number of times over the years. Montrealers love the guitarist, famously coming out in droves for his outdoor concert on McGill College Avenue in 1989. Metheny has since referred to that gig in front of more than 100,000 people as "the scariest night of [his] life."

  • This year, you can take a free guided Montreal jazz history walking tour on June 29, June 30 and July 6 that highlights the city's association with the music all the way back to the 1920s.

  • If history isn't your thing, you can experience an afternoon jazz cocktail workshop at Le Lab this year before hitting the festival site.

  • Over the years, the festival's site has moved a few times. It first took place on Île-Sainte-Hélène, briefly moved to Rue St. Denis in 1982, and finally settled into Place des Arts in 1988.

    A crowd listens from all sides of a St. Denis stage at the 1982 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. (Robert Etchevery)
  • The music isn't limited to just the festival stages: roaming bands like Urban Science Brass Band play on pedestrian-only sections of Place des Arts during the daytime.

  • The festival's iconic logo was designed by Jacques Bourassa in 1980 – and it's never been changed once.

  • The 1995 festival also saw a friendly guitar showdown take place between B.B. King and Buddy Guy at the Montreal Forum. Funnily enough, Guy will receive the B.B.-King Blues Award at the festival this year!

  • In 2017, 83,000 tourists came to Montreal to visit the festival, helped in part by the Montreal 375 and Canada 150 celebrations.

  • On top of the typical concert offerings, the festival also has activities for the whole family. Of special note is La Petite École du Jazz, which has been running since 1989 and serves as a musical introduction for children to the music.

    Held in Complexe Desjardins’ Grande-Place, La Petite École du Jazz is free and open to all from June 27-July 6 this year.

  • The festival offers plenty of awards, but the longest-running is the TD Grand Jazz Award, whose first winner was Montreal bassist Michel Donato in 1982.

  • In 1982, bassist Jaco Pastorius couldn't find guitarist Metheny in their hotel, so he set off the fire alarm to "smoke out" Metheny from his room, according to the book Album souvenir, Festival international de jazz de Montréal : 25 ans by Alain Denis.

  • Len Dobbin, one of the greatest advocates of Canadian jazz, actually died after suffering a stroke while attending a festival concert. The remainder of the edition was held in his honour.

  • John Zorn once held up the start of a Place des Arts concert for more than 30 minutes until he got a smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz's Deli. Going for speed rather than quality, festival staff initially had gotten him a sandwich from a competitor, which Zorn apparently threw against a wall.

  • Several local bands have had very long runs at the festival, with pianist Vic Vogel's big band, the Streetnix, and Le Dixieband all having played for 25 consecutive years.

    The quintet Streetnix performs a wide variety of music with a jazz twist. (Supplied by the FIJM)
  • The first edition of the festival was actually scheduled to take place in 1979, but was ultimately cancelled three months prior to the start date from lack of funding. In fact, festival founder Simard's attempts to launch the event began in 1979, when he registered the festival's name.

  • This failed attempt actually resulted in a proto-festival, which featured Keith Jarrett and Metheny in concerts at the Théâtre St. Denis in late August 1979.

  • According to the liner notes of the 1989 live record The Montreal Tapes: Tribute to Joe Henderson, saxophonist Joe Henderson came into bassist Charlie Haden's dressing room before their festival show, asking if they could play something similar to the music Haden had recorded with Ornette Coleman, saying "Chords and key signatures are just excess baggage, let's throw them overboard." The result can be heard through the freedom the band enjoys throughout the show.

    Festival-goers take in the music in Place des Arts circa 1988. (Denis Alix)

  • Dexter Gordon's group with trumpeter Woody Shaw was scheduled to appear in 1982, but Gordon cancelled at the last minute. Festival founder Simard quickly called the agent of Chick Corea and Gary Burton, who confirmed that the duo would come to Montreal on their way back from Europe to stand in for Gordon. During this whole exchange, the agent didn't consult with the artists at all.

  • For the 40th anniversary this year, a "festival hub" is being created off-site in Montreal's Verdun borough. Offering free, high-quality programming, one new hub will be added per year over the next five years.

    This poster from the 1988 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal was based on a self-portrait by Miles Davis. (Supplied by the FIJM)

  • The festival's grand évenement in 1987 featured Urban Sax, an act featuring 50 saxophonists and other musicians performing while rappelling down the façade of Complexe Desjardins.

  • Artist Yves Archambault has designed all of the festival's posters since 1988, including one built around a self-portrait painted by Miles Davis.

  • During a highly anticipated 1986 duo concert, a drug-addled Chet Baker was in such bad shape that Paul Bley had to finish the show playing solo piano after leading the trumpet player offstage.

  • In the 1983 edition, the City of Montreal responded to a noise complaint by dismantling a festival stage on Rue St. Denis in the middle of the night without warning and reopening the street to cars.

  • The Festival's mascot, Ste-Cat, was introduced in 1993. Beloved by many, it has unfortunately resulted in questionable merch such as this plush backpack.

  • In 2000, Montreal musicians Lorraine Desmarais, François Bourassa, James Gelfand and Vic Vogel played in the unusual format of four pianos, eight hands.

  • Over its history, the festival has seen many artists develop into jazz superstars. A prime example: 23-year-old Joshua Redman, who appeared at the festival for the first time in 1992, and in 2019 is set to receive the festival's annual Miles Davis Award, which recognizes international jazz musicians for the entire body of their work and influence in regenerating the jazz idiom.

  • The 1989 edition saw Brazilian singer/guitarist Gilberto Gil appear in his first-ever Canadian concert.

  • As far as encores go, they don't get much more epic than soul singer Wilson Pickett's show-stopper in 1990. After a shorter set than normal, Pickett reappeared onstage in his dressing gown to perform for another 60 minutes, according to Denis' Album souvenir.

  • In 1982, the festival had planned to close Rue St. Denis only during weekends, when they expected the highest foot traffic. But huge turnouts forced them to close it every day that year instead.

  • One of the festival's most memorable moments was a 1995 outdoor concert — with acrobats! — that paid tribute to the music of Cirque du Soleil and its composer René Dupéré. Audience members began camping out in Place des Arts up to six hours before the start time, with more than 200,000 fans watching the show in the evening.

    Fans pack Place des Arts for the 1995 Cirque du Soleil extravaganza. (Jean-François Leblanc)
  • Baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams' last show before his death was at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 2, 1986.

  • The most emotional moment for festival founder Simard after all of these years? Offering pianist Dave Brubeck a shoulder to cry on after performing a day after the death of one of Brubeck's sons.

  • A few days before a concert at Théâtre Maisonneuve in 1994, Haden and Hank Jones hunkered down in CBC's Studio B to record the now iconic album Steal Away.

  • Stéphane Grappelli performed a remarkable concert only one week after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery. In this interview conducted during this 1991 visit, he seems to be in good spirits!

  • It's not just jazz fans who love this special time of the year – the artists do, too. According to festival literature, Brubeck, Haden, Tony Bennett, Metheny and Al Jarreau have all said the Montreal festival is the world's best.

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