If Sarah McLachlan plays a jazz festival, is it still a jazz festival?

Headliners of this year's Toronto Jazz Festival are not exactly jazz musicians. And because of that, criticism of the festival's programming has been sharp.

How much jazz should be at the Toronto Jazz Festival?

Sarah McLachlan has unwittingly stirred up something of a controversy at the Toronto Jazz Festival about what jazz is and isn't. (

Imagine going to a film festival only to watch reruns of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Or arriving at a beer festival to find offerings of Soda Stream sparkling water.

Those head-spinning scenarios are not far off from what's playing at this year's Toronto Jazz Festival, according to some critics. Sarah McLachlan, Grace Potter, Sharon Jones, KC and the Sunshine Band are among the stars of the festival — all musicians, just not exactly jazz musicians. And because of that, criticism of the festival's programming has been sharp.

"Our mandate is to book jazz, jazz-influencing and jazz-influenced music," explained Josh Grossman, the artistic director of the festival. "Most of the artists fit under that umbrella, but every year one or two artists do slip outside of that."

It is those artists — the headliners more likely to play on YouTube than in jazz clubs — that have inspired some to question what jazz is and isn't.

Is Sarah McLachlan jazz?

McLachlan, the mezzo-soprano Canadian balladeer, best known for her emotional 1999 hit I Will Remember You, is at the centre of the century-old debate playing out at the festival.

"Congratulations to the Toronto Jazz Festival for nailing down jazz legend Sarah McLachlan to headline the festival," said Raymond Gillespie on a post that made rounds on Facebook. "I can't wait for this amazing jazz artist to come perform her jazz music for us."

Gillespie, a Toronto DJ well-versed both jazz and sarcasm, said despite questionable headliners, he never misses the festival. But he wanted to underline what festival programmers already knew when they booked McLachlan: she is not widely seen as a jazz musician.

"She is not a pure jazz artist, sure," said Grossman of the jazz festival. "But this is an outstanding artist who has made a substantial contribution to music and we're proud to have her on our stage."

Grossman also said what many critics of the festival already knew when they saw McLachlan's name leading the festival lineup this year: she sells tickets.

"She sells a lot of tickets," he said. "Those are business aspects we have to keep in mind."

But Grossman expressed some frustration at the negative attention McLachlan is getting among jazz fans. "That one or two artists that aren't jazz overshadow the rest of the festival is kind of a drag. There are outstanding jazz lineups if people spend an extra couple minutes to look down past the headliners."

Grossman also said Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Lee Fields & The Expressions, although they both play soul music, "are very much at home at a jazz festival."

Jazz fans like Gillespie are not only looking at the Toronto headliners, but jazz headliners across North America. Gillespie vented his frustration after seeing more marquee musicians at other jazz festivals, like Pharaoh Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Gary Bartz and Lonnie Smith. "Yet none are coming to Toronto," he lamented.

Wynton Marsalis, playing at Toronto Jazz Festival this year, is a name often associated with the preservation of jazz. (

A debate as old as jazz itself

Peter Goddard knows this debate well. He is the former jazz critic at the Toronto Star, and wrote articles on the very subject of jazz programming at the festival in years past. 

In 2013, he referred back to Duke Ellington — a jazz statesman if there ever was one — for guidance: "It is increasingly difficult to know where jazz starts and where it stops," Ellington once said. "I feel there is no border line."

Goddard used that quote to describe country musician Willie Nelson's participation in the Toronto festival that year. But arguments about jazz — what it is and who can play it — go back to the origins of the music.

Credentials for jazz were at one time drawn down racial lines. In another era of jazz, drug use was the defining characteristic of a real jazz musician. In technical terms, the ability to improvise was key (although Ellington himself might disagree, as he was never a master improviser).

For the festival, though, Goddard wondered if jazz qualifications were a question of economics.

'A dividing line'

"This is the only way the festival sees survival," he said. Toronto's jazz institutions are seeing "the diminishing returns of jazz," he added.

Goddard said the genre is seen as "elite, sophisticated and cool" and that is something advertisers like beer companies and car makers want to be associated with. But the threat is when the business considerations overtake what music gets programmed. "Jazz, the word, is going to run dry soon," he said in terms of marketing efforts using the genre.

"Somewhere there has to be a dividing line that says, 'After this line, this isn't jazz,'" he said.

One of his solutions is to right-size the festival down to just the unquestionable jazz musicians. Another is to change the name so that "jazz" is not as prominent in the title — perhaps the Toronto Jazz and Pop Festival.

Either way, the festival should do something to make sure the question of jazz credentials stops coming up. If it continues to book pop acts, Goddard thinks soon fans won't be the only ones asking, "Is this jazz?"

"Somewhere along the line, Wynton Marsalis or someone of some clout is going to stand up and say, 'That isn't a jazz festival.' And is [sponsor] TD Bank going to like that? No, they're not," said Goddard.

Grossman said he'd like to see the focus remain on jazz.

"I don't think the festival needs to change its name or broaden its mandate because there is enough fantastic music to fill the lineup every year," he said. "The festival will continue to grow and evolve, but what that looks like remains to be seen."

The next generation

Chris Evans looked the entire jazz festival card up and down. Some top notch acts, he concurred. But like others, he added a caveat about the boldface names at the top of the lineup.
Jazz pianist Thompson Egbo-Egbo is a local favourite. (Dan Robb/

"If the idea is to spread jazz, especially to young people, Sarah McLachlan is missing the mark," said the jazz musician, DJ and festival regular. "They've left out this incredible narrative in jazz that's happening today."

Evans would like the festival to acknowledge a renewed interest in jazz via rap and dance music. "I don't care about the sacredness or preservation of jazz," said Evans of the different forms jazz is taking today.

He points to acts like Thundercat, Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington that are attracting a lot of attention, just not from jazz festivals. Washington, hailed for reviving West Coast jazz with his album The Epic, was in Toronto this week to perform at a music festival, but just not the Toronto Jazz Festival.

Even closer to home, Evans said he's been listening to local groups like The Shafton Thomas Group and pianist Thompson Egbo-Egbo. Both are playing in clubs during the festival, but Evans would love to see acts like them open up for pianist Robert Glasper or other jazz attractions at a main stage at the festival this year.

Grossman said the festival has close relationships to jazz institutions around Toronto, and keeps a very close eye on new talent. In terms of jazz's reach in other genres like rap, he said headliner KC and the Sunshine Band are often sampled in hip hop, and the festival is exploring adding more hip hop in the future.

But Evans is cynical.

"The festival is a jazz institution. I don't want to be mean, but jazz institutions in Toronto are really mostly trying to appeal to old people who have stopped listening to new music. Jazz in that sense is just meaningless — nostalgic, self-congratulatory and close-minded. Of course money plays into that too," he said.

"I find the bigger the jazz institution, the further away it gets from the spirit of jazz."


Joshua Errett

Senior Producer, Features

Joshua Errett has been a reporter, editor and digital manager in Toronto since the early 2000s. He has been described as "a tornado of innovation, diligence and authenticity." Got a story idea?