Officially known as the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal in French-speaking Quebec, the largest jazz music festival in the world is one of the best-organized and best-sounding ones I’ve ever been to. Plus most of the events are free.
I attended the Montreal Jazz Festival last month, but you can make plans now for next year’s because it happens from late June through the first week of July each time. The first one kicked off in 1980, which means the 2019 event will be the 40th edition. There will definitely be a lot of celebrating.
If you lived in Montreal you could go to something every day for a week and a half. Most of the shows are in the evening, so even if you had an office job you could come after work and catch the bulk of the shows. There are generally a few concerts happening in the afternoon, but the schedule really kicks off on multiple stages from 5:00 until the wee hours.
I only had three days to check things out, so I was frantically trying to cram in as much as I could. Since all the outdoor events are free, it’s easy to just wander from one stage to the other to catch different acts. It’s not all jazz, by the way. One stage is all world music, one has a lot of blues, others rotated in some surf music and hip-hop.
Free Outdoor Shows at the Montreal Jazz Festival
The entire schedule for 10 days is printed on a big fold-out brochure you can carry around, then there’s a lot of info online to figure out who is who to plan your night. I started out appropriately with Big Band Intersection, then bounced around on the streets with Urban Science Brass Band—one of my favorites from the whole event. After a few acts in between, I caught another that immediately went on my Spotify playlist: the LowDown Brass Band from Chicago. Two-tone, loaded with horns, and energetic, they were the kind of band I always wished I could play in back when I was a music major playing the saxophone in college. I caught a few songs on the way back to my hotel from Deva Mahal, daughter of Taj Mahal and a great singer.
The next day I got inspired by Al Muirhead’s Canadian Quintet. The leader is 82 years old and he’s still improvising like he’s 32, out on the road touring around. I saw another guy who’s getting up in years but doesn’t sound like it: Herbie Hancock. This was a paid show in a big concert hall but was my chance to see a legend I’ve been listening to since the early 1980s. The opening act Thundercat was the only one I saw the whole festival through that sounded muddy, but the rumor in the bathroom was that he wanted it that way. It wasn’t the sound man’s fault.
When we filed out of the big auditorium, there were still shows on every main stage though, So I caught a little of Afrikana Soul Sister and then joined a big home town crowd at the Nomadic Massive show—another of my favorites. High-energy, contemporary, and multi-lingual, this was a crowd-pleasing concert.
My last day the temperature hit 99F degrees and it was hotter in Montreal than in my home city of Tampa, Florida. The heat wave dampened the crowd numbers, which was kind of a good thing for those of us who braved it. I was able to get up close to the stage for all the shows, including the great Congo band Jupiter & Okwess. Those Africans seemed right at home in the steamy heat and didn’t slow down a bit.
Indoor Shows Worth Paying For at Festival International de Jazz de Montreal
I saw two incredible back-to-back shows in the air conditioning the last night. First it was torch singer Gretchen Parlato with the Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet in the intimate Gesù auditorium. That’s a converted space inside a Baroque church complex, in a building completed in 1865. It was a perfect place to see a small combo jazz concert, with every note and drum brush audible.
I then headed back to the big concert hall for what turned out to be the best show I caught the whole festival: Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite. I can’t remember ever seeing a band this confident, a band so unafraid of silence and quiet solos. There was no need to fill up the space between songs with noodling or idle banter and when someone stepped up for a solo, the other band members instinctively dialed back their volume. At one point, as the band kept playing, Ben Harper stepped to the front of the stage and sang his heart out, with no microphone, and thousands of people could still hear him. It was an impressive performance from musicians in complete control of their craft and a great way to close out my musical smorgasbord in Montreal.
What else did people pay to see? Again, a whole lot of what’s on offer is free, but other ticketed events included Marinah from Ojos de Brujo, Bobby McFerrin, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Chris Botti, Bela Fleck, Ry Cooder, Randy Brecker, Terence Blanchard, Carla Bley, Ani DiFranco, and Boz Skaggs.
Montreal Jazz Festival Practicalities
This is one of the world’s most pleasant music festivals if you’re too old for dusty fields, overpriced food stalls, and bad beer. The stages are all distributed around one central area of Montreal and you can come and go as you please. So if you get tired of the beers on offer—which included zero Canadian brands and no microbrews—you can just stroll a couple blocks and head into any pub. There are food trucks and even a couple sit-down cafes on the festival grounds, but you can leave anytime and hit any restaurant you want. There’s even a mall with a giant food court a few steps from one of the main stages.
This being Quebec though, there’s plenty of good food around and an oh-so-civilized wine selection sprinkled throughout the festival grounds. The crowd is well-behaved and nice: I didn’t see any fights or yelling and nobody got falling-down drunk anywhere around where I was standing. (Then again, maybe it was just too damned hot for anyone to get worked up about anything.)
Prices are somewhat reasonable for food and drinks, perhaps because it’s so easy to leave and go elsewhere. Unlike at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival I went to earlier this year, there’s running water too for filling up your own water bottle. You don’t have to buy more throwaway plastic just to stay hydrated.
With 100+ acts on stage and tens of thousands of attendees, hotel space gets tight while all this is going on. It’s best to book a hotel as far ahead as possible (check the listings with Trivago or Expedia here). Or make your apartment rental plans early with Airbnb, HomeAway, or Flipkey. You can use Uber in Montreal, but there was perpetual surge pricing while I was there, so sometimes it’s cheaper to grab a regular taxi.
For more information, see the official festival website (English and French) and if you’re going, there’s a link to download the schedule app. To see what else you can do in the city, hit the Montreal Tourism site.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Montreal Tourism and the festival organizers, but as always, all opinions are my own. Some links in this article may be affiliate links that result in a small commission, but the price you pay will be the same as if you went direct.