When country legend Willie Nelson and comedian banjo player Steve Martin performed at last year’s TD Toronto Jazz Festival, some purists snickered. But artistic director Josh Grossman, himself an accomplished trumpet player, thought a loosening of the rules was appropriate for a genre that celebrates shattering them.

The gamble paid off. The shows sold out, people had a great time, and there was still plenty of pure jazz for the hardcore aficionados.

Grossman believes he’s found that perfect balance again this year, with jazz giants like pianist Keith Jarrett playing alongside the likes of ‘Queen of Funk’ Chaka Chan between June 19-28.

Over that 10-day stretch the festival is expected to attract 500,000 music lovers. And with 350 performances by over 1,500 musicians at 40 venues across Toronto, there should be something to suit all tastes.

“Some of the best and biggest and brightest in the world of jazz are going to be on our stage,” Grossman, who is entering his 5th year as artistic director, told CityNews.ca

“I think in terms of the music being presented it’s one of the strongest lineups we’ve had in a while.”

The festival hub will once again be Nathan Phillips Square, where Dianne Reeves, Stanley Clarke and Bobby McFerrin, to name a few, will perform. (See the full lineup here).

Musical legends Earth, Wind and Fire will also be performing at the Sony Centre.

Six-string lovers will be able to sample some of the instrument’s modern masters with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, blues great Kenny Wayne Sheppard, and John Scofield all playing at various venues.

Grossman makes no apologies for looking outside of the jazz genre for acts that will fill seats. At the same time, he stresses that the festival seeks music that is influenced by jazz and has influenced jazz. “Artists like Chaka Chan or Earth, Wind and Fire fit into that category,” he said.

“We want to put artists on the stage that we think people want to hear, but that we also think are important to the art form.”

“As artistic director, I want to respect the tradition and lineage of jazz.”

He also has to respect the bottom line, and big names like Willie Nelson or Chaka Chan are relied upon to boost revenue.

“No arts organization is in a position to lose money year over year,” he admits. “Sometimes we do programming that involves a little more risk.”

Keeping up with the competition is one of the challenges as the festival celebrates its 28th anniversary.

“At one point we were one of the only games in town, with the biggest names in jazz on our stages. Now there’s a ton of other stuff happening all summer long.

“The biggest names in jazz have all passed away,” he adds. “So the jazz scene doesn’t have that name recognition that it once did. So between the competition and the changing musical landscape, there are some challenges ahead.”

Musicians like Toronto-based festival veteran David Buchbinder understand those challenges, but forges ahead making unique music, like his revered album Odessa-Havana, which melds Afro-Cuban and Jewish music.

Buchbinder will be playing free shows at the Shops at Don Mills this year.

“The challenge of jazz is it’s not mainstream,” he said, echoing Grossman. “The economics are challenging.”

“But the Toronto music scene is amazing. There’s just so many incredible musicians here.”

“What’s happening here is incredible collaborations across musical cultures and Toronto is a great city for that because there are so many cultures and no one culture is dominant.”

Nathan Phillips Square schedules:

Acoustic Stage

Outdoor Stage

Toronto Star Stage

Festival acts and Figures

Over the past 27 years, Toronto Downtown Jazz has:

  • Presented over 29,000 artists, 85% of whom were Canadian
  • Presented over 3,000 free public events
  • Contributed over $500 million to the GTA economy
  • Been blessed with over 60,000 hours contributed by volunteers
  • Welcomed 9.5 million people to the Festival

Source: torontojazz.com