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Toronto Summer: High calibre of musicians makes Beaches jazz festival a summer highlight

Toronto blues singer Shakura S’Aida has been touring the world for the past few years. Her exquisite voice has taken her to Germany, France and Australia.

She recently returned from Italy and was in the U.S. for a blues festival last week, and many of her summer gigs will keep her south of the border.

But she’s in town long enough to give a performance at the Beaches International Jazz Festival, the 10-day music festival underway July 18 that helped launch her solo career after her appearance there in 2007.

That was the year S’Aida sang at the festival’s signature StreetFest event, which this year closes a stretch of Queen Street East between Woodbine and Beech avenues nightly from July 24-26.

That’s where she sold nearly 400 CDs and attracted a whole new fan base. Her father had to keep running back across town to get more CDs until he finally brought all of them to the street festival.

“I think what it speaks to not so much the power of me [but] certainly the power of live music in general,” says S’Aida, who has performed a handful of times at the Beaches jazz festival both on the main stage at Woodbine Park and at the popular StreetFest.

But she adds the reception she got at the festival in 2007 “gave me the courage, the confidence, to move forward with my career.”

The Beaches jazz festival, which features a variety of music, including funk, jazz and blues as well as big band, reggae and Latin music, is one of the highlights of summer in Toronto and attracts well over 800,000 fans each year to the city’s lakeside community.

People from all over the world make this world-renowned festival part of their travel plans when visiting Toronto, says longtime StreetFest guitarist Neil Chapman.

“Toronto has such a great music scene and the quality of the artists is so superb that you’re not going to get a band there that you’re going to go, ‘What are these guys doing here?’” he says.

Chapman, who describes his music as “southern music with a touch of maple syrup,” has performed at many other festivals in Canada and is a regular fixture at StreetFest.

He has played on the Queen strip a dozen times and says what keeps him going back is because “it’s the best one in the world.” And the exposure to a lot of people in a short period of time doesn’t hurt either.

“I have people come up to me and say, ‘I first saw you at the Beaches jazz festival and I’ve been following [you] ever since.’”

Both Chapman and S’Aida credit artistic director Bill King, who’s been selecting the music and artists for the festival, founded by Lido Chilelli, since its inception in 1989 when it was just a one-day outdoor event at Kew Gardens.

“He’s bringing in acts that you would not see anywhere else in the city,” S’Aida says.

And this year the Beaches jazz festival is no different. Along with S’Aida, who will be performing at Woodbine Park on July 27, and Chapman, who will be playing with his band Zedhead at StreetFest, there will be about 100 other local and international musicians at the festival.

King is not being boastful when he says, “I’m the reason for a lot of the music. I have to pay attention all year – who’s making noise and what bands we can bring outside of Canada.”

In recent years, the festival has lined up a steady roll of artists from New Orleans. The State of Louisiana contacted festivals to help its musicians who didn’t have a place to play after Hurricane Katrina, King says.

And through their partnership with Louisiana, the Beaches jazz festival has been able to bring some amazing acts to Toronto in recent years and again this year, including popular funk band Dumpstaphunk, blues artist Teeny Tucker and Trombone Shorty.

Of Trombone Shorty, “he’s like one of the hottest acts,” Kings says, “in the cloud of the acts like Janelle Monae.”

This year’s lineup also includes artists, such as soul singer Andria Simone, gospel singer Amoy Levy and jazz singer Barbra Lica. King and his music committee have also brought in China’s first-ever reggae band called Long Shen Dao, which is making its North American debut in Toronto.

If you’re into big soul bands, there’s Oakland Stroke and Kansas City blues trio, Trampled Under Foot. Plus, there’s popular Canadian reggae band, Messenjah.

King says Toronto’s legendary rhythm & blues ensemble, Soul Stew, will play the festival for the first time.

The festival, which King says embraced everybody from Day One, is a big deal for many of these performers, the community and the fans.

“Nobody expected this to blow up into an international event,” King says.

Click here for the full music program.

Check out the musicians and bands in the below map playing at StreetFest on July 24-26.

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