If you think Montreal is a good-time city today, you should’ve seen her back in the day, home to some of the hottest jazz clubs on the planet and a wide-open scene fuelled by Prohibition. Booze was still legal in Quebec, so the thirsty came to Montreal from all over North America: gamblers, racketeers and the world’s most famous entertainers – including the likes of Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra.
Montreal’s most famous musical export was jazz icon Oscar Peterson. “Nightclubs were the kind of world that my folks expected and they weren’t fussy about me being in that world,” says Montreal jazz legend and Peterson protégé Oliver Jones, who made his first Montreal nightclub appearance at the age of nine in 1943. Jones played several stints at Montreal’s premier jazz club of the 1930s and 40s, the Café St-Michel. “It was across the street from Rockhead’s Paradise, which was the first black-owned club in all of Canada”.
Everybody from Dizzy Gillespie to Duke Ellington made their way to Montreal. Even the family of child performer Sammy Davis Jr. lived in Montreal six months of the year. Today, jazz still runs through Montreal’s veins, and the city is home to such jazz stars as Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee, Susie Arioli and Dave Turner, not to mention the city’s famed Festival International de Jazz de Montreal.
Montreal still boasts a number of classic jazz venues, such as the downtown House of Jazz where Tony Bennett sang a couple songs impromptu one night, and Nina Simone stomped out another night when she couldn’t get a seat near the stage. Today, the venue books local jazz and blues acts seven nights a week.
The Dieze Onze in the hip Plateau district is worth the trip, as is the Résonance Cafe in Montreal’s Mile End district, which attracts young jazz fans who flock here in search of new up-and-coming talent.
Popular with tourists and close to the major hotels, downtown’s Upstairs Jazz Club has been ranked by Downbeat Magazine as one of the Top 100 jazz clubs in the world. “I think the local Montreal jazz scene is healthier than I’ve seen it in two decades,” says Upstairs owner Joel Giberovitch. “We have the jazz fest, the Off Jazz Festival, many clubs in Montreal and the music schools,” Giberovitch says. “Jazz is vibrant in this city and people still come here to listen to this music.”
Feature image: Montreal offers a number of venues to catch classic jazz performances © Flawka
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Written by Richard Burnett
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About the author: RichardBurnettRichard Burnett
Montreal journalist Richard Burnett self-syndicated his column Three Dollar Bill in over half of Canada’s alt-weeklies for 15 years (Canada’s first-ever and still-only syndicated gay column in the mainstream and alternative press); was Editor-at-Large of HOUR until the Montreal alt-weekly folded in 2012; is a columnist and writer for The Charlebois Post, Fugues and Xtra magazines, and writes the POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette.