• Montreal: How Prince Played Montreal

    July 7, 2011. Posted by Becca Pulliam.

    Photographer Autumn de Wilde, courtesy FIJM
    Prince at the Metropolis .. Photographer: Autumn de Wilde, courtesy FIJM

    Montreal Int'l Jazz Festival Director of Programming Caroline told me the story of how Prince's June 24-25, 2011, shows at the Metropolis came to be. She's CJ, I'm BP. -- Becca Pulliam

    CJ: It’s kind of amazing because he came in 2001 and he really loved his experience. I know he loved Montreal and the vibe and the Festival. We’ve been trying to get him since then to come back. We never heard back. And three weeks ago, I was out of the office and my assistant called and she said, “Prince’s agent called and says Prince wants to come to Montreal." What? So then my colleague Johanne Bougie, who had booked him in 2001, took over and she just arranged everything. He was supposed to come and play three nights, but he decided to go to Europe earlier [than expected, leaving him two nights in Montreal]. It was kind of a festival within the Festival because to get Prince in town, it’s, he’s a genius but it’s something difficult.
    BP: How many people come when you book Prince?
    CJ: You mean come with him, or festival goers? Oh, both. Well it sold out in 45 minutes.
    BP: How many shows?
    CJ: Two shows in a 2,000 capacity venue, so 4,000 tickets in 45 minutes.
    BP: How did you announce that he was coming in the first place?
    CJ: Press release. We just announced it with a press release, radio, the national radio got in with us and other radios, just announced it like that and Facebook and things like that. It goes very fast.

    Emphasis is mine! I learned a lot from Caroline (kah roh LEEN), and if you'd like to read the entire conversation, the transcript follows the "jump."

    BP: I’m Becca Pulliam from WBGO and you’re Caroline Johnson. It’s so nice to meet you after many years of coming to Montreal. Around my neck I have my press pass from 1994! How long have you been working here?

    CJ: I’ve been working at the Festival for ten years now. It’s my tenth year. I was Laurent Saulnier’s assistant at the beginning. He is the Vice President of Programming and Production. And then I became a programmer, and then I left on maternity leave, and when I came back, I got the promotion so I’m now the Director of the Programming.

    BP: Congratulations! There are so many stages to fill, and there are so many threads to pull to make this happen and to make the connections inside it, which are a fabulous network of ideas comes through when you look at the schedule. It’s not just who could play on Tuesday at such and such a time. It’s very much more than that. And I have in fact in front of us my schedule, it’s just shredded. It’s a big piece of paper and it shows everything in a grid, and it’s just shredded from my studying it and looking at it. And so this year, what were the themes that you were developing?

    CJ: Well we always have a pattern that we use every year for the outdoor stages. We have thematical series. So we have the blues series. We have one stage only blues. We have jazz, world music. We have music for everybody on the main stage.

    BP: What does that mean “for everybody”?

    CJ: It means that it’s not only jazz, not only blues, you can find maybe funk, soul, the B52s, which have nothing to do with jazz, but it’s a very great party for the people. And to finish a festival of ours with a big party is very important we think. We also have indoors a local jazz scene, a local series for local jazz men. We have at the Gesù, which is a very nice 400 capacity venue, we have more intimate jazz.

    BP: I think the local scene is called Jazz D’Ici, Jazz from Here, and it’s in the club L’Astral. It’s at 6:00pm. I’ve enjoyed the quartet last night. That’s what I saw there and I realized this audience is homegrown.

    CJ: They played last year at Upstairs, which is a small club, 75 people. Then we had them back during the year [note: the Festival presents concerts and shows year round] and the show is sold out at the club, and still the show is sold out. I think the theme of Bill Evans really, and they’re the best musicians in town on one stage. What can you do?

    BP: That’s great, and I felt last night, or the night before, at Galliano and Gonzalo Rubalcaba [in the Theatre Maisonneuve], I’m with the people of Montreal in this big theater.  Not the press from around the world or the  US people coming over the border. I just felt as though, several times the audience that I was visiting and everyone was from Montreal. And that’s important too, I’m sure.

    CJ: It is very important, and only in a city like this I think you can find this. And this is a special project also that you saw. They don’t do that a lot, and it’s . . .

    BP: You mean the duo of Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Richard Galliano.

    CJ: . . . it’s [Artistic Director] Andre Menard that asked them to do it. Because we wanted another project and that didn’t work out so we’ve asked them to do this duo so we were really proud of it. I haven’t seen it but I’ve heard so many great comments from Festival goers and from journalists.

    BP: I felt that it was emotional, they’re getting together. So beautifully staged and the lights are always just amazing here and the music soars above.

    CJ: It’s true, the intimate feeling that you get with the lighting, with the music, with the special meeting between two virtuosos, it’s amazing.

    BP: So how do we talk about this because there are so many events and each one you had to make some decision, do you have some this year that were very long-time coming together? Example.

    CJ: We start the booking in September, October, so some artists we work on from the fall. For example Robert Plant took a long time to confirm. We got the confirmation. Prince called two weeks before the festival and was confirmed so.

    BP: Please talk about that Prince show. I’ve heard some things I want to know what you think.

    CJ: It’s kind of amazing because he came in 2001 and he really loved his experience. I know he loved Montreal and the vibe and the Festival. We’ve been trying to get him since then to come back. We never heard back. And three weeks ago, I was out of the office and my assistant called and she said, “Prince’s agent called and says Prince wants to come to Montreal.” What? So then my colleague Johanne Bougie who had booked him in 2001 took over, and she just arranged everything. He was supposed to come and play three nights, but he decided to go to Europe earlier. It was kind of a festival within the Festival because to get Prince in town, it’s, he’s a genius but it’s something difficult.

    BP: How many people come when you book Prince?

    CJ: You mean come with him, or festival goers? Oh, both. Well it sold out in 45 minutes,

    BP: How many shows?

    CJ: Two shows in a 2,000 capacity venue, so 4,000 tickets in 45 minutes.

    BP: How did you announce that he was coming in the first place?

    CJ: Press release. We just announced it with a press release, radio, the national radio got in with us and other radios, just announced it like that and Facebook and things like that. It goes very fast.

    BP: Then how many people are in the group, and how many people accompany him . . . ?

    CJ: I think there were 10, 12 onstage and about 25 people. His entourage, some of them, there are about 25 people I’d say.

    BP: Did you attend the show?

    CJ: Yes, I attended but he played four hours of music and I tried to stay both times the whole time but I couldn’t make it. I was too tired, so I left around 2[am], both times.

    BP: Congratulations on that. I hope you get feedback from him that he loved it again.

    CJ: We already have it, that he wants to come back, so we’re really happy about it.

    [NOTE TO READER: As I transcribe, I’m on the train from Montreal to Ottawa, with beautiful flat cornfields out the window! The train has Wifi – not working at the moment but should be back online soon.]

    BP: What's another show along those, or totally different, lines but another show that you really worked hard for this year?

    CJ: There are many shows. I’d say, Paco de Lucia. Paco de Lucia was hard work also, because he’s not someone that wants to travel a lot.

    BP: Is he in Spain?

    CJ: He is in Spain, and he’s got a lot of success in Europe, a lot of success in Spain so he doesn’t really need to travel so it was a lot of convincing. Last time he came I think it was in 2007 so that was really hard work but we’re really so happy because he is such a master of flamenco, it’s amazing.

    BP: And which theatre and why did you put Paco de Lucia at?

    CJ: We put him in our Symphony Hall, which is a 3,000 capacity venue. Last time he came he sold out also, so it needs to be the biggest venue we have because we work with many venues and we have the Symphony Hall which is the biggest one and then it’s the one where Prince played [the Metropolis] which is the [second] biggest and then it gets smaller and smaller.

    BP: So it goes from the Symphony Hall (and soon there will be a new Symphony Hall, I believe) and then to the Metropolis where Prince played which is really a club big rambling club, different vibe – and then you have some theaters like Maisonneuve. Those might be 1,000 seats?

    CJ: One thousand four hundred seats at Theatre Maisonneuve. There’s also Duceppe which is 700 where we do the Invitation Series which is also a lot of work because it’s not something usual. We call the artist and we ask them to do two or three performances with different projects. This year we had Marc Ribot with three projects, we had Dave Holland with three projects, and the Tunisian oud player Anwar Brahim that also played, which was my favorite of the three shows really, so beautiful, so talented.

    BP: And each of those was a string player, from guitar to bass to oud. Was that part of your idea?

    CJ: Yes, it’s something we wanted to explore and present, but it is hard I ca tell you to find artists to do that series.

    BP: I’m surprised. I think artists would leap at the chance.

    CJ: Actually it’s not hard, it’s hard to find artists that are open because they’re really busy during the summer also so we’re really glad about it. Joshua Redman did it last year, it was very nice also, yes.

    BP: Does that mean you're talking with the artist -- you, Caroline -- from time to time?

    CJ: It depends. We have to go through agents, but once we book it and once the agents tell the artists and then we agree on everything, then sometimes it gets more personal and then we speak directly to the artists to see which kind of projects they could do. They also want to know who comes to the Festival while they’re there so they can invite them to come and play with them, and make it a unique event because that’s what the Invitation Series is, unique.

    BP: Unique for two people, the invited and the inviter. Yes. Now who handles all the border crossings,  because you have musicians from every country I can think of, and who handles the border crossings, the Customs, how they get in?

    CJ: Well, we have a Contract Department. Her name is Genevieve Gaudier. She’s the one who, once we do the booking, we give her all the information and she contacts the agents or tour managers and then writes the letters of invitation to get their visas, to prepare for their hotels, their technical rider, everything. So that when the artist arrives at the border and at the Festival, everything is set up in the best way.

    BP: She must be a great employee. She must be so important that if she has like a cold, you start to worry.

    CJ: Yes, she is very important, and at the beginning, when I was there at the beginning, we didn’t have someone like that so we used to do everything on our own, and since we have someone in place that does all that work, it’s a treasure.

    BP: Right, and you have people from Cuba, you have people from Serbia, I saw GRUBB [the play collectively written and performed by Roma or Gypsy youth. See the photo and story here.]

    CJ: You did see it? How did you like it?

    BP: GRUBB was amazing. I thought, in a way, I’ve seen Hair. There’s another one that I thought of, Rent maybe. It’s young people standing up, different circumstances of course, but there are plays like this and they always come with so much talent and a certain kind of structure that, a lot of dancing, a lot of singing, and then you have to connect with who they are and why they’re doing this. We all know Django Reinhardt. How did GRUBB come about for you?

    CJ: It’s the Musical Director Serge Denoncourt. He’s very popular in Montreal and all over Europe also. He does many projects. And he just came to see us with this project – me and Laurent Saulnier, the Vice President. And you know what? We just jumped in, our eyes closed. And I think that’s the key to this project is that everyone who collaborated just jumped in. We are all so surprised about the quality of the show. Because I had never seen it. Serge just said, “It’s kids that we want to encourage, and that we want the money to go to the schools. They’re really poor kids that live in cardboard houses for the most . . . ” But so much talent was discovered there [in Serbia]. The voices of these kids when they sing is incredible.

    BP: And the way they move, and the way each one looks. There are 16 I think,14 to 17 and the band. I started to feel something about each one cute tall. “Oh he’s the cute one” and “He’s the tall one.” And as superficial as that is, I was busy falling in love with them.

    CJ: Absolutely, and they’re gorgeous kids also. [The magician] Arturo Brachetti from Italy, Patrick Woodroffe which is a very popular lighting designer, everyone collaborated on that show. So I just think it’s, for me it’s the best show I’ve worked on since I’m at the Festival because it’s a human . . ., it touches everybody and it just touched me so much. I’m so glad I got to be part of this adventure.

    BP: We thank you. I think jazz comes from some of that. I think jazz comes from that need to surpass barriers that are put in front of people, and that’s where the music comes from, and so even from Serbia, here’s this play that belongs at a jazz festival.

    CJ: Absolutely, and the gypsy music, it’s very close to jazz, it’s improvisation all over. The kids when they stop the concert every night, they just continue to play on the street or in their hotel. It’s their way to survive. They just play constantly music.

    BP: Every night at 8 o’clock, a little bit further out, . . . I really appreciate, commend you for that.

    BP: It’s a great thing and here it is among so many other things but here it is, a little bit further out, I walked over to a theater where I hadn’t been before. I really appreciate that, I commend you for that. And of course everyone has love for the Salle du Gesù (as we used to call it), and that’s an important series at 6:00 and again at 10. So how do you put that together, with such variety, but it still always has a feeling in common.

    CJ: We put it together, me and Johanne Bougie, my colleague. I think we, it’s such a nice venue, it has such a special vibe. The venue itself is just so, there’s something special when you get into this venue, and everybody that comes to the Festival always says it’s their favorite venue of all the venues we use.

    BP: But do they say why?

    CJ: I don’t know! It’s something, the sound is very good. It’s very intimate. You’re close to the artists but not too close. It’s in a church so I think there’s something there also, very calming and soothing, I feel. So, well, we put artists that we see during the year in different jazz festivals around the world. When we go to New York, we see a lot of jazz there. We had Brad Mehldau play a solo. He likes to come. He’s the one who asks us to play at Gesù  because he really likes the venue.  The biggest,  not discovery because we had him here playing solo, Tigran Hamasyan, I don’t know if you’ve seen him. Oh my god, it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen. He’s incredible. He’s very jazz oriented but he’s got this rock feeling in him so he’s like a rocker in jazz and a super talented pianist.

    BP: Where is he from?

    CJ: He’s from Armenia, but I think he lives in New York, and in Paris also. We have like Don Byron that you spoke to me about, a show that we had seen in New York. So it’s really kind of, we put some solos, duos, quartet, quintet but nothing really bigger than that. But we had one show that was bigger than that – the Darcy James Argue Secret Society. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.

    BP: Well I think he’s from originally Canada.

    CJ: He is from Vancouver, but now he lives in New York. So it’s a very special big band, more like the band Cinematic Orchestra.

    BP: And I think Don Byron is the first time I’ve seen a singer at Gesù.

    CJ: Yes, we never put singers there, no.

    BP: Last year I saw Daniel Mille.

    CJ: That was gorgeous.

    BP: That was really gorgeous, very different.

    CJ: An accordionist, I think it was a trio . . . . When I’m really really tired after my nights at the Festival, I go to Gesù and I just close my eyes and listen to the music.

    BP: Do you pay attention to how the audiences are receiving it?

    CJ: Yes, all the shows that the audience sees there are just success because of the venue a lot,  but people love this place and . . . .

    BP: It sounds to me [as though] you come to New York and look at musicians. How much time do you spend in NY?

    CJ: We usually go twice a year. One during the fall and we go in January. There’s a big music conference that’s called APAP. It’s an arts presenters conference, and there are shows in town like you can never believe. There’s a Winter Jazz Festival, there’s a world festival, so it’s like our festival but in four days. New York is the place to go see shows and it’s really worth it for us to go to New York to see the shows because a lot of these shows we bring back at the Festival every time.

    BP: But somehow they seem different here. I look at what’s going on in New York and these names come up and it’s great, and somehow when I come to Canada and they’re on my grid that I’ve been talking about, they’re even better.

    CJ: You think so? Why is that?

    BP: I have a lot of thinking about that. It’s because things are close together. It’s a beautiful time of year. One can go in on foot and then you’re inside the Festival, it’s a dreamland. There’s an illusion, a good illusion, not a false, a true illusion that this space belongs to this event and this music. You’re the beneficiary of some great community and municipal and state support. And instead of trying to find the cheapest-rent place you can put a jazz club, you have beautiful venues. And the music stands up to it.

    CJ: And the fact that also when you go to an indoor concert, and then you come out and you can see free stuff, like six or seven different stages, different kinds of music. I think it’s also that, that makes it special

    BP: Yes, so thank you so much Caroline. I could ask you a 1000 more questions,  which isn’t fair, but if there’s something else that you want to tell us about, now’s a good time.

    CJ: I made a good discovery. A young European, French pianist Thomas Enhco that played at our club [L’Astral] last night. I think he’s going to be very successful. I was flabbergasted by the way he played.

    BP: And where did you find him?

    CJ: I had read about him in a magazine,  European magazine, I think it was Vibration. I just listened to the album. We just contacted the agent, and he decided to come for just one date. I love it when artists do that, when they take the chance. They pay their flights and they come here. When they risk it I think it’s fabulous.

    BP: So the only place we could see him this summer on this continent was here, last night.

    CJ: He will be back for sure.

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