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A rural county excited by jazz: what Prince Edward County Jazz Festival does differently

The Prince Edward County Jazz Festival is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the Ottawa Jazz Festival. Instead of a few blocks of downtown, it covers a large part of a 1000 km² rural county in eastern Ontario. Unlike Ottawa, the Prince Edward County festival receives no government grants. And it's a pure jazz festival – no rock or pop artists.

Brian Barlow, the festival's creative director for the last 13 years, explained to OttawaJazzScene.ca how the festival has been successful by doing things differently. The interview has been lightly edited and some sections rearranged.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How has the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival evolved over the last 16 years?

'I actually was involved at the very, very beginning in a strange way' - Prince Edward County Jazz Festival's 's Creative Director Brian Barlow ©Brett Delmage, 2015Brian Barlow: I think it's spread throughout the county. One of the things that makes it unique as a festival is the large area that it covers. Prince Edward County is fairly large [1,048.3 km²]. When I first got involved, the festival took place mostly in the town of Picton, but now it's all over the county, which is great, including wineries. When we first started, there wasn't a wine industry in the county and now as you may know it's quite a highly-respected wine area.

So we have events at a number of wineries, and in some of the small little villages, and on church steps – It's great. There's music everywhere. So I think that's part of the way it's evolved.


Read about the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival's 2016 line-up, and about its innovative student jazz programs.


I actually was involved at the very, very beginning in a strange way. I just happened to be shopping in a bookstore in Picton, and a woman found out I was a musician. My daughters were looking for books and that takes forever, so we were talking. And she said, we're thinking of starting a jazz festival. So I did a little bit of consulting the very first year, but I came on board the third year as creative director. I performed I think the second year with my band.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What's your role as creative director?

Barlow: I would like to know that [laughs]. I think they called me that, rather than artistic director, because I think they wanted me more involved in other things other than just booking the musicians.

I take a fairly active role in working with sponsors. We receive no government grants, this festival, and I think that's another thing that makes us unique. We run it like a business. We pay our artists really well.

And so I'm involved in almost all aspects of the festival – sponsors, advertising. There's a committee I work with that chooses the musicians every year. I don't think it's something I would want to do totally on my own, and we get terrific input from that committee, in terms of musicians to chose.

I got involved with sponsors early on. We've had incredible loyal local sponsors, and that's made a big difference.

Jazz in a cemetary

One of our sponsors, she's a real-estate agent, and one of her pet projects was to help to restore this small chapel in a historic cemetery in Picton called The Glenwood. We got involved in that, because we like to work with our sponsors. We like to make sure our sponsors get something from us as well, it's not just a one-way situation. So we put on a concert in this chapel in the cemetery Saturday morning at 10 o'clock.

At first I thought, “This is insane. Nobody's going to come to this. Who's going to come to a cemetery at 10 o'clock Saturday morning, especially after everybody's been up late Friday night?”

It's been our most popular event. [Bassist] Jodi Proznick said it was her favourite gig she had done in about a decade. And it's just an incredible thing; it's a great way to start off a Saturday morning. And it's free and people come wandering in and there's coffee and it's lovely.

The little chapel itself holds about 50 people but because of the way it's situated, you open the doors and it's in a little natural amphitheater, the music spreads everywhere.

We could only do that in this little small community, I think.

Driving jazz to the people

The other thing we do that I got going early in my term as creative director is that they wanted me to spread outside of Picton. Because it's called the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival. So I drove all over the place, and met with people and wineries and restaurants. Everybody wants music until you start talking about the money, and then they're not interested any more. They don't have any money.

So I was a little depressed and I drove by a car dealer and I went in, and I said, 'Hey, do you want to be involved with the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival?' He said, “I have no money, I'm supporting the local soccer team.” I said, “I don't want money. I want one of your vehicles. Can you just loan me one of your vehicles for a day, and we'll plaster your name all over the sides, and you'll be a sponsor?” So he said OK.

And then I called a friend of mine in Toronto and I knew what his price would be to come out here. And I said, “OK, so this is going to be your price. But your concert's not three hours in one place. It's going to move around. You're going to do one set here, and you're going to have 15 minutes to drive somewhere else.”

I called it the Jazz Van. The musicians pile in there. There's nothing to set up, so there's no drums, no keyboards. It's all acoustic instruments. I drove them the first year, and I went back to all these places, and I said, “OK, since you can't afford a whole band and a PA system or anything, here's how much it's going to cost you. And we're going to come and do one 45-minute set.”

So I put the musicians in the van, and we drove to the first place. They jumped out and played for 45 minutes. They jumped back in the van. I had sandwiches and drinks, and we went to the next place. And so they did four sets just like that!

And we've done it every year since. Sometimes we do it two days in a row and it's the most ... it's just so much fun. We have people who follow the Jazz Van around from place to place. And they play all kinds of places! They play on the church steps in the little village of Bloomfield. They play in some of the wineries. One year we were driving around and we were five minutes early to get to the next place. There was a wedding and I stopped the van and the band jumped out and played a tune for the people at their wedding!

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So you're treating the large area as an opportunity rather than a challenge?

Barlow: Yes. And then what happens is that the people pay a small amount for this. And often they'll love live music so much that the next year they say we'll just hire a band. And then so the Jazz Van moves on. And some people want it the same way each year which is fine. We do it every year. There's a farmer's market which just opened in Wellington. It's been very successful, and the Jazz Van starts there Saturday morning, playing at the farmer's market.

So you could start in the morning on Saturday with the concert at the Glenwood chapel in the cemetery, and then follow the Jazz Van around. There's music everywhere – it's great!

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How do you pick the musicians who play at the festival?

Barlow: So we have a team of about a dozen people. There are four people on the selection committee, and every year the full committee and the selection or programming committee, they put together lists. Those lists are really wonderful, and then we sit down the four of us and go over the lists. Obviously there are things with us being a small festival, we cannot afford. We can't afford Sonny Rollins or Diana Krall, so those get eliminated. You'd be surprised the number of artists who get recommended who are no longer with us.

We just try and find a balance. We look at what we can afford and it's just a process we go through. Sometimes we'll have somebody in mind and we negotiate with them. It doesn't work out for scheduling reasons or whatever, but ... It's a really fun process!

It's a balancing act. Because we don't have any government grants, we have to sell tickets. So we have to make sure we can do that. But we also have to make sure that we're being true to the artistic part of this festival, too. I could put in some real audience-pleasing things every night that sell out every night, but we like to do ... Like we brought in the Jensen sisters a few years ago, and that I think surprised some people. And it was fantastic! It was a spectacular concert.

We also did a tribute to Jim Hall. If you're not a real died-in-the-wool jazz fan, you're not going to know who Jim Hall is. But we also discovered that Jim Hall had made some albums with strings, so we brought in a full string section and put on that concert. And again that was really pushing the envelope for us, but it went really well.

The programming committee doesn't really spend a lot of time thinking about anything other than who we think is really fantastic, who we want these people to hear up here. That's our main concern. We leave the financial part up to the other part of the committee.

"The musicians just love coming out here"

And the other thing that we do ... this is yet another thing I think that makes this festival different ... and this comes from my experience. I remember, ten years ago or more, Emilie-Claire [Barlow] and I were touring, and we got in the bus and we were driving. I looked her and I said, “Where were we? Where were we just now?” And she said, “I don't know.”

And you realize that, during the peak season of the summer, it's an in-and-out situation. You go in and you do a sound check, you grab something quick to eat, you do the concert, and you take off. Or you stay in a hotel, and then you take off.

And I thought, “You know, there's got to be a better way for this.” So we more often than not, keep the musicians here for numerous days. And that's one of the advantages we have economically, because once the musicians are here, a large portion of what you're paying for is their transportation costs.

Jodi Proznick is coming from Vancouver this year, so transportation is a big deal. But once she's here, if I can find other work for her while she's here, it's great for her. It's also great for us because that transportation cost is not added onto every job. We amortize that over the work.

And we find that because Prince Edward County is such a neat place to be – people like it here – [the musicians] relax. They're here for four days, five days in some cases. One musician last year in the space of five days had seven gigs! And so they get very relaxed, [and] they give something really different to the audience because of how relaxed they are.

They become connected to the place. Picton is a town of four thousand people, so when they do a concert, the next day when they walk down the street, everybody recognizes them. And then people come and hear them do a talk somewhere, or an after-hours jam session, or a morning service somewhere at a church. That has really been a great thing. And I think the musicians just love it. They just love coming out here and staying for a few days.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I see you've brought Jodi back for a second year?

Barlow: And that's again a part of our policy we have, especially with someone new. We brought her here last year – this is no slight on Jodi, this is a small rural community – they didn't know who she was. And they fell in love with her. She's coming back this year, and will be really well received.

We've brought out some really incredible musicians and tried ... we have a new afternoon concert series we just started two years ago. And to be honest, the first year there was not that many people there. We had David Braid, and the people who were there thought it was the best concert they'd ever seen. The next time we brought David Braid out, tickets had been sold out two months in advance.

So we realize that that's important to do. We have Guido Basso living out here. He's been here for 35 years or more, living in the county. And he is our artist-in-residence, and has been for about seven years now. So we can build shows around Guido.

I can put somebody in Toronto and sell out instantly, and yet out here nobody knows who they are, so you have to find a way to introduce those people. And we often do that through Guido. Guido will do a concert and we'll introduce a vocalist – we've done that with Melissa Stylianou and Heather Bambrick – people have gone on to be fairly well-known, but our first year out here it's always tricky, so we use Guido as the draw. He doesn't mind! Sophie Milman, for instance, the first time she came out here, we paired her with Guido, and it went really well.

That's one of the tricks of doing this in a rural area.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Every time I've seen your schedule, you've always had at least three nights of jam sessions. Why do you always include those?

Barlow: We do because – this goes back to the musicians staying overnight – because most musicians stay here when they come here, at the very least one night. It's something for them to do at night, and it's become quite incredibly successful. We also use it as an opportunity for our Rising Young Star and the young musicians who are here – because every summer we also bring out post-secondary school musicians from Humber and York University and the University of Toronto. We provide them with paid performance opportunities. So they're here and they're sticking around, so they come and play. And it's a really great opportunity for the younger players to interact with the older, more professional players. You get Guido Basso coming in to play a few tunes, and there's some kid who's 20 years old who's at U of T playing with him.

So those are really important for all of us. And it's amazing what happens. We'll be doing the jam session – and there's a line-up to get in every night for that. I remember one year that people were thinking Ellis Marsalis might come by, because he was at the theatre. And he didn't, and he didn't, and he didn't, and so people were drifting off. It was getting around 1 o'clock at night, and all of the sudden Ellis and his whole entourage show up! And would not stop playing!

Same with all the guys from New York when we had Louis Hayes and Jeremy Pelt and all those guys. They came over and I think they had more fun – they may have even played better – at the jam session than they did at the concert!

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Is your audience now more attracted by the jam sessions?

Barlow: They've always been. It's right next door to the theatre. You don't have to get in your car, so you just walk out the theatre and down the street. So that's appealing to people.

I just find the musicians really love it. And there's just something about playing in that kind of environment. Everybody's been on stage and people come off it with a set show or something that's organized and rehearsed, that they've been doing on tour. And so to come next door and just get up on stage and play is just kind of fun for a lot of people.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Where does your audience come from?

Barlow: It used to be that the majority of our audience was from this area. We've been able to do some incredible surveying of the audience, we now know that 60% of our audience comes from outside this area. That is Ottawa, Kingston, Montreal, Toronto. That's increasing every year.

OttawaJazzScene.ca:Q: Do you attract people from the States as well?

Barlow: Yes, we do. We find that we have some regulars that come all the time. Those numbers go up and down depending on the Canadian dollar.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Where do you think the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival is going to go from here?

Barlow: I'm not sure we'll expand. For our 10th anniversary, we did expand and we included two weekends and that was fine. But I want to just see us continue to develop the way we have been, and including especially encouraging young people to be involved. I think that's important.

There are new events every year. So I like that. We use different locations every year for things. There's so much out here and it's developing so much that a lot of what we will do will be determined by what happens in the County. New hotels are opening, new restaurants are opening all the time, and we're involved with all of them. A distillery opened a few years ago and their first year we did a lot of work with them. I think those things will dictate what we do.

We will continue to just try and provide the best-quality jazz we can provide to our audience, and try and keep our ticket prices as low as possible. I think those are two good things.

    – Alayne McGregor

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