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Remembering Jacques Emond's life-long love of jazz

The best place to find Jacques Emond was at a live jazz concert, where he'd generally be sitting there beaming, just enjoying and appreciating the performance. A life-long jazz fan, he never got tired of the music and tried to communicate that love to others.

And if it was a big band concert, even more so.

Founding Programming Manager Jacques Emond was the main MC for Ottawa Jazz Festival performances for decades. ©Brett DelmageEmond, the founding programming manager of the Ottawa Jazz Festival, died suddenly on Sunday, January 6, 2013, after suffering a stroke. He was 78. He had been scheduled to broadcast his long-running jazz radio show, Swing is in the Air on CKCU-FM, that afternoon.

Emond set the sound for the Ottawa Jazz Festival for more than 25 years. Starting in the early 1980s and particularly from 1991 until his retirement in 2010, he promoted the best of new up-and-comers from Canada and beyond, showed off the skills of jazz veterans, produced blockbuster shows with artists like Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, and Diana Krall, and introduced Ottawa-Gatineau music lovers to an amazing range of jazz.

“It was through his efforts and his knowledge and the way he was respected by musicians all over the world with whom he either dealt with directly or through their agents,” said Ottawa jazz critic Lois Moody. “He'd obviously established a great rapport, and was able to, in spite of him being rather a timid guy, he was able to do all of that kind of negotiation and everybody dealt with him with respect. He just had these kind of quiet, honest qualities that people appreciated.”

Emond served on juries for the Montreal Jazz Festival’s Alcan Jazz Competitions, and (on six occasions) the Juno awards in the jazz category. He participated in recent years in the Jazz Report magazine annual selection of all-star musicians for each instrument.

His contributions to jazz were recognized twice in 2012, first when the French Government appointed him a Chevalier de L’Ordre Des Arts Et Des Lettre (Knight Of The Order Of Arts And Letters), and secondly when he was named a Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists' Association.

But Emond's commitment to building the jazz scene in Ottawa started even before the first year of the jazz festival.

"Patient and persevering"

Back in the mid-1970s, a group of Ottawa jazz enthusiasts – Emond, Lois Moody, musician Vernon Isaac, CBC producer Peter Shaw, jazz radio hosts Ron Sweetman and Bernard Stepien, and others – started a group called Jazz Ottawa to promote jazz in the area. “No such thing existed at that time. In fact, there was just one traditional jazz band that played every Sunday in the Market, and that was the entire jazz activity in Ottawa,” Sweetman said.

And Jazz Ottawa then attracted other jazz fans, and promoted and produced jazz concerts in order to build the scene. Emond was the society's president for five years.

Jazz Ottawa did not start the jazz festival – the very first festival was a weekend initiative by a local group of traditional/Dixieland musicians, Moody pointed out – but it set the stage for an increasing level of jazz in the area. “I always like to make the point that had there not been a Jazz Ottawa, there wouldn't have been a jazz festival,” Sweetman said.

After the first year, Moody said, the original organizers were open to expanding the festival to other forms of jazz “because people were really turning out well for it.” Emond got involved, first as a volunteer and MC, and then in 1982 joined the festival's board of directors. In 1991, he became the festival's programming manager.

Emond had a central role in developing the festival, both through obtaining funding and getting the message across that “a jazz festival is good for the local economy,” Stepien said. “As a concept, it took years to really establish it. But he was patient and persevering, so it happened, eventually. All of this requires a hell of a lot of dedication and whatever to make it happen. And that's what he did, all the time. So that's what I'm thankful to him [for].”

He got things done, Moody said. In 1990, Ottawa hosted an international conference on the music of Duke Ellington, and she asked Emond to be on the organizing committee.

“I knew that whatever was needed, he would just quietly do it. And he did, and he took responsibility for a lot of the sound production and the staging aspect, getting the right people to do it, et cetera. He just quietly went about his business and did it thoroughly. He always came prepared to meetings with a good, up-to-date report on where we stood in his realm of responsibility, what came next, when a commitment would have to be made for what. It's just a big, overall impression of being quietly efficient and determined.”

"A festival with integrity"

Emond set high standards. His reports to the Ottawa Jazz Festival's annual meetings were normally full of praise for musicians, but a frequent lament was the “utterly embarrassing” people who left the Studio series while the musicians were playing. In his 2002 report, he also called out a mainstage musician whose unpredictable antics included singing lying down on the stage; he described her performance as “totally unacceptable”.

In that same report, he also highlighted Paul Wells' description in the National Post of the festival as “a festival with integrity”, which he thought was the finest review it had received in several years.

He added in that same report: “At the risk of falling into the trap of being called 'purists', I believe that we have succeeded, over the many years of its existence, in maintaining a strong emphasis on this great art form that is JAZZ. Let's not kid ourselves, the music is having a bit of a hard time right now; but on the other hand, there are numerous indications that Jazz will rebound and continue to be a major artistic component of the arts. I have always felt that we should never forget what this festival was founded for – the promotion of jazz in all of its many forms, and the development of young musicians on a local as well as national level.”

Jacques' tenure as the programming director [of the Ottawa Jazz Festival] was one where the maximum allowable room was given to keep this as music that really was jazz, instead of something that flew by on another track and called itself a jazz kind of music,” Moody said. “He tried to engage people who were both established and up and coming, people who came from an older school of music, and from the newer emerging artists school, but all of it clearly identifiable as being true to the tradition of improvised music, just good solid material. The longer he stayed, the harder it became for him to do that because of other influences that had more say than he did. Jacques tried his best, and I think he kept a jazz core that you could be proud of, in the face of a lot of opposition.”

Broadcasting the jazz message on the radio

One goal of Jazz Ottawa was to get the media mentioning jazz as frequently as possible, Sweetman said – and one way they did that was for members to run jazz shows on local radio stations, like his own “In a Mellow Tone” on CKCU-FM.

Emond started his radio career thanks first of all to Bernard Stepien. “At one point there was a radio station called CIMF-FM in Hull that was looking for a five-hour program on jazz to do on Sunday nights. Somehow I got chosen by the station, and later – maybe after a couple of months – I decided to give half of the program to Jacques.” When the station switched its market target to an older audience, Emond took over the program entirely, Stepien said.

When CIMF ended the show, “I persuaded him to join us at CKCU,” Sweetman said. “That's how it ended up with the two of us doing programs at CKCU – and what always kept CKCU as a strong jazz station.”

CKCU station manager Matthew Crosier knew Emond for 18 years. “He was already a huge part of the station well before I joined it. And that's only grown. Behind the scenes just a person of total integrity – for the audience, a wonderful presenter, someone who talked to the audience, not at them.”

“He had all kinds of knowledge but it wasn't delivered in a 'Look at me! I'm important!' message. It was 'I love music, and isn't this wonderful'. And people really enjoyed listening to him. I think that people felt, and I think it's true, that you would know him by listening to his show – that the person he was on the radio was exactly who he was in person. There was no airs, no pomp to what he was doing.”

Emond's show was called Swing is in the Air, but “he had a pretty broad definition of swing. He liked all kinds of music within that … really, jazz is enormous. And Jacques played local people with no difference in his voice or presentation as he would to playing legendary performers."

“It's hard to separate him being such a good person, and his show. They went hand in hand together. I think I probably would have enjoyed listening to his show even if I didn't like the music at all on it. Just listening to him talk was so nice to hear. Seeing him in person, he wasn't a big guy by any stretch of the imagination, but he seemed to fill a room and light it up, improve the mood, and I think he did that on the radio as well. It might have been a rainy, cold Sunday afternoon, but, listening to him, it didn't seem like that way at all.”

On Sunday, January 20, Crosier said, CKCU will broadcast a jazz memorial to Emond in the show's timeslot (4 to 5:30 p.m.), featuring CKCU people who knew him, local musicians, and representatives from the jazz community and the jazz festival. On January 13, the Silent Earth Collective, which runs the show immediately before Swing is in the Air, also broadcast a tribute to Emond based on years of chatting between shows and sharing their musical enthusiasm [you can stream recent past shows on CKCU on Demand.]

Crosier said the show would remain with the same name and the same style, and would likely be hosted by a rotating collective of jazz-lovers, “who will replace Jacques as much as it's possible to replace him”. The station also hopes to organize a live memorial to Emond later on in an Ottawa club.

“Jacques was a totally unassuming guy. He would be, I would think, embarrassed and completely uncomfortable with us celebrating him. But I'm fine with that, because he more than deserves it. After he'd tease me about being The Boss, I'd talk about how much he meant to us. He didn't want to hear any of that."

A passion for jazz

Although Emond listened to many types of jazz, his personal passion was for big band music and West Coast jazz – for example, Stan Kenton.

When Emond had a chance to talk to Tony Bennett during his appearance at the jazz festival in 2001, Sweetman said, “that for Jacques, was like going to heaven without having to die! [Emond and Bennett] both knew the composer of every tune that Tony Bennett had ever sung, the lineup of the musicians of every recording. His knowledge was encyclopedic in his area of interest. It was big bands and particularly West Coast Jazz."

“He knew the West Coast scene very, very well and he identified people to bring in, that other people, like myself, didn't even know existed – which broadened the type of musicians which were heard.”

Even after he retired, Emond would regularly make the pilgrimage to Los Angeles for the Los Angeles Jazz Institute big band conferences.

Another area Emond specialized in was the jazz scene that existed in Hull (vieux Gatineau) from before WW2 until the end of the 50s, Sweetman said. “He knew all the musicians who had played at all the different clubs there.” A few years ago, Emond worked with Television Quebec on a short documentary guiding the viewers through the various former jazz sites in Hull.

“What he really got off on were the big bands and the swing era, the bebop era, and quite a bit of the contemporary stuff that has followed bebop,” Moody said. “In terms of the real, off-the-wall avant-garde I wouldn't say his passion was equal, but he made a point of listening to everything rather than write it off without knowing what he was talking about. He never did that. If he didn't like something, he had a reason. That's because he had listened to it and determined for himself not that it wasn't any good, but that it wasn't what he wanted.”

Emond also had a gift for communicating his passion for jazz to others, from which he developed long-term friendships with other music lovers.

Sweetman said what he remembered best about Emond was “just his general warmth and friendliness and his total, utter devotion to the music”. In 1975, Moody introduced him to Emond, and, “we became instant friends, and we've remained close friends ever since”.

“We collaborated 100% with each other. We helped each other; we passed good ideas to each other. He was a very dear loving human being, very very nice family and he will be terribly missed.”

“I think Jacques was almost too good to be true,” Crosier said. “Did he get angry? He was just a gentle, kind person, warm and friendly, no attitude, always asking about my family and my kids and my wife. Just a friendly, friendly nice personality.”

“He had a really good sense of humour. No ego at all: he would tease all of us, He'd call up and always call me The Boss on the phone. He knew I didn't like it. And I speak some French, but not fluently like him; at home my wife and kids speak French. And he would have fun with that: he would always talk faster and faster until he realized I didn't understand what he was saying anymore, whereas if he spoke slowly I could follow him. He was just that kind of guy. He called here every week pretty much, just to chat and tell us about new music he'd found – I think the kind of thing he'd probably did with people everywhere.”

Jacques Emond addresses the Ottawa Jazz Festival audience which he helped build over the decades  ©Brett Delmage, 2006Moody met Emond in the mid-60s. Both were also friends with the late Ottawa radio host Brian Murphy, she said, and Emond and Murphy were alike in their enthusiasm for music. They “shared that kind of just consuming passion for music. That was the central part of their lives.”

Emond was quietly determined “to make people aware of and help them share what he knew they could get from this kind of music,” she said. “I mean, he wasn't a missionary of the sort that he'd go out and buttonhole people. But just by example, he just believed in this music and loved it so much that and got so much richness from it in his own life that he just – he wanted to share that!”

Stepien knew Emond for about 40 years, but, “at the beginning, we had I wouldn't say clashes, but differences of opinion because I represented the avant-garde, which he hated at that time, 40 years ago. And he represented the swing era for which, back then, I didn't have too much interest.”

But, because of listening to Emond's radio show over the years, “I am even interested in Glenn Miller. And I am playing Glenn Miller tunes today! So, somehow something happened. And as long as you are persistent and consistent, people eventually get the message.”

    – Alayne McGregor

See also:

Updated January 16 to include the eulogy to Jacques Emond and the AllAboutJazz.com tribute.