2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival listeners could live with the rain – but not bad sound.

When OttawaJazzScene.ca surveyed listeners at the end of the 2017 festival, their most heated complaints were about too-loud (and sometimes too-soft) sound volumes in concerts, both indoor and outdoor. The consistently-wet weather certainly was mentioned – but it didn't rile listeners up in the same way.

Our final 2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival poll asked about elements that detracted from hearing the music. It was a follow-up to unsolicited comments about these issues that we received in our three previous polls during the festival.

Almost two-thirds of respondents said that acoustic, visual, physical, or environmental elements detracted from their enjoying a festival show – and their major complaint was loudness. Some complained it was so loud they had to leave the show.

“Very loud amplification at all venues. The loudest was Hudson and Caravan Palace,” said Betty Ann Bryanton. “Even with ear plugs, these shows were still loud. I'm guessing that the stage musicians are all hard of hearing from years of amplification and, as a need, feel the need to turn up louder??"

John Wilson agreed. “Too many shows – even jazz shows – are way too loud. This includes the tent at Marion Dewar Square and some of the indoor shows, certainly at the NAC Theatre and at La Nouvelle Scène. Even though I have a gold pass, the tent at Marion Dewar Square is usually too loud, so I don't go to much there except the noontime concerts. And even for one of those, a local vocalist and instructor had to ask the tech to lower the volume (before I got a chance to).

“I'm losing my enjoyment of the festival with all of these issues now in indoor stages, too, and sound volume at an uncomfortably high level. I love jazz, and go to a ton of shows during the season between festivals, and have my own jazz performance group. But we need to get back control of sound levels by setting some festival standards. We don't need to default to city by-laws, do we? Aren't those to weed out noises that are way beyond an enjoyable music performance level?”

I don't understand why performers believe that excessive volume contributes to the music's profundity.
– David Miller

David Miller said that several indoor shows at the National Arts Centre were too loud – not as bad as the Stanley Clarke Band in 2015, “which was close to unbearable, but I don't understand why performers believe that excessive volume contributes to the music's profundity.” He had previously noted that Donny McCaslin's show was, “on the whole somewhat hard to listen to for a long period, particularly because of the volume”.

The volume at the outdoor shows also drew complaints of “over-amplification” – in particular, St Paul & Broken Bones, and Charles Bradley. Sally Robinson noted problems with sound bleeding between the main stage in the park, and the City Hall stage, for example with the Hilotrons concert. “This seems unacceptable to me, at a jazz festival. Too much loud rock.”

Another pointed out that, at The Bad Plus' concert in the park, the mic level on the bass drum was “too loud and drowned out the bass. Good band, bad sound.”

On the other hand, one listener said that jazz guitarist Alex Goodman's show in the park had difficulty competing with nearby traffic noise: “buses, trucks and car horns. The only option, as I see it, is to turn it up.”

Peter Feldman said he found the sound mix in the park to be “very inconsistent, which is not a complaint I've had before. Whether this is the artists bringing their own sound technicians with them, I don't know.”

Cellist Joan Harrison, on the other hand, said she was very grateful to the sound engineer at the City Hall stage who worked on the noon-hour show she performed in: “one of the best I have every worked with!”

Even with ear plugs, these shows were still loud. I'm guessing that the stage musicians are all hard of hearing from years of amplification and, as a need, feel the need to turn up louder??
–Betty Ann Bryanton

The audience also came in for criticism, with repeated complaints of people talking through performances in the park. The VIP tent in the park, where festival sponsors held receptions during evening concerts, was particularly criticized by one listener.

“The noise coming out of the VIP tent is way too loud. I notice it every single show I go to in the bowl. I get that people go to mingle which is fine, but during a performance there should be respect for fellow patrons and the performers. It's not just the normal chatter at a show, it sounds like there's a crowded restaurant in the middle of the field with clinking glasses and people talking over the clatter. It's especially obvious during quieter moments of a show (which are many at a jazzfest). If we in the audience can hear it then the performers can hear it as well."

“I find it so embarrassing. I feel like it gets brushed off because those people by alcohol therefore they pay the bills I guess, but we have such a double standard when it comes to alcohol. Those people can be loud and disruptive yet as volunteers we're told to be on the look out for disruptive drunks. I suggest maybe putting up a sign as a reminder to people in the VIP tent to be respectful during the performances like you encourage people to wash their hands in a bathroom. It should be common sense, but some people need reminding. Or maybe have a separate VIP section for those who only come to mingle and drink and put it farther from the stage and the VIP's who would actually like to hear the show as well can have a closer section?”

And one listener questioned why parents would “take their very young child (children) to shows in the NAC theatre and Sitting them front and centre!!! Grrrrrr.” Another complained about the “distracting amount of noise” caused by late-comers being seated in indoor shows.

Karen Oxorn was one of several listeners who noted the disruption from “too much loud camera clicking for too long during performances” by photographers.

The festival's photographer guidelines specifically say that “Photographers may only take photos during loud moments of the performance when clicking sounds will not disturb the musicians and the audience. No photos are permitted during intimate moments of a concert.”

No seats in the house?

At a few NAC concerts – notably Mavis Staples – some bronze (general) pass-holders were turned away and told the hall was full. But Sally Robinson said that she was told by friends inside that there were, in fact, empty seats at the Staples show, even though the line-up outside was told there were none.

“My friend's sister was inside and was texting her, saying there were seats but the jazz festival guy said no, there weren't. Since then, I've heard from others that there were, indeed, empty seats. I know you probably want everyone in by 7:00, but this is crappy. When we buy the pass, we don't know which shows are inside. It would have taken 5 minutes to let everyone in (the last 20 or 30 people) to find seats. This was very badly run by the jazz festival staff.”

Betty Ann Bryanton said there were occasions when volunteers were telling those in the line-up that a hall was full, instead of trying to seat them if spaces freed up.

“There was a male volunteer inside at the NAC that when the line-ups of people went in, right after the venue filled up, he came to the line and told everyone he was sorry, that it was full, and you might not get in. So a lot of people (who weren't familiar with how things really worked) left the line-up. I thought that was really unfortunate and bad advice. Those of us who are regulars know that often there are some people that leave after the 1st or 2nd song because it's not what they expected, so if you wait 5-10 minutes, often you can still get in. E.g., for the Hiromi Duet, there were about 20-30 people left in the line after they let people in, but a bunch of people left on this volunteer's advice. In the end, we ALL got in. As is normal, the seating staff can't tell at the beginning which seats are empty / how many seats are empty but there was actually space for everyone. Too bad he told people they wouldn't get in."

The unusual amount of rain made parts of Confederation Park unpleasant, with a mud track instead of grass in the middle of the park. And the covered tent for Gold Pass holders wasn't immune, either: Oxorn said they had to navigate muddy conditions inside the tent.

Not the shows they wanted?

When asked to compare the 2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival with 2016, listeners weren't very glowing in their praise. 48% of those who responded said it was worse or much worse than last year, 43% said it was about the same, and only 10% said it was better (and none said it was much better).

Most respondents said they didn't find the programming appealing enough. As André Constant said: “Not enough jazz....” Another summed up their dissatisfaction as "Far less jazz in the park; getting in at the NAC venues for jazz shows was sometimes a problem for bronze pass holders and of course the weather!"

“The Confederation Park shows were too much outside the jazz genre - too much pop and country and blues. Was there any jazz? I don't think so. The Discovery Series was too avant garde. Last year's Discovery was great,” was a similar response.

Another listener enjoyed the chamber jazz concerts, for example by David Occhipinti, but had doubts about the jazz creds of many other shows. “Even some I attended with strong jazz musicians were in fact 80%+ blues rock ? (Hudson). Great concert but not sure I'd call it jazz. And many seemed so far from jazz it made no sense. … So it seems possibly inappropriate to call it a jazz festival.”

“ 'Ottawa Jazz Festival' wasn't a jazz festival - it was a 'music festival'. Which is fine too, just don't advertise it as a 'Jazz Festival',” said another unhappy listener.

The music quality of what I was able to attend was well below normal levels. I only found one show that I thought was great; but none that were outstanding, and I usually find several in that category.
– John Wilson

Others weren't impressed with the quality of the main-stage artists. “Not enough jazz (nothing new there) but we though that many of the prime time non-jazz performances we attended at the Main Stage in Confederation Park were inferior to those of previous years - especially St. Paul and Charles Bradley (note that we did not attend the Serena Ryder, Kenny Rogers or Joss Stone concerts or stay for the Downchild Blues Band concert).”

Peter Feldman said he found the programming to be “too similar in spots, e.g. did we really need both The Broken Bones AND Charles Bradley? There were shows I enjoyed immensely: Hudson; Youn Sun Nah; Kandace Springs; Brishen; Brandi Disterheft (although I felt the park was the wrong venue for her); Bill Frisell less so (but he's one of those artists I feel I should hear whenever possible—he's always on to something new). Had fun with the Juliet Singers (even though they were a voice short). I thought "To Ray with Love" was a good tribute show. Really sorry I missed Jacob Collier, and VERY disappointed about the Liberation Music Orchestra cancellation—really looked forward to that one.”

Another listener said that “this is the first year that we have not bought a bronze pass for the festival as there was not that much that interested us. We generally have taken in the smaller indoor venues and so not getting a pass was quite unusual as we have previously always been able to find new and favourite jazz acts in the festival line up.”

John Wilson said he used attend up to 40 shows during a festival. “It started to decrease dramatically when non-jazz hit the festival in a big way. Then this year, by listening to the videos posted on the OIJF site, there was a maximum of 12 shows I wanted to attend, and 2 of them were free ones. As it turned out, various things got in the way and I only made it to 7 (+2 free ones). And the music quality of what I was able to attend was well below normal levels. I only found one show that I thought was great; but none that were outstanding, and I usually find several in that category. I've been attending the festival since '81 or '82, but feel this may be my last year. There are a ton of other great jazz festivals; further away (Merrickville, Toronto, Prince Edward County, Niagara, etc.), but with better quality and better control of the sound levels.”

New venue too far away?

Because of the renovations at the NAC, the Fourth Stage was again not available. The festival moved its Discovery series to La Nouvelle Scène theatre in Lowertown, running a shuttle bus between there and Confederation Park. The change in location wasn't a complete success, although listeners generally liked the theatre as a listening location.

It was just too far away.

“Although I liked going to the new Nouvelle Scène venue and it is a great venue, I hope the Festival doesn't put shows there again,” said Bryanton. “The beauty of having those shows at Fourth Stage or Backstage (last year that's where they all were) was that if you went to another show and didn't like it or couldn't get in, you could easily walk to the Backstage / Fourth Stage and see that show. In fact, when I did that, those shows were often my favourites. But to go to Nouvelle Scène required definitive decision-making and commitment since the shuttle left early and it was too long of a walk to go to late.”

Another listener said they “liked the idea of the La Nouvelle Scène venue but thought that there should have been a separate festival pass for that venue given that it was so far from the main venue to make a bronze pass worthwhile.”

On the positive side, Bryanton appreciated the Festival holding more shows in the NAC Theatre. “Since most jazz shows are inside, and inside typically are smaller venues, a lot of true jazz fans had been turned away from shows in recent years. Using the Theatre meant that people could get into every show - with the exception of Mavis Staples.”

She also liked that the late night tent on Friday and Saturday nights had more upbeat acts suitable for the weekend.

Canada Scene partnership lacked visibility

This year, the National Arts Centre's Canada Scene festival partnered with the Ottawa Jazz Festival to present five Canadian groups in the NAC Back Stage. Some (19%) of the respondents did attend at least one of those shows. However, when we asked about the partnership with Canada Scene, not a single respondent to our survey was aware of it.

The respondents estimated the attendance at those shows from ½ to 2/3 full, except for the Al Muirhead Quartet with Guido Basso – a traditional jazz show – which sold out.

Canadians in Canada's 150th year

When asked if the Ottawa Jazz Festival did provide appropriate opportunity for Canadian jazz musicians to be discovered and heard this year during Canada's 150th birthday, most responded yes. “The Great Canadian Jazz series on the main stage is hugely important,” said David Miller.

“There was quite a lot of Canadian content and I liked how it was highlighted / announced at each show and highlighted on the brochure with the Canadian maple leaf. The Festival should do that each year,” said Betty Ann Bryanton.

And they liked what they heard: “I thought those that were selected acquitted themselves well, overall,” said Peter Feldman. Karen Oxorn said she “discovered some new talent this year”.

Gaby Warren said that, “Of my favourite 6 concerts, 3 were Canadian: Nick Fraser/Kris Davis June 22, Sonoluminescence Trio June 27 and Ellias/Vedady June 25.” He was unable to hear other Canadians musicians because of timing conflicts with other concerts (many of the Canadian shows were at 6 or 6:30 p.m., which conflicted with shows at the NAC and at La Nouvelle Scène).

Another listener felt more could have been done to promote Canadians. "I recognize that in order to pull the crowds you need to make the Festival viable, you have to lean on the Big Name performers and they may not be Canadian. A performer's availability and price also come into the equation. Getting the right mix with all the different factors is a real juggling act. That being said, I think they could have woven in more Canadian acts and not just for this year's 150th celebration. On the other hand, it is billed as the Ottawa International Jazz Festival and has to live up to that name with non-Canadian offerings.”

André Constant suggested the festival could have featured more Québec jazz musicians

Others argued that the festival could have pushed Canadian jazz more, or said that it offered “some but not enough” Canadian content. Another concluded that “judging from the program I would say it did not.”

And in conclusion...

OttawaJazzScene.ca had originally said we would report the listeners' choice for most highly-rated concerts at this year's jazz festival. However, after examining the responses, we concluded we didn't receive a consistently large enough response over all concerts to fairly determine this. Our day-by-day reports, however, do consistently indicate festival shows highly enjoyed by listeners.

There definitely were gems of performances glittering at this year's festival. It's a pity, therefore, that we received so many complaints – unprompted – about sound and logistics. These issues are entirely within the control of the festival (and/or the NAC) to improve.

It was also unfortunate the festival encountered so much rain this year, but this is certainly not the first wet and cool summer Ottawa has encountered in the last 37 years. We can remember sinking into the mud at the T.S. Monk concert at the festival in 1998, another particularly wet year.

This was a first poll of this type for us. It took considerably more time than we anticipated: dozens of hours to design, code, and compile responses, and write reports that accurately and fairly reflected what jazz festival attendees experienced and reported. Our listeners’ many responses were extensive, insightful, and colourful - and made the project a success.

Special thanks to these jazz fans who put their names to their comments for our reports:

André Constant, Betty Ann Bryanton, Chris Halford, Chris Sullivan, Christopher Halford, David Miller, Denis Huppé, Eric Sladic, Gaby Warren, Geoff Zeiss, Helen Spencer, Jean-Marc Mangin, Joan Harrison, John Fysh, John Wilson, Josee Lacroix, Karen Oxorn, Lorne Russell, Michael Lechasseur, Natalya Kuziak, Patricia Stonehouse, Peter Feldman, Pierre Chene, Pierre Hughes, Sally Robinson, Steve Szabo, and Tara Vanderlinden.

The Ottawa Jazz Festival Favourites Poll was open to all who wished to participate and who registered by email. Employees and contractors of the festival were disqualified from participating.

– Alayne McGregor
Poll concept, survey design and coding by Brett Delmage
Poll conducted on Free/Libre survey software LimeSurvey.org on OttawaJazzScene.ca’s Montreal webserver

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Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's other stories about our survey of listeners at the 2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival: