From ballads to blues, from standards to free improv, from emerging jazz musicians to veterans – listeners heard it all at the second Jazz Ramble on May 25 and 26 at the Record Centre.

Mark Ferguson and Steve Boudreau at the 2018 Jazz Ramble ©Brett Delmage, 2018 ©Brett Delmage, 2018
Mark Ferguson and Steve Boudreau's four-handed tribute to Bill Evans was an audience favourite at the 2018 Jazz Ramble ©Brett Delmage, 2018

And when the Ramble ended on Saturday just before 10 a.m., four of those listeners were still awake, having made it through the entire 24 hours.

This was the second edition of the Ramble (the first was in 2016). From 10 a.m. Friday to 10 a.m. Saturday, it featured 25 local groups, one per hour, plus a drum circle which played between sets on the sidewalk.

The groups were mostly different from two years before, with only three repeating. In addition, more than 25 of the musicians performing this year were not at the previous Ramble.

The event was designed to promote Ottawa's jazz scene and the Ottawa Jazz Festival. The festival awarded a Bronze Pass to each of three fans who stayed to listen to every single act: Tariq Amery, Rob Leger, and Marcia Rodriguez. The fourth was's Brett Delmage, who not only listened throughout but made photos of every group which performed and tweeted every hour.

Both Delmage and Amery had also been “Last Fans Standing” at the 2016 Ramble; for Rodriguez and Leger, this was their first 24-hour jazz marathon. One of the 2016 winners, Martin Roussel, attended some, but not all, of this year's Ramble.

By the end, all four fans looked exhausted and said they were ready to get some sleep, but were still awake enough to remember the music they heard. Leger said he felt great. “We saw a lot of great music, and it was my pleasure to be here for 24 hours.” His favourite group was Ed Lister's Hard Drop Quintet, which “was probably the biggest crowd and it was just a great time.”

Amery, a local jazz musician who gave a midnight show at the Ramble with his own group, had trouble deciding among “so much great music”. He said he particularly enjoyed Rob Frayne's DrumSwamp, the Rakestar Arkestra, and Petr Cancura debuting his new music. Then he remembered even more: “this set that happened right now, the Two Per Cent, a super up-and-coming band. Bumpin' Binary, and Garry Elliott, his trio, it was really nice too. Two pianos, four hands. I don't know – I lost my memory since I haven't slept in 24 hours!”

Would he do it again? “I think so! Next time I'll play three times,” he said, laughing.

Listen to Mark Ferguson explain how he and Steve Boudreau put together their Two Pianos, Four Hands show

Rodriguez wrote her reactions the following day: “Unlike training to run a marathon, there is no way I know of to train for a 24-hour jazz ramble. My expectations did not go beyond hoping to hear a wide range of improvised music, including welcome surprises – and also hoping to remain alert for most of the time. Music I found compelling made it easy to keep eyes and ears open, although there was plenty of drifting off in the small hours, especially when what I was hearing did not always square with my aesthetic tastes. But I am grateful that the ramble gave me the chance to take a chance.”

“For me, the masterly Bill Evans tribute by Mark Ferguson and Steve Boudreau was the highlight. Other performances I found especially enjoyable were Tariq Amery's fiery SAD3, Petr Cancura's showcasing of his most recent compositions, Ed Lister's high-energy Hard Drop 5tet, favourites Bumpin' Binary and Rakestar, as well as some impressive playing from young tenor saxophonist Melissa Brown in The Two Percent.”

Introducing the city to jazz

City Councillor Jeff Leiper, whose Kitchissippi Ward includes the Record Centre and who has been actively advocating for the local music industry on Council, attended the last few hours of the Ramble – and was very positive about its impact.

“Events like these are just so critical to get mainstream interest in our music scene here in Ottawa. We're right on Wellington Street; the door has been open all night. The music is coming out onto the street. This morning I was here probably for 6:30, and just the dog-walkers, the people looking for coffee, the joggers are taking note that there is music on the street. There are bands playing. It's a delightful way to introduce the ward and the city to the music that's happening around them.”

Listen to City Councillor Jeff Leiper give his reactions to the Jazz Ramble

He was impressed with Rob Frayne's DrumSwamp: “it was just delightful, the two saxophones, the drums, spilling out into the street. So many people listening from the sidewalk. It just felt like a real neighbourhood happening.”

“These are some of Ottawa's best musicians. It's incredibly high calibre performances, in such a odd venue.”

Leiper said he hoped that performances in non-traditional locations like the Record Centre would expose people to this music and build the audience base to move into mid-sized music venues, so the musicians can make a better living as professional musicians. Several new mid-sized venues are now being planned, he said. “The problem in Ottawa has been that once you start to establish a real base, you don't necessarily have the venues in which to start establishing really big audiences. I hope the future in Ottawa is to have more reasonable-sized venues.”

Giving local musicians the spotlight

Ottawa Jazz Festival programming director Petr Cancura booked the bands for the Ramble. He said the festival decided to resurrect it this year because of requests from many of the 2016 participants. “They just kept bugging me and bugging me and bugging me. So two years later, let's do it again!”

He said it was important for the festival to organize the Ramble because it focuses on the local scene and gives local jazz musicians a chance to shine. “Although we have a lot of local performers during the festival, I feel like they sometimes get overshadowed. They do, because of the nature of the festival: you make it special, which means you have to invite people from out of town, and they get the spotlight.”

With more time this year (“Last time we decided to do it basically two weeks before”), Cancura said, he was able to take more care in planning. He gave preference to musicians who weren't playing at this year's festival and hadn't played the Ramble before, and tried to represent “all different scenes within the jazz community.” He also consciously tried to involve younger, less-established musicians, including asking high-school student Melissa Brown, who was in the festival's Jazz-Ed program, to form a project.

How should musicians be paid at the Ramble?

Peter Woods holds high the donation hat at the 2018 Jazz Ramble ©Brett Delmage, 2018 ©Brett Delmage, 2018
Peter Woods holds high the donation hat at the 2018 Jazz Ramble ©Brett Delmage, 2018

The musicians who performed at the Ramble were not paid union scale, as is usual for Jazz Festival performances. Instead, they received a festival day pass and T-shirt voucher for each time they played. The store also prominently displayed a donations hat, which several bands emphasized during their performances, and some audience members did put money in it. Cancura also noted that the festival promoted the event to the media, including CBC.

“We try to compensate on that, because we just don't have a budget for actual cash. I wish we did. Honestly, as a musician, that's the hardest thing for me to book this, and I was kind of reluctant to do it until all the musicians came up to me and said, Hey, we want to do it anyway. So that's something in the works. I would love to actually get funding for it. In future hopefully we can.”

The City of Ottawa's recently-adopted music strategy specifies that the City will always pay musicians for performances. When asked about the festival's not paying scale, Leiper said, “It's tough. Clearly it is always best to have artists paid. My approach at the City will always be that anything that is being done by the City should absolutely be paying the artists. I leave it to the artists and the organizers of this festival to determine how they want to do their arrangements, but it's not ideal not to have musicians paid.”

The Ottawa Jazz Festival receives yearly grants from the City of Ottawa: $156,000 in 2017, $155,000 in 2016, and $154,000 in 2015, and similar amounts in previous years.

Building a community

John Thompson, the owner of the Record Centre, was the Ramble's host, and provided seating for listeners among his bins of vinyl records and vintage audio equipment. His manager, Rob Chapman, handled the set-up and sound checks for all 24 bands in the store over the 24 hours, and kept the bands on schedule, as well as recording many of them on the store's vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder. “He barely slept at all,” Thompson said.

Thompson was all smiles at the end of the Ramble. “There were some real high notes there. Ed Lister's Quintet, where the store was just full. You could barely move in here. And it was such a good vibe and people were hootin' and hollerin'.”

“One of the highlights for me personally was when Mark Ferguson and Steve Boudreau played some Bill Evans on the Rhodes and the piano, and they traded off and traded instruments, and they played a lot of stuff from Waltz for Debby, one of my favourite releases.”

He took “a couple” of short naps downstairs in the store, but heard the great majority of the music. “We had a lot of company through the wee hours of the night. The small pieces that happened throughout the night: the solo shows by Linsey Wellman and Julian [Selody] – and Julian, man, did he ever play a nice set!”

Selody was behind the cash, handling ticket and pass sales and hourly draws on behalf of the Ottawa Jazz Festival for much of the 24 hours, but at 4 a.m. he picked up his saxophone and drone app and played a solo set.

Thompson said he's already booked another Jazz Ramble with the jazz festival for 12 months hence. “Petr and I will start emailing soon, we'll block off a weekend, and bang, we're doing it next year.”

Although there were still customers regularly leaving with records under their arms, Thompson said that running the event did make it “more hectic” in the store, and harder for customers to get to the cash. But that didn't worry him.

“The reason we do this – people often say, oh you must lose sales when you do big events like that, and I never even think of that. All the shows we've done and all the events we do, it's never about sales. Because we're playing the bigger picture. Imagine: our store was full of music lovers all weekend, and a lot of these people will come back. So that's good enough for me. We don't have to sell records today. We're building a community, that's what we're doing.”

With files from Brett Delmage.

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