View selected photos from past Ottawa Jazz festival jam sessions

Update May 21, 2013: The jams will be hosted by the AlphaSoul Café. Read the full story.

Update May 14, 2013: The Ottawa Jazz Festival tweeted this morning that it had found a venue for the late-night jams. "Band and more information to be announced shortly!"

Local jazz fans and musicians are urging the Ottawa Jazz Festival not to cancel its late-night jam sessions.

The jams have been in limbo for the last five months, and festival programming director Petr Cancura said they will not go ahead unless a sponsor is found for them.

Jammers and fans listen to percussionist Nick Fraser at an Ottawa Jazz Festival jam session.  ©Brett Delmage, 2005
Jammers and fans listen to percussionist Nick Fraser at an Ottawa Jazz Festival jam session. ©Brett Delmage, 2005

“Basically we're looking for partners, and we're looking for venues, and it's hard because it's a sponsorship-partnership and the sponsorship deals with the hotels are constantly changing. ... Our sponsorship person is looking into that and working hard. Honestly, I keep bugging her every other day. I'm like, 'So what's happening? What's happening?' She's like, 'Working on it, working hard.' So that's all I can say.”

For the last two years, the jams were held at ARC The Hotel on Slater Street, close to Confederation Park. At its launch on Wednesday, the festival announced that ARC was back as a sponsor providing lodging for musicians, but had no announcements on the jams.

“We just don't know yet. There's a few talks, but we don't know,” Cancura said. He said he hoped to have news within the next two weeks.

Local jazz fans and musicians are arguing the festival should not be dropping the jams.

Ottawa drummer and jazz fan Rick Pearlman wrote to Cancura after the festival launch, saying “I think the jam sessions are of fundamental importance to the festival and hope that they will continue, as they help set the OIJF apart from many of the other festivals.” He said one of the reasons he has supported the festival for many years is the jam sessions.

He talked about seeing Joshua Redman and Jeff Ballard play at the final Ottawa jam session a few years ago – in which Nick Fraser and Ballard switched places on drums in the middle of a tune, without losing a beat! “That jam, and many others before, and since, have had some amazingly exciting moments that were often highlights of the festival, appreciated by the crowd and the musicians themselves.”

On Facebook, Pearlman urged other jazz fans to write to the Festival supporting the jams.

Jazz fan and longtime festival volunteer Gaby Warren told OttawaJazzScene,ca at the launch that “well-run jam sessions are an essential part of any good jazz festival, and this has always been one of the main features of the Ottawa Jazz Festival. I always appreciated the quality of the John Geggie Trio, and very often I would just show up at the end of a hectic day and take in the opening set by the trio and unwind in a very sophisticated way from the rest of the music I was hearing. I hope there will be some way for the jam sessions to continue.”

Ottawa jazz bassist Tom Denison wrote Festival executive producer Catherine O'Grady, telling her “it would be a real shame to exclude a jam session where patrons and musicians alike can experience, UP CLOSE the excitement, the interaction and musical communication this type of music has to offer.”

O'Grady replied to Denison on April 14, saying the festival was looking for $12,000 in sponsorship to cover the cost of the jams: “artists fees, room rental, backline rental, front of house technician”. She said that “since the majority of attendees are regular park attendees who pay nothing for entry, we simply couldn’t afford it anymore.”

The festival ran a $28,913 deficit in 2012. It made profits ranging from $159,352 to $270,363 in three of the last five years.

It spent $922,380 in 2012 on musicians' fees and other programming costs, and $434,192 on facility and equipment costs. The only substantial increase in expenses in 2012 over 2011 was for festival staff wages and contract services (not including musicians), up 32% to $470,002.

John Geggie and Nancy Walker have anchored the jams for 12 years ©Brett Delmage, 2004
John Geggie and Nancy Walker have anchored the jams for 12 years ©Brett Delmage, 2004
Jam sessions have been part of the festival at least as far back as 1987, at locations ranging from various downtown hotels to Elgin Street clubs. They attracted musicians – visiting, local, and students from the festival's Youth Summit – to play in a wide variety of combinations, with a house band to provide backing and continuity for the music. Jams started about 10:30 in the evening, and continued until somewhere between 1 and 2:30 in the morning, depending on the energy in the room and who showed up to play.

Festival passes (Gold: $299 in 2013, Bronze: $185, Youth:$85) have included entry to the jam sessions; individual day tickets have not. Listeners could also pay $10 an evening to attend the jams. Although the festival has actively promoted pass sales since December, it did not disclose that the long-running jam sessions might not go ahead.

Bassist John Geggie, who has coordinated the jams and led the house band for the last 12 years, said he was told by the Festival in November that the jam sessions were “one of the things they were going to be cutting” for what he understood were financial reasons. He was informed that the sessions would be reinstated if the festival found a sponsor for them.

Ottawa pianist, trombonist, and composer Mark Ferguson coordinated the jams for two years in the 1990s. He told that it would be a shame to lose the jams. “I understand financially why they don't feel they can keep them going, but it would really be a shame. I don't know of any of the big jazz festivals that don't have a hang after where people come and just hang out.”

“We used to get a lot of regulars: I could see them every night. They were always watching the door to see who might walk in. The musicians who played the main stage didn't always … at that point they wanted to sit, have a beer, relax, because they were going to be flying out the next morning at 6 in the morning. But I know a lot of them sat in, too. I remember I saw Wynton Marsalis there, I saw Joshua Redman. A lot of great players.”

Lucas Haneman jamming at the festival  ©Brett Delmage, 2008
Lucas Haneman jamming at the festival ©Brett Delmage, 2008
Ottawa guitarist Lucas Haneman started playing in the jams as a high school and then university student. For several years, he was a member of the festival's Galaxie Youth All-Star Ensemble, and found the jam sessions "extremely encouraging" while in the All-Stars.

"I have continued to learn a great deal about soloing, comping, and how to simply be a good and respectful musician through my years of experience at the Ottawa jazz festival jams. I think that for any young musicians having the honour of sharing the stage with living legends like Nancy, John and Nick is a privilege and perhaps the best form of jazz education out there."

Denison said he had attended the jams and sat in on many of the sessions over many years. “I always had feeling along with many other musicians and fans alike, that this event is highly successful. The place was filled almost every night. It was a great opportunity for younger musicians to hang out and jam with the greats and other seasoned pros.”

Pearlman said the jams gave “local musicians and local music lovers the opportunity to hear some spectacular improvised music. It gives us the chance to hang with people/musicians, from out of town and develop relationships. It gives the local musicians a chance to perform with world-class musicians, enabling us to learn and grow musically. And, quite simply, the jams often have some of the best musicians in the world playing in an intimate 'up close and personal' setting, often in groups that you will never see/hear in public. The music, the excitement, the experience is special and often magical.

“I remember [drummer] Matt Wilson coming to town a few years back. He had a duo gig with Ron Miles and he also had a gig with his Arts and Crafts band. We hung out at the bar for a couple of hours, during the jam session.

“Now, the average person might think of Matt's 'character' as this guy with an amazing sense of humor who is often creative and constantly craving attention. What I found was a very modest, down to earth guy, who simply loves music and the people he performs with and performs for.

“I'll also never forget that night because of Matt's performance during the jam. John invited him up to play with some other great musicians. It was the type of tune where Matt could have easily played very aggressively with flurries of activity but he didn't. What he did do was play with an enormous amount of restraint, tenderness, and good taste.

Listeners stand in a jammed jam, watching Gord Webster play  ©Brett Delmage
Listeners stand in a jammed jam, watching Gord Webster play ©Brett Delmage
“You would think a 'marquee' musician would want to burn, but 'no'. He played what was called for to serve the music best and he kept his playing, his trading (4s) simple and tasteful. For any musician in the audience, on stage, and for the audience, this was special, as we got to see/hear one of the finest musicians in the world playing with no ego, but simply serving the music. He showed everyone what it's like to listen to the music, be in the moment, and play no more than what was required and appropriate. The expression is he showed us that he has enormously 'big ears'. This memory, like the Josh Redman/Jeff Ballard jam memory, is something I will always have.”

Warren said that, “In earlier years when I was younger, no matter how much music I took in during the day and evening, I would not only attend pretty well all the jam sessions but I would actually stay afterwards chatting with the musicians and then very often on very little sleep as a member of the [festival] Transport Committee have to drive musicians to the airport. How I never had an accident I still don't know! But as the years have gone on, I'd say that I probably limited myself to four or five of the jam sessions.”

Pearlman said that “There were many years where I didn't attend a single Main Stage show, as I was more interested in the peripheral stages and the jams. There were many years where I didn't go to any of the shows on a particular day, but went to the jam that night.” editors generally attended only the less popular jam nights in the last few years, but still found the ARC The Hotel jam room to be full of both musicians and listeners.

If the jams are reinstated, Cancura said the location might change, “depending on the deals with the hotels”. Before ARC the Hotel, the Delta Ottawa City Centre on Lyon Street hosted the jams. They were preceded by the Holiday Inn on Cooper Street (formerly the Ramada), which was the jam session site for many years.

In her message to Denison, O'Grady said that, “We are continuing to look for a host who has money and we will pursue until the last possible moment, and if we find somebody, then absolutely we’ll have jamming this year. Likely not with Geggie because he has had to make other plans."

    – Alayne McGregor left messages with Ottawa Jazz Festival Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady several times over the last month to get more information for this story. She did not return our calls.

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