MONTREAL — "I have to say," George Wein told his audience at the Theatre St. Denis, "that this is one of the truly great festivals in the world today."
Self-congratulation? An ego trip on the part of the veteran producer who brought us the New York, Newport, Playboy, Nice and scores of other festivals around the world?
On the contrary. Wein, a man who welcomes competition, has nothing to do with the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. He is here wearing his other hat, simply playing piano and leading his Newport All-Stars, a seven-piece swing band.
His assessment of the 10 days that shook this city is well grounded in fact. No other event has the special advantages one finds here. Imagine, if you can, an area from Vine Street to Highland Avenue and from Hollywood Boulevard to Selma Avenue blocked off to vehicular traffic; tens of thousands of fans milling around in the streets, listening to concerts on sidewalk bandstands or visiting one of several theaters in the area given over to performances by world-class names.
That is the counterpart for what happens here. From noon to midnight daily, close to a thousand musicians have taken part in about 150 indoor paid concerts or free outdoor events.
In New York, you get a series of concerts; here you have a happening. Add to this the bilingual ambiance, the Francophones (as they call themselves) mingling amicably with the Anglophones; toss in a musical cast that involves hundreds of Americans, hundreds of Canadians, dozens more from France, Scandinavia and all over Europe (among them the Soviet pianist Leonid Chizhik), and you have a heady mixture, with only one problem: This time around, the eighth year of the festival, it rained off and on for several days, forcing postponement of many outdoor concerts.
Most of the heavy action took place in the theaters, with the inevitable conflicts of overlap: If you wanted to catch the estimable Canadian pianist Oliver Jones and his quartet, you had to pass up Dave Brubeck with the Montreal Symphony. If you hadn't heard the unique, veiled voice of Helen Merrill lately, you caught her at the Spectrum (a large cabaret-style theater) and missed the Joe Williams show.
Having arrived late (Montreal's first three days are always New York's closing weekend), I missed Dexter Gordon with his " 'Round Midnight" group, Gil Evans' band and others; yet it was possible to be exposed in rapid succession to more important attractions, known and unknown, than can normally be found within such a compact, controlled area. (There are eight main concert halls, all within a five-minute bus ride and most within walking distance of one another.)
The Montreal talent roster often duplicated New York's: McCoy Tyner, Ella Fitzgerald, Diane Schuur, Mel Lewis, Wynton Marsalis, John Scofield and others played both cities. Far more, however, were presented in one or the other, and the Canadians were exclusively heard here.
Oliver Jones is a strangely late bloomer. Born here in 1934, he studied with the classical piano teacher Daisy Peterson, Oscar's sister, but resigned himself to a career of Top 40 and pop jobs, accompanying a Jamaican singer and living in Puerto Rico for 16 years. Not until he settled back in Montreal in 1980 was he persuaded that he could make a living playing jazz.
Though stylistically unlike Oscar Peterson, Jones shares his immense capacity for swinging and for harmonic finesse. The group he led could have been called the Trans-Canada Quartet, since he and the phenomenal bassist Michel Donato are Montrealers, while the Getz-like tenor saxophonist Fraser MacPherson and the guitarist Oliver Gannon are Vancouver-based.
Making up for lost time, Jones has toured Europe and Japan, drew warm reviews in New York, but has yet to play Los Angeles. He is certain to be established soon as Canada's greatest gift to jazz since Peterson himself. Man for man, the quartet he led here, at a University of Quebec auditorium, was uniformly impeccable.
The enthusiasm shown for Jones contrasted poignantly with the reaction, in the same hall the previous evening, to Phineas Newborn Jr. Once hailed as second only to Peterson, the Memphis pianist has suffered many years of emotional illness. On this occasion, he was less than a shadow of his early self; it seemed painful for him to reach for a chord, as if he were climbing up a staircase in the dark. Flashes of his old genius were aborted after a few moments; he stumbled through several numbers at a dirge-like pace, rarely even setting a tempo. The audience began walking out. After less than 40 minutes, Newborn called it a night. For anyone who knew and revered him in the 1960s, this was an agonizing experience.