Beaches Jazz Fest hits quarter century milestone

Twenty-five years ago, the mover and the shaker behind the Beaches International Jazz Festival took a look at Kew Gardens and tapped the same idea – a summer music fest with real swing.

Rob Christian, left, digs a riff by bandleader Quincy Bullen, centre, while Saya Gray plays bass at the Beaches International Jazz Festival Streetfest on July 25. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Rob Christian, left, digs a riff by bandleader Quincy Bullen, centre, while Saya Gray plays bass at the Beaches International Jazz Festival Streetfest on July 25.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Even in year one, 1989, what was then a two-day festival drew some 10,000 people.

By this Sunday, a crowd 50 times that big bopped down to the Beach to hear free stage and street shows by more than 800 musicians playing in 123 different bands.

“It’s one of the main North American festivals that you want to perform at,” says festival producer Lido Chilleli.

Such numbers were sky-high in 1988, when Chilleli planned to move the small set of Sunday and Monday night regulars who played jazz at his bar, Lido’s on the Beach, to a festival in the Kew Gardens bandshell that looked so inviting just a block away and down by the water.

For artistic director Bill King, a chance encounter with Rosemary Galloway’s Sisters of Swing is what made the Kew Gardens idea sing. King, then a jazz radio host, just happened to hear the band play at Kew Gardens while riding his bicycle east along the lakeshore, having been asked to find the site for a new jazz festival sponsored by Amstel Beer.

The small green stage needed work, but King felt Kew Gardens was the perfect spot. He felt doubly sure a short time later, when Chilleli called and asked if he would like to book and emcee the jazz festival that he was planning there.

Looking back, King says he thinks what gave the Beaches jazz festival kick from day one was its diversity.

Unable to pull in big marquee acts right away, they looked for rising talents, world music and, uncommonly for the time, a lot of female instrumentalists.

“Back then, that just wasn’t happening,” he said, noting that besides singers and ensemble players, women were pretty much shut out of jazz. “It was basically a men’s night.”

Today, women musicians play in all parts of the festival, he said. For guitarists like Donna Grantis, who once played the festival with Shakura S’aida and King’s own Rhythm Express, the old boundaries have shifted.

“She’s Prince’s guitar player – that’s where she’s at now.”

Around year four or five, King said the festival also got a big boost when it started booking more Latin bands, including some from Puerto Rico.

“That just all of a sudden turned the park upside-down,” he said. “People went crazy because they’d never heard a band with all those horns and brass in the city. They would have had it maybe in a Latin club, but it wasn’t out where it was accessible.”

For his part, Chilleli said 1995 stands out as a watershed year in the festival’s history. For the first time, it had grown big enough to warrant closing part of Queen Street to cars – that’s how many people had been dancing off the sidewalks the year before, he said.

At first, Chilleli had planned only to book bands for the Queen Street bars and restaurants, but he soon changed his mind.

“We said, ‘You know what? We should just open it up to everyone on Queen Street.’”

Soon, they were booking street shows everywhere from dental offices to barber shops.

“It’s the Beaches community,” said Chilleli. “That was the heart and soul, and that’s why the festival has grown and is what it is today.”

King agrees. In an era when Canadian jazz has fewer names the likes of Jeff Healey, Peter Appleyard or Doug Riley, the Beaches International Jazz Festival also continues to thrive because it highlights local and young talents like Selena Evangeline or JP Saxe, and delves in new musical directions like this year’s Trinidad and Tobago Stage at Woodbine Park.

“We started mixing it up long ago,” King said. “We’ve always been a portal for new things.”

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