I have never been to New Orleans. This is beside the point, because there is a culturally constructed image of what that Southern belle must look like.
I imagine that if one is truly in New Orleans then they will inevitably be seen sipping sultry cocktails (like mint juleps) at a long oak-paneled bar in a gaudy oak-paneled room replete with oversized chandeliers but dim lighting, with some Dixie pumping out the bells of a ten-piece ragtag band. Maybe I’m wearing a plaid sports coat and conjuring up the next great Southern Gothic novel, a la William Faulkner.
As fate would have it, I found myself in one such (unfortunate) place a fortnight ago (I figure invoking the old South requires a bit of linguistic archaism, no?).
Sent by The Daily to review a local Montreal jazz artist, I hesitantly entered the heavy doors at the base of one of the faceless corporate towers on Union. This actually took considerable effort, as the doors seem to manifest an underlying desire of the place to keep the outside world out.
Fittingly enough, the place, La Maison du Jazz, is caught like a fly in amber between visions of a society house and a gawdy bordello. Here I am, a little old-fashioned music journalist just tryin’ to get by.
Beyond the low rumble of the leftovers from the cinq-à-sept crowd, I hear a piano player begin to trinkle out the melody of Coltrane’s “Minor Blues” from an old baby grand on the sunken stage. There are pictures of Montreal jazz greats airbrushed into the wooden bar I’m leaning against.
Above the trio trying to form a warm-up groove from nothing, the sounds of 1950s Oscar Peterson and his trio boppin’ away filter through the speakers, which are conspicuously smaller than aforementioned chandeliers.
And yet of all the jazz joints I had to stumble into, why’d there have to be such an uncomfortably overreaching jazz singer in this one? Like anything campy, it’s just too much. As a service to the artist’s humble intentions, I’ll refrain from giving her bad press by referring to her by name.
She starts off, “Here’s a soul tune,” as if that meant she would actually sing soul. What followed was her version of “It ain’t necessarily so,” but all that you need to know is that it “wasn’t necessarily soul.” It also wasn’t in tune, the rhythm section’s timing was halfway between Greenwich Mean and Pacific, and all the arm flailing and facial contortions in the world wouldn’t convince me that this music was compelling, let alone real soul, or real jazz.
Like the tourist trap that it is, The House of Jazz offers a stylized version of something great and unique and inadvertently turns it into a mockery of itself. Indeed, Montreal has a thriving, cutting-edge jazz and underground scene, but it remains just that: underground. There are several reasons for this.
First off, the most publicized events and venues aim to be something other than what they are. Besides La Maison du Jazz (which few Montreal or visiting jazz artists take seriously), there is Upstairs, a small and cozy jazz bar near the debauchery that is Crescent Street. At Upstairs one can find some truly sensational acts, established and up-and-coming. In fact, Upstairs is doing many things right, including opening up the stage weekly to McGill and Concordia jazz combos, who must prove they’ve got chops before a rotating panel of “combo cops.” Though the venue succeeds on many levels, sometimes I wish Upstairs would stop playing itself off as an overpriced New York-style venue (like the incriminating pizza equivalent, “New York-style”) rather than playing up its status as one of the best profitable jazz venues in town.
This is the problem with kitsch: you take a thing worthy of reverence and shape it into a cheap souvenir of itself.
House of Jazz is at 2060 Aylmer; Upstairs is at 1254 Mackay. Both have shows every night.