French being this city's official language, the California tourist is liable to suffer mild culture shock facing indecipherable traffic signs, menus or, on a movie marquee, "Cheri, J'ai Reduit Les Enfants" (a.k.a. "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids").
But the one untranslatable word that leaps out downtown this week is jazz . The word is strewn liberally on posters, T-shirts and in the windows of shops hoping to capitalize on the buzz created by the Montreal Jazz Festival, which kicked off on Friday with shows by Ray Charles, Chick Corea and Charlie Haden, in the first of eight special Haden concerts scheduled before the festival closes on Sunday.
Now in its 10th year, the Montreal festival has grown into one of the best known jazz fests in the world, rivaling European festivals in both star power and commitment to the musical art form. About 750,000 people are expected to attend some part of the festival.
While much of the festival lineup takes place indoors, the 10-day festival is also very much a benign intrusion on daily lives of Greater Montreal's 2.8 million inhabitants. Several blocks--major thoroughfares--have been closed off and lined with multiple stages, where a steady roster of Canadian jazz musicians perform free for the public.
Massive crowds wander the streets between the Meridien Hotel, on one end, and the St. Denis district on the other. On Saturday night, one could take a 10-minute walk from the Meridien--the official festival hotel--to the University of Quebec in Montreal and hear a Dixieland band on the corner doing "Hello, Dolly!", the Canadian group Voice Trek offering four-part harmony on the theme of "A Child Is Born," on down to the university where the group Bass Desires puts on a rare, standing-room-only show into the wee hours. Later still, veteran Canadian guitarist Amos Garrett and the Eh! Team could be heard dishing out New Orleansish R&B; at the Spectrum.
The key to the festival's success seems to be its juggling act, between appealing to the public at large and to the select jazz crowd. Tonight's highlight for instance will be Pat Metheny's free outdoor concert on the avenue fronting McGill College. The fusion guitarist has been one of the festival's most avid supporters through the years.
Festival promoters expect up to 100,000 people for tonight's show.
"It's the first time people are going to take possession of this avenue in Montreal," says festival president and co-founder Alain Simard.
Simard and Andre Menard are Montreal promoters who started the festival in 1980, with the idea of increasing the profile of jazz in the city and, of course, selling tickets.
"The good thing was that we never attended many jazz festivals," Simard says in the clamor of the press office. "We didn't know how to do it. We just invented what a jazz festival should be.
"I found that many festivals put acts on the same stage. It can be frustrating for the acts and the crowds, too. We programmed this like a film festival. Now, it's growing quite big, and it's frustrating in another way: You cannot see everything."
The festival has evolved steadily as word-of-mouth spread and as the city grew more and more accommodating to the event. Still, ends haven't always met. In 1986, the festival reached a financial crisis point; seeing red, Simard and Menard announced that it would be the final festival.
"Then, the government changed," says Simard, "and we got corporate sponsors. We didn't realize how much people valued the festival. People wanted to raise money to help us survive. Since then, we've been more motivated and are more confident in ourselves."
Although the Canadian government is known for generous arts subsidies (as compared to the United States, in any case), only 10% of the festival's $5-million budget comes from government grants. The rest is either culled from private sponsors or from public revenues. More tangible support comes in the form of official cooperation.
The city government approved the placement of a giant 250-foot by 80-foot inflatable roof structure over the central artery of Rue Jeanne-Mance. (The structure--across from the Meridien--provides shelter for a large stage and 5,000 people.) Also, a special temporary jazz radio station has taken to the air waves, courtesy of the CTRC (the Canadian equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission).
"I guess you cannot do something like this in every city," reasons Simard. "In Chicago or New York, you would have some problems. Montreal is a small city. It's peaceful," he pauses, then laughs. "It's French."
Apart from keeping the locals happy, the Montreal festival likes to take chances in programming. "If you look at the whole programming every year, it's very eclectic," comments Simard. "We don't have a dogmatic concept of jazz, but we do try to have it in all of its forms and related forms, in sufficient quantity to please everybody."
And there is plenty of sure-fire, mainstream fare offered--the Marsalises (Wynton, Branford, and father Ellis), Michel Petrucciani, Montreal's own Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, John McLaughlin, Tony Williams and others.
But one bit of risky business this year is the eight-concert Haden homage. Haden, the seasoned bassist who has lived in Los Angeles for the past decade but often makes a bigger impact elsewhere in the jazz world, is playing with a diverse bunch, including Metheny, Don Cherry, Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra and with pianist Paul Bley. Haden hasn't played with Bley (himself a Montreal native) since they worked together in Los Angeles in 1959.
The homage was the brainchild of Menard, a longtime Haden fan. Over lunch at a vegetarian restaurant downtown, Haden was ebullient about the opportunity "(Menard) is enabling me to play with some of my favorite musicians--live instead of on recordings. I'm looking forward to playing every night."
The Montreal fest seems to be a favorite landing spot for many jazz musicians who hit the festival circuit every summer. Guitarist John Scofield sang its praises on Sunday, in the hotel lobby the morning after he performed with his own trio and with Bass Desires. "It may well be the best festival in North America. The JVC (Festival in New York) is big, but it's very spread out compared to this one."
Native son Bley, as quoted in the program book, pays a more pragmatic tribute: "All I can say is, if it helps to take the autos off a few more streets in Montreal, then I'm all for it."