On being ... in a jazz mode

By Ingrid Sapona

A girlfriend who’s a jazz lover invited me to a show at the Toronto Jazz Festival this week. The concert was at the main stage, a huge tent set up on the plaza of City Hall. It was general admission seating, but my friend had been to a performance there earlier in the week so she knew both the lay of the land (or tent, in this case) and “the drill” (when they start letting people in, etc.).

She wanted to get there early for good seats and she knew that once we had seats we could leave to find something to eat. Not being much of a fan of street meat (hot dogs) and other delicacies available from street vendors, I offered to bring a bit of a picnic. Since most concert venues don’t allow you to bring in food (other than whatever they may be selling on site), I packed things we could try smuggling in and that we wouldn’t feel to bad parting with, if confiscated at the door.

I was surprised at how much was going on at City Hall. I hadn’t been to the jazz festival in years and boy has it grown. Besides the main tent there was a huge sound stage with free performances, and lots of kiosks and booths selling everything from CDs and souvenirs, to arts and crafts. There was a decent variety of foods available too. (Oh well, who’d have guessed.) One of the most surprising things was that people were walking around the plaza drinking beer – usually that’s only allowed in cordoned-off, “beer garden” areas. Though the plaza was crowded with people enjoying a warm summer evening, the atmosphere was very relaxed.

While we were waiting in line to get in, festival volunteers came around to tear our tickets and stamp our hands so that we could come and go from the tent. I’ve never been to an event where the ticket-takers come to you in line! This system worked great because when they let us in, the line moved exceptionally quickly since our hands were already stamped. Another noteworthy difference between this and other ticketed events I’ve been to the past few years is that no one was checking purses, knapsacks, etc. Clearly, you could bring in whatever you wanted, so our picnic was safe.

The seats were just plastic bistro chairs, but the rows were nicely spaced and the aisles were wide, so navigating through the tent was easy. Bars were set up at the far ends of the tent and once we found seats, I went to get us something to drink. The selection was decent and the prices were reasonable -- none of the extortionist prices you pay at movies and ball parks. I got us some beverages and headed back to our seats only to notice that I could have saved myself a trip because waitresses were coming around taking orders! How civilized …

During the concert folks sat and enjoyed the music, admiring the skill of the musicians as they took turns riffing off each other. The tent sat 1000, so it wasn’t small, but it felt quite intimate. There were no big screens or fancy light shows to distract you. Looking around it seemed that most everyone was watching the hands of the guitar players, admiring their technique and the speed their fingers moved.

Every now and then a hand would rise above the crowd, periscope-like, as someone took a picture with their cell phone, but they were quick and unobtrusive. A few were braver, scurrying up the aisle to take a quick photo. Unlike at rock concerts where such action might trigger a quick response from a bouncer or security guard -- or at the opera where you aren’t even allowed to take a photo of the inside of the theatre during intermission -- here, no one minded.

Though we were in a tent, the sound was as good as at any stadium or outdoor amphitheatre. And for $30 we sure got a lot of music -- there were three groups that evening and each played for a solid hour and at the end a few of them jammed together for a couple songs.

On the way home I was thinking about how long it’s been since I had such a nice time at an event like this. It’s been a LONG time. I tried to figure out what it was that made it so relaxing and enjoyable. (It wasn’t as simple as having enjoyed the music -- I did, but not all of it. In fact, the last group wasn’t my cup of tea at all, but even that didn’t put a damper on my enjoyment of the evening.)

I think what made the jazz festival so enjoyable was that, for a change, security and commercial concerns didn’t trump the audience’s right to enjoy the evening. I’m sure there was security -- after all, we were at City Hall -- but we didn’t have to suffer through airport-like scrutiny as you usually do at big events. And, though there were a wide variety of corporate sponsors, the festival didn’t have an exclusive food vendor, which meant there was a variety of foods to choose from, not to mention the freedom to bring your own. And there seemed to be a happy medium struck regarding liquor -- it was readily available but not pushed on you (like it is in bars that feature live bands) and if you did imbibe, you weren’t restricted to certain areas.

I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but I think by simply letting folks be, festival organizers put us all in an the easy-going, free-flowing jazz mode. How cool is that?

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


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