How Montreal’s Love Affair With Jazz Dates Back to the 1920s

The Montreal International Jazz Festival is the largest one of its kind in the world
The Montreal International Jazz Festival is the largest one of its kind in the world | © Charles Knox / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Tess Boissonneault
28 August 2020

Home to the world-famous International Jazz Festival, Montreal, in Canada, has a relationship with jazz music dating back to the Roaring Twenties. Culture Trip explores the connection between the Quebec city and this music genre.

Montreal’s jazz story begins in the 1920s, in the Jazz Age itself. With the prohibition of alcohol enforced across the United States (and much of Canada), Montreal became something of a nightlife haven. As one of the only places in North America where liquor was legal, people from across the continent headed to the city for booze, parties, gambling and entertainment. These circumstances fostered a fertile environment for music, especially the hottest genre of the era: jazz. Throughout the Roaring Twenties, Montreal welcomed many world-class jazz musicians to play for eager audiences.

Montreal’s reputation as a jazz hub did not end with Prohibition, however. Throughout the following decades, jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday frequented the French-Canadian city, delighting audiences with their affecting tunes. Many of these jazz pioneers took the stage at Café St-Michel and Rockhead’s Paradise, the first nightclub in Canada owned by a Black person, Rufus Rockhead.

These renowned venues, which are sadly now closed, hosted not only international jazz musicians but also local talent. Arguably the most famous jazz musician to come from Montreal was Oscar Peterson, a son of Caribbean immigrants who grew up in the city’s historically Black neighborhood of Little Burgundy. Peterson was an influential jazz pianist from a young age and, along with other Montreal-based jazz icons such as Oliver Jones and Maynard Ferguson, cemented the affinity between the city and jazz.

Oscar Peterson (piano) is, hands down, the most famous jazz musician from Montreal | | © BNA Photographic / Alamy Stock Photo

In more recent decades, Montreal’s reputation as a jazz city has most certainly endured. Early each summer, the city hosts the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, the world’s largest jazz festival. The series of concerts brings together people from all over the globe to appreciate and discover not only jazz music (and adjacent genres) but also the city in which jazz has flourished for a century.

Of course, the International Jazz Festival is not the only occasion to see live jazz: Montreal is also home to many popular jazz clubs, which showcase touring artists and local sounds. Though Rockhead’s Paradise may have shuttered back in the 1970s, you can still jive to an amazing set at Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill in Downtown Montreal, the lively House of Jazz in Laval (regrettably, the original House of Jazz closed in 2020), the bustling Bistro à Jojo or Mile End’s intimate Résonance Café.

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