Three decades of all that jazz

By Linda Rogers, December 2011

By blending international and local jazz artists in just the right mix, Darryl Mar keeps Victoria’s Jazz scene healthy and interesting.

Where does his passion come from? What made Darryl Mar dedicate his life to jazz, specifically the Victoria Jazz Festival and its musical offspring, the Blues Bash? This is my first question to the executive and artistic director of the Victoria Jazz Society.

Mar spreads his hands over his busy (polite word) office desktop, as if apologizing to his mother for a messy room full of music projects, and explains his provenance.

“My parents loved Big Band music and they danced with one another.” Those were the foot-tapping sounds of his early childhood, memories he transposed to his discovery of jazz in his teenage years under the tutelage of an uncle who introduced him to the sounds of Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis.

What is it about the offspring of parents who dance together and their predilection for harmony? He also tells me that his great-grandfather was an indentured worker on the national railroads. “Could be true,” he agrees when asked if the minor key sounds in his DNA might have led him to jazz, the voices of slaves. 

Whatever the reason, young Mar gave up the safer waters of electrical engineering, his first career choice, in order to swim in the less predictable lane of arts management. His lifetime project, now in its twenty-eighth year, is thriving.

Victoria audiences are notoriously slow off the mark. Despite the amount of local talent, the proliferation of festivals, our own opera company, symphony orchestra, and a number of excellent choirs, not to mention roots music galore, it takes some convincing to put bums in seats and name brands seem to be a necessary, if sometimes fiscally risky, ingredient. How did Mar convince his demographic to take a chance on the art form that requires intellect, soul, and enthusiasm for risk?

“That was the challenge,” he admits, “and it still is. One of my greatest satisfactions is introducing emerging artists, but sometimes new talent is a hard sell. We struggle to get an audience [for them], and three years later the previously unknowns are beyond famous. Then everyone wants to hear them. That never changes.” His goal is to give Victoria audiences the confidence to navigate the firmament themselves.

It was the Victoria Jazz Festival that brought Diana Krall to the attention of the world beyond Nanaimo. Mar, who has introduced many world-class musicians in their fledgling years, is proud of this scouting acuity. 

Development is a key word in the organization, which also brings music to local schools. This year pianist Ashley Wey, whom Mar first heard at Hermann’s when she was 12 years old, is taking her quartet—Leon Nagasaki on guitar, Damian Graham, percussion, and vocalist and bass player Aaron Scoones—to schools to turn students on to the sweet sounds of jazz with concert-and-workshop combos. Of the Jazz in the Schools program, Graham the drummer says, “I think the main benefit for students is to have contact with people who make music for a living, giving them access to how it is done and showing them a positive role model for something that is often regarded as a hobby. We show up and play music to the best of our ability but with an added element of interaction with the students. For instance, we will stop and explain what we just did and the steps we took to be able to do that. I can remember groups coming and performing in my school and it was always a highlight. What is more important than fostering the arts? Doctors save people and artists give people a reason to be alive.”

In its third decade, the Victoria Jazz Society is fully alive in our community. In the beginning, it was the generosity of the Jawl family that gave Mar his start: “They sowed the seeds.” A mutually felicitous association with 100.3 The Q has also guaranteed promotion of the music he loves; and 300-plus volunteers, along with financial support from three levels of government and memberships ($10-40/year) ensure the festival runs smoothly.

In Victoria, we have seen a number of festivals go down due to a combination of burnout and bad management. It’s hard not to notice that the above-mentioned star-grazing is a factor. Big names cost big money, and local talent can be immense but lack the star power to attract a crowd. Yet making festivals top-heavy with the famous can undermine grassroots appeal, not to mention the bottom line.

The secret, which Mar seems to have buried somewhere in his desktop flurry, is in the balance. He applies the engineer’s left-brain decision-making skills to creating a famous/not so famous performer mix that is always exciting and often surprising. It is as important to him to educate his audiences and encourage emerging artists, many of whom have the Victoria Jazz Festival to thank for a first showcase.

This is a life-eating occupation. It could be that Mar relaxes when he relives live musical moments on the golf course, where his scores are never as low as the high moments of musical holes-in-one.

It’s easy to recall the best-evers: Pianist Ellis Marsalis, Dizzie Gillespie with his UN orchestra, Wynton Marsalis, legendary trumpeter and mentor who this year thrilled the band and barflies at The Office by turning up for an instructional jam in the late hours, Krall and John Hammond at Ciccone’s restaurant. The list goes on forever.

“It happens every season,” Mar reports. “There are always big moments.”

“What about this year?” I ask. Mar is about to travel to Montreal to meet with his fellow jazz festival organizers and firm up contracts and group commitments for next summer. “Soon to be announced,” he says. Tickets will go on sale in early December, in time for Christmas. What perfect presents. Darryl Mar’s secret wish list is a spell that transforms his desk from a storm of paper into a perfect snowfall with wrapped Jazz Fest tickets at the centre. 

 

The Victoria Jazz Festival will take place June 22-July 1, 2012. See www.jazzvictoria.ca for info on that as well as its Winter/Spring Concert Series. Laila Biali performs on Jan 25.

Linda Rogers is thankful to Victorians for their enthusiasm for spoken and written word over her tenure as poet laureate. She and Patricia Young are currently on the long list for the Montreal International Prize, the world’s largest award for poetry and should one of them win (announced in December), they will throw a reading/party for the people of Victoria! Other local nominees include Alina Wilson, Iain Higgins, and Gary Geddes.