Music lovers packed the Quartier des Spectacles on Thursday night, where Montreal’s international jazz festival – a summer staple in the city – got off to a serious start after two toned-down, pandemic editions.
More than 350 artists will perform in indoor and outdoor concerts — two-thirds of which are free — from now through July 9, kicking off the city’s first proper festival season in two years.
But music isn’t the only thing hanging in the air these days. Quebec public health officials have asked people to remain vigilant as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations increase due to the emergence of new, more easily transmissible Omicron sub-variants in the province.
As a resurgence of the virus threatens to dampen the festivities, the jazz fest organizers say they are optimistic about the situation and happy to bring 10 days of music and culture to Montrealers this year.
“We are super, super, super enthusiastic,” says Maurin Auxemery, program director of the festival. “This festival belongs to the people of Montreal, of the city.”
Due to pandemic restrictions, the festival was reduced to a shortened concert series over a five-day period last September. In 2020, there was a series of concerts streamed online, but no in-person events.
This year’s lineup consists of several big names, including American hip-hop band The Roots who will close the festival on July 9 with a free outdoor show. Saxophonist Kamasi Washington, rapper Joey Bada$$, blues rock band Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats are among the other headliners.
“It will be a very good edition this year,” said Auxemery. He said organizers are closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation.
“We will be very careful with what the government is going to tell us, if there are new restrictions and so on.”
Happy to be back, some with masks
Despite the increase in COVID-19 numbers, the government said it has no plans to reintroduce mask measures or public health restrictions.
“We are not there and we are not moving in that direction,” said public health director Dr Luc Boileau at a news conference on Wednesday.
However, he encourages people to wear masks at indoor gatherings and at crowded outdoor events, especially those in at-risk groups. He said those at higher risk should also consider getting a booster shot, if they haven’t already.
That made the decision to travel from Albany, NY to attend the Montreal Jazz Festival so easy for Charles Touhey.
“Don’t worry…I’ve got my booster shot,” he said, excited to attend the festival for the first time.
“It’s fantastic … you can feel the energy of the crowd and just the vibe of the people here and the music is spectacular,” he said.
Festival-goer Jason Chatman, who came from Halifax to attend the festival for the third time, said it’s liberating to be back alive among the crowds outside.
“It’s weird not wearing a mask, but at the same time it feels great,” he said, adding that he will be wearing one in the near future.
Daniella Gerstmann is also happy to be back at the jazz festival, but when she attends indoor concerts, she also starts to mask herself.
“I know it’s up to individuals to decide [to wear a mask]so it doesn’t feel like the safest option,” she said.
“I think if I was vulnerable I wouldn’t come, so I don’t know if it’s the most responsible way.”
Alice Green, for her part, said she is ecstatic to be back at the festival.
“It’s so great to see everyone outside and enjoy it, so I’m absolutely thrilled to be here,” she said.
She acknowledged the increase in COVID-19 cases in the province and said she is “very aware” that we have not yet reached the end of the pandemic.
†[It’s] sad to hear because I think everyone is tired of it, they want to be free again, but I realize it will be a while,” she said.
“But I hope more and more people get vaccinated, so hopefully this will pass.”