Jazz Capital of Canada?


by Charlene Diehl

“I say JAZZ! You say CAPITAL!” As far back as 2004, music lovers in Winnipeg were getting those instructions from Steve Kirby, a charismatic newcomer to the jazz scene here.

And we raised the roof in our call-and-response, then hooted and laughed and clapped when he declared this city the Jazz Capital of Canada.

Did we believe him? Well, not exactly. It was the extravagance that delighted us, the outlandishness—like a sudden mountain on our resolute plains.

It’s not like we didn’t have jazz in Winnipeg. We were home to a professional jazz orchestra and an annual jazz festival. Mârdi Jazz had been sharing jazz en français every week for years. Ron Paley’s big band had a devoted following, and Papa Mambo was spicing things up with salsa. We had Ron Halldorson and, behind him, the ghost of Lenny Breau. We had our own radio station dedicated to jazz, and Ross Porter was hosting a jazz show on national radio.

But the Jazz Capital of Canada? Here? Us?

Did Steve believe it? Well, yes. Steve is one of those people who is led by his dreams, and he will tell you in a second that you have to be clear about what you want if you’re ever going to achieve it. He could see a lot of jazz here, but to get to the next level, Winnipeg and jazz had to take each other seriously—and for that to happen, we had to step up to the task of dreaming big.

Sometimes we’re at the mercy of our stubborn prairie pride: we don’t want anybody to think we think we’re somebody—but don’t you dare tell us we’re not! Steve has a canny wit. He let us pretend we were somebody, then dared us to tell ourselves we weren’t. He conjured a dream right before our eyes, and we saw that it might actually be possible.

Steve knows something about the importance of dreams. In his teens, when most young musicians are “shedding” on their instruments, Steve had dropped out of school and fallen out with his fractious family, and he was running with rough kids in St Louis. Their lives were shaped by boredom, resentment, and every kind of hunger, and their aspirations—well, they were pretty immediate, and mostly involved drugs, petty theft, and occasional break-ins.

There’s one amazing story about this crew of young delinquents literally breaking into a rehearsal with Oliver Lake, an avant-garde player and a big force in the civil rights movement. From a distance of decades, that one almost looks like divine intervention.

Steve Kirby in performance

Steve Kirby in performance

It’s a convoluted narrative that gets Steve from the St Louis projects to the stages of jazz clubs and concert circuits in Tokyo, Rio, Paris, Istanbul, and New York but dreaming big is at the heart of it. Steve didn’t pick up the bass until he was in his twenties. Two decades later, when he arrived in Winnipeg to take on the Jazz Studies program at U of M, he had established himself in New York as a serious jazz player. He had toured the world with heavyweights like Elvin Jones, Abbey Lincoln, and Steve Turre. He had won prizes for his composition and arranging. He was a busy performer, teacher, and arts advocate.

He was walking proof that taking your dreams to heart can transform your life.

Steve’s dreams sound like jazz. And if you’ve heard him talk or read his editorials in dig! magazine, you’ll have heard his argument that jazz is not a style of music but an approach to making music. It grew out of the confluence of black, white, Spanish, and other cultures in New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century, and was an artistic response, a generous and generative one, to crippling social challenges like segregation, prejudice, bigotry, xenophobia.

It continues to make that statement. With improvisation and collaboration as its lifeblood, jazz demands self-expression (“composition at the speed of conversation,” as Steve puts it) but depends on collaboration. Every time out, it’s about speaking and listening, about finding ways to embrace difference and building something absolutely unique and pertinent to a place and its people.

Jazz is a lesson in community-building. Musicians function as both leaders and followers, responding to the demands of the moment, and they connect with one another across differences in race, language, age, and experience. The music transcends those barriers in audiences as well. (For proof, consider the typical audience at the Wednesday Night Hang!) Success is collective, and it depends on discipline, tolerance, passion, imagination, and shared purpose. And everyone in the room has a chance to benefit from the connection, insight, and energizing joy that accompanies intense creative engagement.

Since its birth just over a century ago, jazz has traveled the globe, and almost every culture has connected with it, and found particular ways of expressing itself through its process. As you’d expect, different regions offer different inflections—West African practitioners have a different sound than their Brazilian or Israeli or Japanese compatriots.

As the dream grows here in this awkwardly cosmopolitan city, we are catching whispers of the accent and cadence of the northern prairie. We are hearing ourselves.

There’s more jazz in this city since Steve Kirby blew in from New York. More venues are presenting jazz. More international visitors are including us on their itineraries. A faculty of internationally-recognized players is putting a whole new generation of musicians through their paces, and the whole city can hear those young musicians enter the big conversation every week at The Hang. Some call it The Kirby Effect, but it’s not really Steve who’s making the difference—it’s the entire community, both players and audiences. We’re excited, we’re demanding, we’re more aware of what’s possible.

Is Winnipeg the Jazz Capital of Canada? Why not? We have everything we need. Including the dream.

In the Pocket

Charlene Diehl

Charlene Diehl is the associate editor of dig! magazine and the director of THIN AIR, Winnipeg’s annual literary festival. Her last book is a memoir, Out of Grief, Singing.