Preview: Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Festival, 4-8 September

TU Jazz Fest

Next week, Toronto will come alive with a fabulous cacophony of jazz, as this year’s edition of the Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Festival gets underway.  This is a unique opportunity for young musicians to shine, as 28 ensembles headed by young musicians will appear across several venues.

The mission of the Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Festival is a straightforward one: “… to create development opportunities for undergraduates in Ontario; to educate the public in the cultural significance of jazz and the diversity of the genre; and to help recognize and promote individual and collective works of undergraduate students in the Toronto Jazz community.”  Particularly in a business as challenging as music is (and those challenges will likely only increase in coming years), providing these opportunities is a fabulous thing indeed.

But the festival’s work has unfortunately not been without its share of challenges.  This year, unexpected shortages of grants and sponsorships have resulted in a budget shortfall, which the festival’s organizers are attempting to meet via a GoFundMe (you can donate here).  Even amidst the difficulties they’re facing, the festival will go on as planned and people in the GTA can look forward to a tremendous five days of music and workshops.

We’ve recently spoken with two participants in next week’s festival: first, Daniel Stefan of Bassline, which appeared at last year’s festival and will be performing again this year.  Then, we chatted with Juno-winning bassist Mike Downes (who, incidentally, just began work this week as program coordinator of the Bachelor of Music program at Humber College), who will appear as a special guest at the festival.


Daniel Stefan (Bassline)

I believe you performed at last year’s festival – what was the experience like?

The experience was terrific! Playing at The Rex to a full house was a terrific end to the summer, and the energy we got back from the audience really came out in our performance. Definitely one of our favourite shows we’ve played.

How has appearing at the festival and gaining that kind of exposure impacted your band?

Appearing in the festival gave us a new platform to promote our music, and through the marketing efforts of TUJF and ourselves the show was a big success. It has also helped in festival applications because we can show the success we had at TUJF.

For those folks who aren’t familiar with your group, can you describe your sound? It reminds me a lot of some of my favorite music from the 1970s – which I realize dates me but the style really does take me back!

Our sound has influences from a great number of places, we started out with a sound that was similar to James Brown and Maceo Parker, but since then it has evolved with influences from Alan Stone, Vulfpeck, and local Toronto Band KC Roberts and the Live Revolution.

I see some teasers on your Facebook page about new material… any hints you’d like to drop about that possibility?

We recorded and filmed two new tracks that we are looking to release in September. We’ve also done a great deal of writing over the summer and will be debuting some new songs at TUJF. More to come in the future!

What can folks expect from your performance at the festival this year?

They can expect the high energy funky music we work to bring to the audience at every performance. We will be adding fresh material to our set for this performance and we can’t wait to show you guys! See you there!

Bassline will perform on the main stage on Saturday 8 September at 4:30 pm.

Preview and buy their music on Bandcamp.

Mike Downes

Mike Downes

You’re one of the featured artists at this year’s festival – although I think you’re not as actively involved this year as in past years, what are you looking forward to the most?

I’m really looking forward to taking part in the TUJF because it is a unique festival with a meaningful mission. The festival celebrates and gives opportunities to young, upcoming musicians while also featuring established musicians. The mandate is one I fully support and I applaud the fantastic initiative of everyone who has helped put the festival together for 4 years. I’m of course also always thrilled to perform with my trio featuring the incredible talents of Robi Botos and Larnell Lewis.

It seems to me that opportunities like this for young and emerging musicians – chances to perform for large audiences, and also to work with established and experienced musicians – are really important… from your vantage point, would you agree?  If so, in what ways can this kind of experience benefit young musicians?

This is an excellent question and you’ve already made some very important points. First, you can rehearse and practice all you want, but performing for audiences is the best way to develop one’s craft. It’s on stage in front of listeners that you develop the instincts to play what is needed to make the music sound best and to react in the moment. Second, mentoring has always been a huge part of the jazz tradition. Just like “a picture says a thousand words,” learning by mixing upcoming with established musicians creates a great mentoring environment. This applies to the whole experience of booking, running the festival, performing and building outward.

Many of the musicians that we’ve come to know in the time we’ve been writing this blog find the business to be increasingly challenging for a lot of reasons – just to name a few: the lack of equitable compensation for creators with digital streaming, diminished income from physical music sales, and the need to be one’s own marketer, booking agent, and social media expert in addition to actually making music.  I would imagine that these challenges are perhaps greater for jazz musicians in what could be called a ‘niche’ genre – what advice or caution would you give to young musicians just starting their careers?

There is no doubt that the industry has changed and continues to change. There are things that are clearly worse than before, but there are many things that are better. You mention the need to be one’s own marketer, booking agent, social media expert and music maker. That’s true, but it’s also true that opportunities are available to everyone now. In the past, if you didn’t have the support of a label, it was very costly and difficult to get music out there and heard. Now it’s as easy as uploading a video that you can self-produce for a fraction of the cost of what it would have been a number of years ago. It’s also easier to book tours, send packages to festivals, get materials out to press, etc. I used to have to do all of that by mail. I remember hiring a photographer, choosing the right one after printing a bunch, waiting to get the glossy photos printed – a laborious and expensive process that is now as simple as taking a good shot with your phone. The notion of musicians who only needed to focus on their art has always been limited to a very small number, so my advice is to embrace the “business” and “artistic” sides – see it as a holistic approach where both sides help fuel your vision.

The Mike Downes trio will perform at Mel Lastman Square on Friday 7 September at 8 pm.

Visit Mike Downes’ website.

Photo credit: Jeremy Sale


Visit the Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Festival website.


Exposed to the wonders of CBC and Montréal Canadiens hockey as a teenager thanks to a satellite dish in rural Kansas, I have been an unabashed lover of all things Canadian ever since. I am a lifelong collector of esoteric and varied music, a teacher of piano, an avid reader, and a stamp/coin collector. In real life, I work in the field of technology.

Come find me on Goodreads.

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