Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Festival Preview Part 2: Interview With Festival President David M.J. Lee

TUJF 2018

Last week we featured conversations with Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Festival performers Bassline and Mike Downes; for this second part of our festival preview, we spoke with festival president David M.J. Lee about this year’s event (taking place 4-8 September in Toronto).

For those folks who may not be familiar with the festival, can you tell us a bit about it, and why people should be passionate about this event in particular?

The Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Festival (TUJF) is a non-profit organization that creates developmental opportunities for young, emerging musicians in North America. Our annual festival, “T.U. Jazz Fest,” promotes the talent of these fresh musicians, giving them opportunities to showcase their talent, learn, and network. With up to 78% of student musicians being unable to pursue music as a full-time career due to lack of opportunities, TUJF wishes to be a starting point to fill this gap.

Hosting 5 outdoor stages, free masterclasses along with local food markets preparing mouth-watering treats, this festival provides a platform for jazz musicians from all over North America to perform together with Grammy & JUNO award winning artists across the continent. T.U. Jazz Fest is the first initiative in Canada to mainly feature young musicians.

I’ve unfortunately not yet had the chance to attend the festival myself (and also sadly, I won’t be able to make it to Toronto for it this year, but it’s definitely on my radar for next year) but I absolutely love the concept of giving young and emerging musicians an opportunity to perform in this kind of context. What impact can an opportunity like this have on the careers of the musicians who are chosen to perform?

Every year, more than 100 young bands submit their songs to get a chance to perform; this year, we have received submissions from over 120 bands from all over Canada, North America, as well as a few from Asia and Europe. I think it’s not only because they have no such opportunity, but that they have the options to extend their limits through this festival. First of all, we invite as many industrial leaders as possible to the event every year and for them, the festival is a platform where they can meet future celebrities relating to jazz and music.

Since this festival not only gives an opportunity of showcasing but also networking and learning, young musicians will be fully benefited by being at the festival.

A few months ago, we had a conversation with some female jazz musicians about the challenges they face not only as jazz musicians in general but also as female musicians in particular. I’m happy to see several female-led ensembles announced so far in your lineup… when you are programming this kind of event, how do you assemble a lineup with an eye to diversity and equality of opportunity?

This year, the following female-led ensembles will be performing at our festival:

  • Megan Jutting Sextet
  • The Caity Gyorgy Quartet
  • Sophia Smith Quartet

It’s all in the music to be honest, we pick them only based on what they send us without knowing they are female-led or male-led. What we hear, we don’t really know who’s behind it until the selections are finalized (artists auditioning are kept anonymous to judges), so it’s all on them regardless of any sort of diversity involved. That I believe may be the purest form of equality when providing the opportunity. But I’m really glad to know as much as you are that women are also making progress in the field of jazz music. Sophia Smith Quartet and The Caity Gyorgy Quartet showcase at our indoor special stages, The Frog: Firkin Pub and Jazz Bistro, audiences will get to know them more closely.

I’m sure you’re excited about all the artists performing this year but are there any in particular that you’d like to highlight for folks?

Well, it’s a hard decision to make so I’d recommend four for now instead:

  • Mike Downes Quartet (Friday 8pm): They were selected by audience from our first event in 2015 as the best performance of the year. After then they have gained even bigger reputation as they have won a couple JUNO Awards.
  • Larnell Lewis Band (Saturday 8pm): I would say Larnell is definitely one of the hottest artists in North America. As a drummer of the 3 time Grammy winner, Snarky Puppy, he has been the busiest and most famous drummer in Canada. This is his own band that he often describes as his representing band. Larnell also has been involved with this festival since 2017 and has helped us a lot not only through being our artist and masterclass instructor but also as being an advisor of international acts.
  • Bassline (they’ve been performing since the very beginning at T.U. Jazz Fest): They have been selected to perform since 2015. It has been really amazed how much they improve every year not only musically but also showmanship and engagement with audience. They released their first album at our opening night 2017 and the venue was full of the audience and all their merchandize such as CD and T-shirts were sold out.
  • Open Jam Session (open for any musicians to join in): One of the main programs of the festival and I personally think as one of the most important programs because jazz is a communication music and jam represents its meaning jazz as a improvisational music. It is a public jam opportunity so whoever signes up, they can perform until the end of the festival. Even I participate to play drums.

Your festival is experiencing an unexpected budget shortfall this year and you’ve launched a GoFundme campaign. I’d like to ask how people can help (beyond the obvious of contributing and sharing on social media about the campaign)?

Other than the obvious methods you mentioned, I’d really appreciate it if 1. they could attend the festival, 2. bring their friends and family and 3. follow us on social media by liking/sharing our posts regarding band/festival promotions.

I’d also like to ask a more general question: what are some ways in which it’s challenging to operate a live music festival that may be surprising to folks? Has the work become more difficult in the time you’ve been running the festival or have the challenges remained largely consistent?

Every year has somewhat been the same but the difficulties were different every time. For example, first year (as everyone would expect) none of the companies believed us because they were not even sure if the event is actually happening or not. Hence we had a really poor budget with almost no sponsors (which means a huge debt).

However, we had many members and volunteers who were willing to devote their time and ability because they believed in my vision to save the future of jazz music and culture through creating opportunities for young musicians.

These days, more sponsors and grants are available and they don’t doubt the occurrence of this festival, but not enough people to devote time from the beginning of the planning until the end because everything has to be volunteer based; people are a big part of what we are and without them, we definitely wouldn’t be where we are today.

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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