Diversity on display at PEC Jazz Festival

The Picton Gazette, CHRIS FANNING, STAFF WRITER, July 13, 2023

When I asked PEC Jazz Festival creative director Colleen Allen about the strong contingent of female instrumentalists headlining this year’s program, including herself as saxophonist, clarinetist Virginia MacDonald and another sax player, Alison Young, Allen paused and said “I’d be disingenuous to say that I didn’t look at different aspects of of who I was hiring, but I can honestly say that the first thoughts were around various styles of jazz. The musicians stand on their own merits.”

Of Alison Young, for example, who is playing an afternoon gig at Sandbanks Winery (17 August), Allen stated that she wanted to find an ensemble that would be “a burnin’ Thursday afternoon, at a winery: a thrill. And I thought it should be a really great horn player. And then I thought about Alison, because I know she is an incredible performer and a great saxophone player, and she’s exciting.”

Other genres represented include the Cuban sounds of Hilario Duran, Caity Gyorgy’s vocalese, and the smooth jazz of singer Marc Jordan.

Virginia MacDonald

The quintet of Virginia MacDonald and Todd Marcus offers modern jazz in a very special configuration, with two clarinets in the front line–something quite rare on the jazz scene these days. MacDonald is “one of the elites,” says Allen. Her father Kirk MacDonald is a Canadian saxophone legend, but she brings a new sensibility to the music, incorporating the more mellow sounds of the clarinet’s lower register into a modern context.

The current Toronto jazz scene is one of cross-generic pollination, noted MacDonald. The younger generation of players have no time for “jazz purists,” but are more interested in making good music, drawing from whatever traditions will work. This includes different ethinc traditions as well. Just as Hilario Duran brings his Cuban roots to jazz, Todd Marcus draws upon his own Egyptian heritage to add to the sound of the band (notably with his bass clarinet).

“One of the things that I really love about Toronto’s music scene is the fluidity between genres,” said Ms. MacDonald.  “Toronto is so diverse; there are so many different cultural groups, I think that the music really reflects that. I see a lot more inclusion and tradeoff happening within different scenes: a kind of musical amalgamation.”

Is it important that these women are taking leadership roles in a music traditionally dominated by men? Both Allen and MacDonald say, yes, of course, but it is not definitive. First and foremost is the music. Both are educators as well as players, and they find that the earlier young musicians learn to think of music without thinking of gender roles, the easier it is for future generations to concentrate on the art, moving the music forward into greater diversity of all kinds.

Allen, looking at her lineup of various genres, calls the balanced gender representation serendipity: “Stylistically, we are diverse. And isn’t that great that there is a bunch of women, too?”

MacDonald adds, “I think that women have always been there within the music but they’ve kind of been buried a little bit by history. The interesting thing to me is that a lot of this has finally come to light over the past decade or so. I can see how it’s changed from my my experience being in jazz programs in high school and post-secondary, seeing what the climate was in both of those situations and how it’s changed now and I definitely notice that the conversation is opened up to include women to let them into spaces where maybe they weren’t so welcome before.”

As a teacher, MacDonald reports that, “it seems like more and more young women are enrolling in music school, so that in itself tells me that there’s been a shift that’s happening and it’s really inspiring for me in the sense that the generation that’s now younger than me will have to think and speak less and less on these things.”

How lucky we are to have the opportunity to experience a diversity of players expressing themselves musically this August 15-20 at the PEC Jazz Festival!

Colleen Allen’s trio will play at Closson Chase Vineyards on 16 August, and she will accompany Marc Jordan at St Mary Magdalene Anglican Church on 18 August. The Virginia MacDonald / Todd Marcus Quintet plays the church on 17 August. Complete information and tickets are available at pecjazz.org.