No Surprise: SLĀV and FIJM Are a Perfect Fit

You wouldn’t think it possible, really. That in this day and age the world’s largest jazz festival would commission a white theatre director to create SLĀV, a major dramatic work based on African American slave songs starring a white singer and featuring a predominantly white cast. And yet, as anyone following the cultural news knows, this is just what has happened in Montreal, where the sold-out show is a highly controversial hit. In response, there have been protests and letters to the editor and angry facebook posts and more.

You wouldn’t think it possible that such an artistically misguided and insensitive plan should have been brought to fruition on such a big stage and with so much institutional support. Unless of course, you were familiar with the history of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, as I am, in which case you would not be in the least bit surprised.

AttachmentImageBefore I tell you more, let me briefly address those defenders of artistic freedom and equality who are outraged by the outrage, angered by the anger, and who insist that like Betty Bonifacci who stars in the show, they “do not see colour” and don’t see a problem with white folks mounting a show about what it was like to be a Black slave, within a white-owned jazz festival for white audiences. Why not, they ask?

It’s a fair question, to which I offer this fair answer: if racial discrimination against Black folks by white folks no longer existed, SLĀV might conceivably be viewed as a purely aesthetic work, (even though it has itself chosen to dramatically emphasize the socio-political context of the slave songs it features, so then again, maybe not.) But given that we live in a world where discrimination still exists, and in which the legacy of race-based injustices continues to generate inequalities today, and given too that the music being presented existed as a communal response to racial oppression, SLĀV simply cannot be removed from its social context. The music and its social history are one and the same. And that means that SLĀV’s creators must – at the very least – grapple with their relationship to that music and that history if they are going to engage with it.

John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette (thanks!)

They don’t, of course. And that the jazzfest, SLĀV director Robert Lepage and star Bonifacci all resolutely refuse to question that relationship is precisely what allows them to feel privileged enough to heedlessly exploit it.

So, since they won’t question it, allow me to help out. After all I was kicking around when the jazz festival began in 1980, and even a little before, playing jazz in Montreal and hanging out in jazz clubs, immersing myself in the extraordinarily vibrant and rich and predominantly Black history of jazz in the city. Not that you would have ever learned anything about that history from the jazz festival, which has spent the past 40 years largely whitewashing it. Where you might ask, is the Museum of Montreal Jazz? Whoops, in their rush to sell t-shirts the biggest jazz festival in the world forgot to create one. How about the Montreal Jazz Hall of Fame? Sorry, slipped their minds. How about ANY meaningful celebration of the hundreds of jazz clubs and jazz musicians that thrived in one of the greatest jazz cities in the world for decades prior to the founding of the jazz festival by Alain Simard and Andre Menard in 1978? Well there was that one concert back in whenever, and I think we did a photo exhibition in a hotel lobby once, 28 or 29 years ago, and oh we did make a hero of Oliver Jones. But all the countless other great musicians who made and played jazz for over 50 years in Montreal, most of whom were Black? Yeah, not interested.

I remember when the jazz festival was just picking up steam in the early 80s, and was still being held on rue St-Denis. Those were the good days. There were no less than 5 established jazz clubs within 2 blocks of St-Denis and Ontario streets and they were even more crowded than usual during the jazz festival. Chez Dumas, Le Grand Cafe, Club 2080, Cafe Théleme and le Jazzbar weren’t part of the festival though, and neither were all the other bars and restaurants on the street packed to bursting. Which is pretty much why Menard and Simard soon decamped to Ste Catherine street, even now a concrete wasteland, but one that offered the great advantage of having nowhere for visitors to drink or eat. Thus through the judicious introduction of fencing, badges, and festival-run food and drink kiosks, the move greatly increased the flow of doubloons into the jazz festival coffers.

Of course, as a byproduct, rather than part-time jazz fans discovering all the cool clubs near St-Denis and returning now and again during the year, thus helping the sustainability of the jazz scene, the new all-in-one megafest soon sucked literally every cent of jazz bucks from the city during its fenced off 10 day run, leading to the rapid decline and disappearance of every one of those clubs, as well as others in other parts of town.

Not that all of the blame can be laid at the feet of the jazz festival, I admit. Jazz today has essentially died as a living art form, except for a few small pockets of hybridized creativity, because nearly all of the people who created it and lived it have passed away.

Yet of those, Montreal had so many! I spent endless nights back then at Le Jazzbar, a dive run by jazz guitarist Ivan Symonds. He didn’t play quite as well as his remarkable cousin Nelson Symonds, who was reportedly once asked by John Coltrane to join his band (the cousins had come to Montreal from Nova Scotia as young men in the 1950s and spent their lives playing jazz in the city) but he was still a terrific player deeply rooted in the tradition, and a generous man. He played 6 nights a week in his storefront nightclub til 3 am. As a teenage sax player, hearing his gruff “Did’ja bring ya horn?” when I walked in was pretty much my wildest dream come true. The bass player in his trio, Nick Aldrich, had played with Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club in the 1930s. The beautiful drummer Charlie Duncan played with a divine subtlety and an angelic smile. These were a few of the many, many African-Canadian musicians whose lives could be defined by two words Montreal and Jazz.

And yet, they and their peers have almost never been acknowledged by the world’s largest jazz festival that grew up around them. They didn’t get gigs when they were alive, and they got little or no respect when they passed. The jazz festival has basically ignored the vast history of jazz in their own city, and most of that history is Black.

For years I had a press pass to the festival, as a jazz critic for the Montreal Mirror and then the Montreal Gazette. I saw so many fantastic shows there, many featuring legends of jazz. It was an incredible opportunity and I would never deny that the festival has done many wonderful things to promote the music. But I would also say they have definitely done many things that have hurt the music, and the people who created it. And the commissioning and presenting of SLĀV stands in that proudly ignorant and irresponsible tradition.

I remember when my press pass was revoked, after I wrote an article critical of some of these whitewashing aspects of the jazzfest. They have thin skins over there, and they don’t like being treated as anything other than cultural celebrities and great humanitarians. But in my opinion the real humanitarians are the musicians who made the music, not the promoters who have gotten rich off of it. And this is perhaps why those promoters can’t see the obvious problem with SLĀV, which is that it lacks humanity.

Robert Everett-Green/Globe and Mail (Thanks!)

Their defensive response to critiques of SLĀV demonstrates that after 40 years of presenting jazz the festival’s organizers still haven’t learned – have never been willing to learn – about the history, both in Montreal and in the USA, that shaped the music and the voices that played it.

And as I say, I’m not surprised. Saddened but not surprised. It’s hard to believe, but after all that time close to all that deep music, all that sorrowful history, and all those legendary musicians at their festival (many of whom were children in the 1920s and actually knew people who had been slaves!) they only ever saw the bright lights and the big bucks. Not the people. Not the places. Not the very Black past. To say that this reflects a relatively mild yet almost universal Quebecois racism is merely to state the obvious.

So in the end, when it comes to SLĀV, the question isn’t: how could they? But rather, given the festival’s history, what else would you expect?

6 thoughts on “No Surprise: SLĀV and FIJM Are a Perfect Fit

Add yours

  1. One question : Did you see the show ? You don’t even mention it. Are you a book burner before you read it ?

    1. Another fair question. The answer is no I didn’t see it and no I’m not a book burner. And nowhere did I say they should not do the show, nor have I attacked the artists who made it. I’m not big on censorship but I do I believe that to do this show they needed to engage more explicitly and publicly with their own relationship to African American music and history rather than merely using it as raw material for their own art, and that had they done so it would almost surely not have taken this form. In any event, my article is not primarily about the show but about how it is part of a broader relationship to the social history of the music at FIJM. But thanks for reading and commenting.

    1. Hi Alexandre, just to be clear I said ‘almost’ which is not the same. But to answer your question as well as I can based on my personal observations, it isn’t very different from English-Canadian racism in most ways, since all racism is people being ignorant and scared and prejudiced towards another group, so at it’s core it is mostly the same. But at the same time it is also somewhat distinct, just like everything in Quebec culture. Canada is a big country with big differences in culture, demographics etc. in various regions, and as a result racism plays out differently in Vancouver than it does in Red Deer than it does in Inuvik than it does in Toronto or Halifax, even though it exists in all of them. I think it’s important for the understanding of the SLAV situation to acknowledge that within Quebecois culture there is a widespread yet as I said generally ‘mild’ prejudice against Blacks. And while there is plenty of prejudice and racism elsewhere in Canada, the fact that in Quebec’s biggest city a show like SLAV could be put on and sold out by the biggest cultural producers in the city is for example something that would never happen in Toronto, where every year a million Black people gather to have a huge party and cultural celebration (Caribana). The popular awareness of racial issues is, in my opinion, somewhat different in Quebec than in some other parts of Canada because of the historic homogeneity of the province as well as the us vs them mentality of the two solitudes history, a binary that keeps most other groups – especially people of colour – marginalized in Quebec’s dominant politics and cultural discourses. You may be upset to hear me say this but it is true. Here for example is the list of current MNA in Quebec ( . Have a look and you will see how it is 90% Quebecois. Here is the list of ones in Ontario: where you will see members of parliament with names like Deepak Anand, Aris Babikian, Doly Begum, Raymond Cho, Stan Cho, Parm Gill, Faisal Hassan as well as names like Karapathi, Karahalios, Kharpoche, Khanjian, Ke, and a great many others of very diverse ethnicities. This is not an attack on Quebec just a statement of the context to understand how a show like SLAV could happen in such a great city. I think there is a mild but very generalized racism in Quebec and rather than worry about whether or not this is being said by an English Canadian its more important to look at whether it is real and what could be done about it. In my opinion the first thing is to acknowledge it, which is why I am taking the time to write this long response to you.

      1. Hi John,

        First of all thank you for taking the time to respond. Here are a few reactions. First, what do you mean by “Quebecois” – do you mean White Francophones, and if so do you deny the “Quebecois” identity of the many Black Quebecois who have commented on the Slav debacle? (For example:

        They don’t speak of “Quebecois racism” but of racism in Quebec, which is very different. They are themselves “Quebecois”! But is there even a specific problem with racism in Quebec? As I saw from comments in the Ontario media, Anglo reactions are very similar to Franco reactions; a mix of sympathy for the protestors (mainly from the left) and open hostility toward the very concept of cultural appropriation (mainly from the right). After all, Jordan Peterson ain’t no Quebecois… So is this really a “Quebecois vs. Anglos” thing or rather another chapter in the global debate/battle on nationalism and identity politics? Is there really a type of racism that is specific to Quebec, or it is just the same kind of racism as elsewhere but expressed in French? Surely you are aware that there is a very vigorous “anti PC” movement in Ontario and elsewhere… why wouldn’t there be one in Quebec too? And we all know about Toronto multiculturalism… is there not one in Montreal too? Dominique Anglade, Dany Laferriere, Amir Kadhir, are they not part of Quebec society?

        The very notion of a “Quebecois” attitude is problematic, and perhaps a little racist too. If Quebec is so homogenous, how come we have four parties that basically hate each other, including a party that is arguably the most far-left party in North America, and another one that gave immigrants prestigious positions in its cabinet? Why is it that when there is racism in English Canada (which you recognize), it’s a problem for “Canada” , but not “Canadian culture” itself?

        By the way, we had almost exactly the same narrative with regards to the “Chartre” a few years ago… it was Quebec this, Quebec that, without any regard for the divisions between left and right, urban and rural, young and old etc. that exist in Quebec as everywhere else. Are the British racist because they voted for Brexit? Could it be that Quebec society is just as diverse in its views of identity and race as are English Canada or for that matter the rest of the Anglosphere? How come that in other provinces we talk of “White people”, even though the elites are solidly WASP (yes, still today, even in Ontario). WASPs have been denationalized, as if they were some kind of postnational community that just “happens” to completely dominate North America. Why is it that in Quebec, “white people” means “white people descendants of 17th and 18th century settlers from France”? Are there not other types of white people in Quebec?

        All of this reminds me of the anti-semitism debates of the 90s… anti-semitism was rampant in English Montreal (as it was everywhere), for example McGill University. But somehow it ended up being a “Quebecois” problem. Indeed, several of the key people in the Slav affair are not even “Quebecois” at all (the author of the musical, to start with). Close to 50% of Montreal’s population is either Anglo or Allophone… There are more Black people in Montreal than Toronto as a percentage of the population. Are they not part of Quebec society and therefore contributing to what ever racism exists here? Who chooses and elects those white MPs in majority Anglo & Allo districts? Funnily enough, my own MP was born in Iran and will likely be replaced by a Palestinian-Quebecois, and yet I live in a majority Francophone area – by the way, which voted “Yes” in 1995 at a much higher rate than the national (let alone Montreal) average. And who elected a 2nd generation Haitian as MP, if not the proverbial racist white “Quebecois”? Who elected a 1st generation Portuguese? More importantly, who made them, respectively, Minister of the Economy, Science and Innovation and Minister of Finance? Did Ontario ever have a Black minister of Economy? I doubt it! And on the job market, who is discriminating against whom? Surely you are not unaware that many businesses are owned and/or managed by non-Francophones, even non-Whites, especially in Montreal and Laval. Why do we talk about “racism” in such cases (or Ontario etc.), but when it’s something relating to Francophones, it’s “Quebecois racism”.

        Specifically with regards to Slav, I found that many “Anglo” and immigrants (especially non-Black ones) had exactly the same (diverse) reactions toward Slav, with many complaining of the prevalent “PC” culture.

        So no, I reject your characterization of “Quebecois culture” as inherently racist, just as I reject the notion that “Anglos” (aka Les Anglais) are racist toward French Canada. There is far too much diversity of views in Canada to support that view (though sometimes I have my doubts!). Isn’t this the very basis of racism, to treat a particular ethnic or racial community as a homogeneous blob of faceless people?

        In summary, I don’t think that speaking of “Quebecois racism” helps at all, since (a) it implies that “Quebecois” speak as one voice regardless of political ideology, ancestry, ethnicity, even language, etc., which is clearly not the case, EVEN if we limit ourselves to the descendants of French settlers (which makes no sense anyway), and (b) it puts all the burden of addressing racism on the Francophone/French-Canadian white population, which shares the province and especially our amazing city with a myriad of other “ethnic” communities, many of which are as “racist” as the rest of us. Why wouldn’t they? They too are divided among left and right, old and young, feminist and machist, etc.

        You are right that the “real” issue is racism as felt by some communities in Quebec, particularly Afro- and Arab-Quebecois, as well as by the still significant number of die-hard “Canadians” that refuse integrate into Quebec (including many Black descendants of Nova Scotian and West Indian migrants). I do feel for them. But there can be no reasoned debate if the premise of any discussion is that one community is inherently “racist”. The fact that this community has itself been marginalized historically makes such accusations even more hurtful – I know that English Canadians have thicker skin with regards to such debates, but that’s mainly because they have been on the dominant side of Empire and privilege for well over two centuries. I wish that Quebecois (white or not) could have a better understanding of sensitive topics such as Blackface, but to me that is a problem for specific members of my nation, not the nation itself.

        There, sorry for long response 🙂

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