Parlez-vous free jazz?

In almost any other French-language city in the world, this inquiry would translate as: “Do you speak cutting-edge jazz?” But at Canada’s 44-year-old Festival International de Jazz de Montreal — better known as the Montreal Jazz Festival — the question is deceptive in several ways.

A majority of the performances at this 10-day summer music marathon in the French-speaking province of Quebec’s largest city are completely free of charge. And while the 2024 lineup will feature such jazz favorites as pianist Jason Moran and saxophonists Joshua Redman, Chris Potter and Melissa Aldana, it will also showcase a broad array of other styles.

This year’s roster includes everyone from synth-pop group Future Islands, San Diego neo-soul band Thee Sacred Souls and the proudly arch country singer Orville Peck to blues veteran Cedric Burnside, eclectic songstress Norah Jones and such hip-hop favorites as Andre 3000, Killer Mike and Freddie Gibbs.

Better yet, more than two-thirds of the 225-plus concerts at this year’s edition — which runs June 27 through July 6 — are free. Performances are held on six outdoor stages and at 10 indoor venues, which range from intimate nightclubs to historic theaters and the concert home of the Montreal Symphony.

The festival’s eight hours of daily live-music offerings begin at 5 p.m. each day. That gives festivalgoers ample time during the day to explore this 382-year-old island city, which offers the foreign and the familiar in almost equal measure.

“Montreal is wonderful and very cosmopolitan,” said San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare, who is also the music director of the Montreal Symphony. “When you are here, you feel like one part of you is in North America and the other part of you is in Europe.”

True to Payare’s words, you don’t have to stroll far from the jazz festival’s footprint in the downtown area known as Quartier des Spectacles to appreciate this pleasant sense of continent-leaping duality.

On the two-mile walk from the beautiful midcentury Place des Arts — where the festival’s biggest indoor and outdoor concerts are held — to Old Port Montreal, the pavement gives way to cobblestone streets and high rises give way to well-preserved buildings from bygone centuries.

Montreal, June 2023.

It’s not unusual in Montreal to see skyscrapers and centuries-old buildings in close proximity.

(George Varga / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Montreal is a great walking city and many of the festival’s indoor concerts take place in historic venues,” said Vermont jazz radio DJ and Realtor David Beckett, a longtime attendee of the festival.

“Le Gesù, which has been a theater for live performances since 1992, is in a Catholic church that opened in 1865. École nationale de théâtre du Canada, also known as National Monument, opened in 1893 and is the oldest theater in Quebec. Edith Piaf once sang there! Simply by going to concerts in these venues where the festival is held, you get to experience some of Montreal’s most memorable arts venues.”

A turn at almost any corner is likely to lead to a welcome new discovery, be it a 21-story-tall, 10,000-square-foot mural of Montreal native Leonard Cohen — modeled after a photo taken by his daughter, Lorca — or a French-Chinese restaurant with the quaint name Fondue de Pékin.

Adding to the European flavor, French is the official language in Quebec, the province that counts Montreal as its biggest city. Our French is limited to about a dozen words, but almost everyone we encountered in Montreal spoke English. The menus in nearly every restaurant we ate at were in both French and English.

This 21-story mural of singer, songwriter and Montreal native Leonard Cohen covers 10,000 square feet

This 21-story mural of singer, songwriter and Montreal native Leonard Cohen covers 10,000 square feet on a downtown apartment building. It is adjacent to Chez Devi, a very good and reasonably priced Indian restaurant.

(Beth Wood / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘Plexes,’ bagels and poutine

Some of the city’s signature hallmarks aren’t necessarily European or Canadian, but unique to Montreal. Its iconic wrought-iron staircases grace many apartment buildings (which are called “plexes”).

There are more than 30,000 of them around the city and they vary in shape and size — straight, spiral, L-shaped and a variety of other configurations. While the prospect of navigating some of these staircases during Montreal’s icy winters is alarming to visitors, they are a sight to behold in the summer.

Another classic trademark of the city is poutine — French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered in thick, brown gravy. Generally considered a Canadian dish, it originated in rural Quebec in the mid-1900s and arrived in Montreal about a decade later. Poutine is available in many restaurants in Montreal, from diners to high-end eateries. Most boast their own versions, including with smoked meat, dumplings, popcorn, pulled pork and more.

Montreal is also proud of its bagels, with the competing St-Viateur and Fairmount shops ranking as favorites for locals and visitors alike. Montreal bagels stand out because they’re boiled in honey and water, then baked in wood-fired ovens, for a sweeter taste and crunchier texture. The St-Viateur bagel shop is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It serves over 12,000 bagels a day.

“There’s always a heated competition between New York and Montreal about who has the best bagels,” noted Payare, who is no stranger to either city. “I would say it’s Montreal.”

From William Shatner to Samantha Bee

During the summer, swaths of streets in several neighborhoods become car-free “pedestrianized zones,” including through the festival’s center in Quartier des Spectacles.

Adding to pedestrian options is the almost 20-mile network of underground passageways, which are open year-round but were built to help residents escape — at least temporarily — the brutal winter cold. The passageways are filled with shops, restaurants and some eye-popping artwork.

On our first day in Montreal late last June, we wandered around the lovely campus of McGill University. Located about two miles from the festival site, the campus is on the lower part of Mont Royal, from which the English name Montreal originates. Mont Royal is home to a verdant, 692-acre park designed by Frederick Law, whose best-known credit is New York City’s Central Park.

While briefly tagging along with a student tour group, we learned that some of McGill’s most well-known alumni include Leonard Cohen, Burt Bacharach, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, William Shatner, architect Moshe Safdie and comedian Samantha Bee.

McGill’s 80-plus buildings sit on 80 acres overlooking downtown Montreal and the St. Lawrence River. Its classical revival-style Arts Building, completed in 1843, is the oldest on campus. In summer, the school’s front lawn area is brimming with colorful flowers, and greenery fills much of the pedestrian/cyclist-friendly campus.

The next day, we walked down Rue de Bleury from the festival site through Old Montreal to the Old Port, which stretches more than a mile along the St. Lawrence River. It’s ideal for pedestrians and bicyclists, and you can also rent pedal-boats, try a zipline or embark on various river cruises.

Between the river and the nearby historic clock tower — a replica of Big Ben — is a beach with sand, parasols and room for 800 people. Also at the Old Port is an almost 200-foot-high Grande Roue de Montreal Ferris wheel, which — thanks to its temperature-controlled cabins — is open year-round. It provides spectacular views of Montreal.

La Grande Roue de Montreal Ferris, Old Port of Montreal, Canada

Visitors cross a footbridge near La Grande Roue de Montreal Ferris wheel in the Old Port of Montreal, Canada, on the St. Lawrence River. The Ferris wheel is open year-round and affords panoramic views of the city’s skyline.

(Eva Hambach / AFP via Getty Images)

While we walked between 11,000 and 19,000 steps a day during our visit, we were glad we bought a one-week Metro pass. Priced at $22 per person — credit cards only, cash not accepted — it gave us unlimited rides on all four subway lines. Passes in hand, we rode to multiple destinations miles from downtown, then walked at our leisure.

One day, we visited the Montreal borough of Verdun. It’s home to the Promenade Wellington, a pedestrian promenade that stretches 11 blocks and boasts more than 250 hipster-friendly businesses, including an array of bars, dining spots, cafes, ice cream parlors and more. Voted “the coolest street in the world” by TimeOut magazine in 2022, Promenade Wellington is packed on Saturdays and Sundays, so come on a weekday if you want to avoid crowds.

The next day we took a different subway line to Montreal Botanical Garden, which covers more than 185 acres and boasts 10 greenhouses open to the public. Located adjacent to Olympic Village and Montreal’s Biodome, Biosphere and Planetarium, it also has an herbarium and an insectarium. Highlights include Chinese, Japanese and First Nations gardens, as well as a rock garden arranged by geographic regions. All-day tickets cost $23.25 for adults and $12 for children ages 5 to 17.

Located near the Olympic Village, the Montreal Botanical Garden covers more than 185 acres. Shown here is the Chinese Garden.

Located near the Olympic Village, the Montreal Botanical Garden covers more than 800 acres. Shown here is the Chinese Garden.

(George Varga / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On another day, we took the subway to the last Metro station on the green line to Parc Angrignon, which was recommended to us by a local journalist for its beauty, lack of tourists and free admission. A lush oasis of quiet in the midst of a metropolis, the 240-acre park includes ponds, picnic tables, multiple bike and walking paths, and playgrounds. We also stumbled upon a hidden tipi in a dense part of the park’s forest area.

Each day after an early dinner, we enjoyed music outdoors and indoors, including a free performance by an ear-bending orchestra of 100 electric guitarists. They performed in the center of Complexe Desjardins, the sprawling indoor shopping mall that adjoins the DoubleTree by Hilton, where we stayed for 10 days.

The mall houses a large food court with a good array of options. Its strong air conditioning was appealing for quick respites when the temperature outside hit the mid-80s, as it did several days in a row during our visit. On one especially hot and muggy day, we were taken aback when — in a matter of minutes — the broiling sun gave way to rain and then a brief but intense hailstorm.

Walking from one outdoor festival stage to another to hear free performances by such standout artists as blues guitar titan Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and soulful singer Macy Gray, we were impressed by the geniality of the multigenerational throngs of people. And we were reminded of San Diego Street Scene — when it was held on the streets of the Gaslamp Quarter in the 1980s and 1990s — with new musical discoveries awaiting around almost every corner.

Singer and rapper Mareba performs at the 2023 Montreal Jazz Festival

Singer and rapper Mareba performs on the second largest outdoor stage at the 2023 Monreal Jazz Festival. Admission is free to all concerts at the six outdoor stages of the festival, whose vibrant, open-air vibe may remind some visitors from Southern California of San Diego Street Scene in its 1980s and 1990s heyday.

(Montreal Jazz Festival)

San Diego Street Scene vibe

That expansive size helps explain why annual attendance at the Montreal festival is around 2 million, which comes out to 100,000 attendees a day. But with the event’s array of intimate indoor venues, it’s easy to avoid sprawling crowds altogether if you want. By opting for both — big and small, outdoors and in — we enjoyed the best of both worlds in a city where old and new repeatedly converge.

If you go

Montreal Jazz Festival

The 2024 edition of the festival opens June 27 and concludes July 6. More than two-thirds of the event’s 225-plus concerts are free. The full schedule and tickets are available at montrealjazzfest.com/en.

Transportation

Several airlines offer round-trip lights from San Diego to Montreal, but Air Canada is the only one with nonstop service. Depending on your departure time and day, economy fares begin at around $789 for a round-trip ticket.

Lodging

We chose the DoubleTree by Hilton Montreal for proximity — it directly overlooks the festival’s two largest outdoor stages and has a sizable indoor pool. Rooms on the opposite side from the festival are quiet, but the ones facing the two stages provide a bird’s-eye view. So does the patio by the pool and the popular Bivouac Terrace restaurant and bar. The hotel’s generous breakfast buffet package, included with our room rate, was a nice bonus. The DoubleTree is located at 1255 Rue Jeanne-Mance. Rates for June and July visits during the festival start at $289 per night, (514) 285-1450; bit.ly/HiltonDoubletreeMontreal

Restaurants

Dining in Montreal is a foodie’s dream come true, from sidewalk bistros and bagel bakeries to high-end eateries. These are three of our personal favorites and each offers outdoor dining:

  • NYK’S Bistro Pub: Right in the Quartier des Spectacles, where the festival is located, this cozy but lively eatery serves European fare and its own creative dishes. The mushroom bruschetta appetizer was a great prelude to the mushroom pappardelle and the just-right fish and chips. 1250 Rue de Bleury; (514) 866-1787; nyks.ca

Wood is a freelance writer; Varga is the music critic for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

george.varga@sduniontribune.com



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