Hello Jazz Fest, and Goodbye

It was the opening show of Montreal’s 37th Jazz Festival – probably the 25th for me; the first for the 16-month-old strapped to my chest; the third for its touring star Sharon Jones, who was taking the stage after her second round of chemo for pancreatic cancer. One of soul music’s undisputed queens, Jones and her band the Dap-Kings had lived an improbable, Johnny-come-lately rise to fame, but were already endeared to Montreal, a city that loves its talent both sung and unsung.

As we made our way along Balmoral Street, the sea of heads to our right grew ever denser – hundreds gave way to throngs of thousands, to tens of thousands. Bleachers bathed in festival lights appeared made of metal and human bodies – a floating canvas of people, framed and appropriately hung against the gray exterior of the contemporary arts museum. In the sophomore month of the Montreal summer, Jeanne-Mance Street goes from a wide, non-descript artery for the 80 bus to a sprawling pedestrian esplanade – a sweeping plaza dotted with fountains and food stands by day, and a giant stage with an asphalted dance floor by night. Over the course of the festival, some two million people from all walks of life and corners of the world flock to this musical Mecca.

Shows at the Montreal International Jazz Festival always start on time. There’s a schedule to keep. Stages to be prepped. A roster of 3,000 artists and 1,000 shows to fit within the ephemeral confines of 10 summer days and nights.

Opening night was Jones’ moment – her time. It takes a lifelong career to not simply play, but open for North America’s most famed jazz festival, and she stormed that stage in blue sequined tassels accented by shimmery earrings and bracelet, made all the brighter by her baldness. She took the mic and her seasoned voice hit each note with soulful expertise. And then she spoke, and in her voice we could hear the years of practice, the thousands of shows, the laughter, the love, and now, the pain. In between songs that spilled forth from some unseen well of strength, she shared with us the numbness in her fingertips, her uncertainty about performing, and the spikes of pain that were shooting through her body as the strobe lights sliced through the crowd.

With each song, the sea of fans gave her the energy to go on. Over the curly shock of my son’s head bobbing enthusiastically from side to side, I shouted “Get it, girl!” when she shimmied her way across the stage. Her triumph was my own. Her face was my father’s, who would have been head-nodding next to me had cancer not claimed him eight years prior – he who had never missed the jazz fest’s opening show. As she sang her hit “Get Up and Go,” she made it clear who she was singing to, and we all sang along. There was therapy in the air that night, not chemo but crowd. And as one song bled into the next, and my baby’s bobbing head slowed and grew heavy, time returned to remind me about beds, baths, and next mornings. As the opening show of the 37th Jazz Festival played on, we took our babies home, hoping that time would be on her side.

Sharon Jones died on November 18, just five months after her unforgettable performance at the 37th Montreal Jazz Festival. In its obituary for Jones, the Telegraph newspaper recounts how the charismatic singer lit up hospital wards while undergoing chemo. “When people are around or there’s an audience, that gives her fuel and she forgets her pain,” said Barbara Kopple, director of Miss Sharon Jones!, a documentary about the performer. Even while suffering the effects of her cancer and its treatments, the workmanlike Jones toured relentlessly. “It’s therapy,” Jones said of performing in July. “I know I need rest and sleep. But I want to work and that is our job.”

story © Elizabeth Adams          image © James Sobers