According to no less authority than The Guinness Book of World Records, Montreal hosts the world’s largest jazz festival. It’s a time when Montrealers of all generations take to the streets in a celebration of music. The Montreal International Jazz Festival has paid performances throughout the elegant concert halls of Place des Arts to the more funky rooms like Club Soda, The Metropolis and the intimate Savoy. During and after those shows, the streets around Le Quartier des Spectacles become a giant pedestrian walkway, dotted with stages where musicians of all stripes fill the warm summer night air with music.

The outdoor concerts give us a chance to commune with a hundred thousand of our new best friends. Whether taking in one of the mega-shows at the new Quartier des Spectacles, where Jeanne Mance is transformed into a Woodstock-like arena of music and goodwill; or at one of the smaller stages throughout the festival area – Montrealers gather to enjoy the night air filled with a wide variety of music, from jazz to blues to R & B. One magical evening a few years ago, my son and I caught The Funk Brothers; the legendary Motown house band, who were joined onstage by the The Four Tops. You never know when that magical moment will take place. Like the time a 12 year-old Nikki Yanofsky wowed an outdoor audience on Ste-Catherine Street.

Here’s a look at some of the artists who will be performing at this 31st edition of The Montreal International Jazz Festival from June 25th to July 6. Enjoy!

The Manhattan Transfer

It’s been nearly four decades since Tim Hauser, a former Madison Avenue marketing executive, paid his bills by driving a New York City cab while aspiring to form a harmony vocal quartet sui generis that could authentically embrace varied musical styles, and still create something wholly unique in the field of American popular song.

Hauser had been in doo-wop groups, folk groups, and even in a short-lived quintet named The Manhattan Transfer, but as the sounds of jazz, R&B, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, salsa and swing poured out of brownstones, Hauser now dreamt of four-part harmonies without limits.

In the fall of 1972, Hauser’s taxi fare was an aspiring young singer named Laurel Massé, who was familiar with the sole album by Hauser’s earlier Manhattan Transfer combo, and was looking to form a group. A few weeks later, another of Hauser’s fares invited him to a party where he met Brooklyn native Janis Siegel; although already in a group, Siegel agreed to help out on some demos and before long she was the third member of The Manhattan Transfer. As Hauser, Massé and Siegel began rehearsing, Massé’s then-boyfriend, who was drumming in a Broadway pit band, introduced Hauser and Siegel to Alan Paul, who was co-starring in the original production of Grease, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Signed to Atlantic Records by the legendary head of the label, Ahmet Ertegun, the group released their self-titled debut in 1975; the second single from the album, a remake of the Friendly Brothers gospel classic “Operator,” gave the group their first national hit.

In 1978 Cheryl Bentyne replaced Massé who had been injured in a car accident. At Bentyne’s dazzling audition, the other Manhattan Transfer members immediately felt her impact, invited her to join, and, as Paul puts it, “The Transfer’s second phase began.”

The first album featuring the now legendary quartet of Hauser, Siegel, Paul & Bentyne was 1979’s Extensions which earned the band another smash with Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone. The album also featured a vocal remake of the Weather Report classic “Birdland,” with lyrics by Jon Hendricks, that would go on to be recognized as the group’s anthem, and earn them their first two Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Fusion Performance, Vocal or Instrumental and Best Arrangement For Voices for Siegel’s work on the song.

The group went from strength to strength, when in 1981, they became the first group ever to win Grammy Awards in both Pop and Jazz categories in the same year

In 1985 the group received an unprecedented 12 Grammy nominations for Vocalese, making Vocalese the single greatest Grammy nominated album in one year.

Heading into the new millennium, with worldwide sales in the millions, Grammy Awards by the dozen, and as veterans of sold out world tours, The Manhattan Transfer teamed up with the then relatively unknown, but future Grammy Award winning, producer Craig Street to record their tribute to the music of Louis Armstrong (The Spirit Of St. Louis). The Spirit Of St. Louis was followed by 2003’s live album Couldn’t Be Hotter that “finally captured the magic of their live performances on disc” (All Music), 2004’s Vibrate, a second foray into Christmas music (An A capella Christmas), and an album of newly recorded symphonic versions of some of their greatest hits (2006’s The Symphony Sessions). The release of The Definitive Pop Collection, a 2-disc retrospective of the group’s greatest hits, provides not only an opportunity to look back at one of the greatest bodies of work in American popular music. The Manhattan Transfer celebrates 37 years of beautiful singing on June 26th in Theatre Maisonneuve, presenting a special repertoire of jazz songs written by Chick Corea.

Smokey Robinson

This summer, Smokey Robinson is celebrating 50 years in the music industry. But let’s step back to remember the hits that he wrote, providing a soundtrack for our lives; our first dates, high school graduations, wedding music and now class re-unions.

You Beat Me To The Punch, and My Guy for Mary Wells and The Supremes; My Girl, The Way You Do The Things You Do, and Get Ready for The Temptations; The Tracks Of My Tears, Ooo Baby Baby, I Second That Emotion (with Stevie Wonder) and Tears Of A Clown for his own group, The Miracles. You Really Got A Hold On Me was famously recorded by The Beatles a year after Smokey released the song on Motown.

He also wrote hits for The Four Tops, The Marvelettes, The Contours and the hugely talented Marvin Gaye. Smokey Robinson wrote 37 Top 40 hits for Motown Records between 1960 and 1987.

In addition to being one of Tamla-Motown’s first signings (as well as the label’s Vice President from 1960 to 1988), Smokey has been the recipient of a Grammy (for 1987’s Just To See Her), a 1988 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a 1991 recipient of the Soul Train Music Award for Career Achievement, a 1999 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a 2006 Kennedy Center honouree, a recipient of a Doctorate of Music degree from Howard University (2006), a 2009 recipient of an Honorary Doctorate degree from Berkeley College of Music (for whom he also gave the commencement speech), a Songwriter’s Hall of Fame honouree and a rare double-honouree of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (as a solo artist & member of The Miracles).

Smokey Robinson will be performing at Salle Wilfred Pelletier on June 28 at 7:30 pm. It’s sure to be an unforgettable musical experience.

Taj Mahal

Born Henry St. Claire Fredericks in Harlem on May 17, 1942, Taj grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was a jazz pianist, composer and arranger of Caribbean descent, and his mother was a schoolteacher and gospel singer from South Carolina. Both parents encouraged their children to take pride in their diverse ethnic and cultural roots.

Henry studied agriculture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the early 1960s. Inspired by a dream, he adopted the musical alias of Taj Mahal and formed the popular U. Mass party band, the Elektras. After graduating, he headed west in 1964 to Los Angeles, where he formed the Rising Sons, a six-piece outfit that included guitarist Ry Cooder. The band opened for numerous high-profile touring artists of the ’60s, including Otis Redding, the Temptations and Martha and the Vandellas.

Around this same time, Taj also mingled with various blues legends, including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sleepy John Estes.

This diversity of musical experience served as the bedrock for Taj’s first three recordings: Taj Mahal (1967), The Natch’l Blues (1968) and Giant Step (1969).

In 2008 Taj released Maestro – marking the fortieth anniversary of Taj’s rich and varied recording career. “The one thing I’ve always demanded of the records I’ve made is that they be danceable,” he says. “This record is danceable, it’s listenable, it has lots of different rhythms, it’s accessible, and it’s all right in front of you. It’s a lot of fun, and it represents where I am at this particular moment in my life. This record is just the beginning of another chapter, one that’s going to be open to more music and more ideas. Even at the end of forty years, in many ways my music is just getting started.”

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