Rant ‘N’ Roll: Am I The Ugly American?

Montreal, Canada—At the 36th Annual Montreal International Jazz Festival, I walk as if not knowing where I’m going. With my heavy metal t-shirt, backpack filled with bottled water, towel, lip balm, breath mint, festival brochure, map, snack, book, headphones, sunglasses and hotel info, I stop and buy a few gifts for the grandkids. Upon paying, the girl with no bra who speaks only French tries to tell me my money is no good.

“What are you talking about?”

I’m already hot, irritated, lost and can’t find the particular artist I had circled in my brochure. The downtown area of Montreal is closed off to vehicular traffic, yet there’s so much human traffic that it’s like trying to bicycle through a buffalo herd.

Still, the streets are clean, the air is fresh, the vibe is friendly, and the women seem all so gorgeous. But they’re not really there. They’re holograms. You can look at them but for me? They’re eye candy, that’s all.

The braless wonder brings out her manager and he tries to explain to me which of my funny money is real and which is not real.

“That can’t be,” I stammer, “I got it at the bank in Pennsylvania. They’re just old bills.”

“Then use them elsewhere. We cannot accept them here.”


Now I have even less money than I thought I had. I’m going to give my bank manager holy hell when I get stateside again. If they even let me back in the country. Since when do you need a passport to get to Canada? I remember going to the Strawberry Fields Rock Festival just outside Toronto in 1970 when I was 19 and there was no passport needed. They didn’t let us in the country because they found pot seeds in the car but that’s another story.

The money imbroglio was finished when I found a cute barmaid accepting of my old dough and my old jokes. I wound up drinking at her establishment and she also told me where Canadian treasure Jane Bunnett was playing with her all-female Afro-Cuban jazz band, Maqueque.

I stood in a slight drizzle, imbued with good spirits from the barmaid. It took me two songs to start wildly dancing with a couple of old women from Texarkana, Texas—Mindy and Cindy—who told me they’d been coming here for years. They were both a hoot and I wound up spending the rest of the evening with them. (Maqueque’s self-titled debut on Justin Time Records is a keeper.)

Then it was off to see a totally oddball entity entitled “For The Record: Baz Luhrmann In Concert.” This was a troupe of wildly talented singers, musicians and dancers who interpreted the music of some of director Luhrmann’s most opulent films: Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby. After about an hour and a half of over-the-top production values and screeching vocals, I left early not to miss what for me what the highlight of the festival.

Practically running to an old church around the corner, I made my way to my seat just in time to see the new jazz supergroup, Heads Of State, a quartet of certifiable jazz masters coming together for the first time. Bassist Buster Williams, saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Larry Willis and drummer Al Foster have the kind of credits you can fill a phone book with but suffice it to say that McCoy Tyner is their muse. To that end, they played an incredible set of Coltrane, Tyner, Jackie McLean, Billy Strayhorn, Benny Carter and originals. It was, to these ears, the most beautifully complex live jazz I’ve heard in years, akin to watching Monet paint a painting. Their debut CD, Search For Peace, another keeper, is on Smoke Sessions Records.

Next year’s Montreal Jazz fest will be June 30 to July 9. For information, you can hit montrealjazzfest.com. You can even drive there within six hours from North Jersey. I recommend it highly.