Of all the ways we enjoy music, especially jazz, nothing compares to live performance.
It’s a chance to witness and appreciate that spontaneous creation known as improvisation, which is essential to jazz and sets it apart from other genres. In Montreal, there is no better place to appreciate jazz than at Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill. It is thriving in its 23th year, one of the very few venues where you can hear live music in a comfortable club space, have a drink, and some good food. Joel Giberovitch bought the semi-basement at 1254 Mackay in 1995.
His management style is why Upstairs features jazz 364 days a year. It is known here and around the world as a quality jazz club. Upstairs links up with the Montreal International Jazz Festival starting June 28 to offer exciting gigs over a ten-day festival period. Early reservations are a must because of the limited space.
This year’s lineup includes both lesser-known and higher profile musicians. Headliners are saxophonist Houston Person performing June 30 and fellow reed player Benny Golson on July 1 and 2, both with the Emmet Cohen Trio. July 3, the inventive saxophonist Christine Jensen performs with her sister, U.S. based trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.
Upstairs has been my favourite jazz venue since the club opened. I’ve experienced many great musical evenings there, often sharing them with the late “friend of jazz” Len Dobbin, who had his favourite seat at the corner of the bar closest to the stage.
Keeping the music alive has not been easy, Giberovitch says. “It still is a learning experience. That’s what makes it so interesting.” The music he selects, described by one jazz writer as representing “the extreme centre” of the jazz spectrum, reflects Giberovitch’s tastes as they have developed over the years.
“I like music that swings, makes people think and is provocative, but not only cerebral – I like things that touch my heart,” he says. He tries to appeal to a broad spectrum.“I really try to please all four aspects of the listening public: jazz purists, jazz students, jazz musicians, and the general public. You’re successful when you try to please all four groups.”
The story of how young Joel got his start in the business is now part of local music business lore: After graduating from Herzliah High and Marianopolis, he was 23, in his third year of Political Science at Concordia when Upstairs was up for sale. Joel had experience working at his father’s El Coyote Restaurant one street over on Bishop, and his dad, who was approached to buy Upstairs, asked his son what he thought. Joel decided this was an opportunity he could not refuse.
Though his interest in jazz was limited to a few vocalists, he quit school and took the leap. He set out to learn how to run a business and a jazz club, and ended up doing it all —setting up tables, serving, hiring, training, supervising staff, keeping the books, and booking shows.
“This club was my university and every day I still learn – this is what makes me want to come here. I bus during lunch. I help the daytime staff, which gives me contact with the customers. Friday night I’m at the door, where I get to say hello and goodbye to everyone. I like making people happy. He gets a lot of requests from performers, and takes them seriously.
“Booking is one of my favourite things to do.” Upstairs was not always a runaway success and in the first years, before he got married and had children, Giberovitch learned to live on tips. Chilean-born Juan Barros has been his chef from the start, and I can vouch for the food served from the bistro-style menu. On any given night, Upstairs fills its 70 seats.
People come for the vibe, the music, the sound, and the menu. “It has to be run tight,” Giberovitch says. The Upstairs jazzfest series opens June 28 with two shows by electric guitarist Wayne Krantz, Veronica Swift (June 29), Jazz singer Halie Lorn (July 4), The quartet of pianist François Bourassa, bassist Michel Donato, saxophonist Frank Lozano, and drummer Pierre Tanguay, playing the music of Bill Evans (July 5), the trio Israeli-born pianist Guy Mintus with clarinetist Oran Etkin (July 6), and 17-year-old blind-since-birth American pianist Matthew Whitaker (July 7). During the festival, the arrangement is New-York style, which means your ticket is good for one show only.
The full lineup is at upstairs.com. Tickets / reservations: 514-931-6808.