GUELPH, Ont. – For years I had heard about this city, 100 kilometres west of Toronto, for a few reasons, the main one being that it’s home to the Guelph Jazz Festival, last month having celebrated its 25th year.
The highly rated and sprawling University of Guelph, founded in 1964 and ranked by Macleans last year as fourth among comprehensive schools, also is here. And when he wasn’t in Toronto, CBC broadcaster Peter Gzowski called this city of 132,000, home. It is a pleasant city, with a vibrant downtown and friendly locals, which is why some choose to live here and commute by train to jobs in Toronto.
I boarded the train at Central Station, switched in Toronto to the local run, and arrived in Guelph happy to have chosen the Royal Inn and Suites, right across the street from the vintage Via terminal for my stay during a five-day visit.
The festival, curated by artistic director Scott Thomson, was the main objective. I found it well organized, with concerts at a variety of locations, and covering a fairly broad spectrum of avant jazz and improvised music. The venues included the university campus, and various rooms and concert spaces within easy walking distance.
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During the weekend, its historic market square was closed to traffic and hundreds gathered in a party vibe, with free concerts by a variety of more mainstream jazz groups all day long and into the evening.
The festival began with the spacey, joyful, groove-laced music of the Ottawa-based septet called Sung Ra: The Rakestar Arkestra, playing from the repertoire of Sun Ra – eclectic, irreverent, and expansive, and a perfect way to start.
Another highlight was the improvised piano of Barcelona-based Agustí Fernández, a true master of the genre, highly skilled in creating music and sounds from his experience and imagination to respond to the moment, with a percussive style and lyrical character all his own.
A third standout was the Soul Travellers septet led by American trombonists Steve Swell – stimulating and energetic avant jazz that was swinging and joyful, in many ways an antidote to some of the festival’s more cerebral offerings.
Of course, it is the mix, the contrasting styles, the experimentation, where some go where few have gone before, that fulfills the festival mandate as a showcase for the bold and the new.
It was a busy schedule, but I did find time to wander around the downtown. Its limestone façades and broad avenues make for a fine walking experience.
I found the British Methodist Episcopal Church on Essex St., built in 1880. It became the centre of Guelph’s Black community and in 2012 designated as cultural heritage property by the City of Guelph. I learned the city was a destination for fugitive slaves from the U.S. who settled nearby and worked in area stone quarries. The stone church was built as a meeting place and safe haven. It was not open when I passed by, so I cannot report on any artifacts.
Nearby, I passed the stone house where Scottish explorer Jean McLean lived from 1847-57. An employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, he became the first white man to cross the Labrador Peninsula from Ungava Bay to Hamilton Inlet. In 1839 he discovered the Grand Falls on the Hamilton River, at 75 metres, among the world’s highest.
The falls and river were renamed in honour of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. McLean wrote Twenty-five Years Service in the Hudson’s Bay Territory, an important source on the history of the fur trade. The Churchill Falls power station is the third largest hydroelectric-generating capacity in North America. Dominating the city from its hilltop location is Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, built in the High Victorian Gothic Revival Style, and inspired by Germany’s Cologne Cathedral. It was started in 1876, designed by Joseph Connolly, principal architect of Catholic churches in late 19th century Ontario.
Its main characteristics are twin towers, large rose window, and smaller pointed windows. Across the street is the Albion Hotel, for years a popular watering hole and according to local lore, it is above a pair of tunnels in the basement that led to the church grounds. It opened in 1856 as Stell’s Tavern, the second bar in Ontario to get a liquor license.
The tunnels, which have since collapsed, were allegedly used for bootlegging operations while prohibition was in effect in the U.S. According to the current owner, one tunnel was used to carry barrels of water down from a spring under the church, while the other was used to take kegs of beer up to bootleggers who loaded their trucks behind the church. Local legend has it that notorious American gangster Al Capone used Guelph and this hotel in connection with his shenanigans … As we sometimes say in journalism, “too good to check.”