“Jazz has changed a lot over the years,” Don Griffith said. “It was what the kids were into in the ’30s. Now it’s … sort of a niche market.”Griffith has been the artistic director of the Saskatoon Jazz Society for more than a decade. Saskatoon’s jazz club The Bassment — located in the basement of what was once the post office in downtown Saskatoon — has been the heart of the society and the centre of the jazz music scene in the city for years.
Don Griffith plays The Bassment’s 1957 Hammond B-3.
Michelle Berg /
The Bassment is really the only jazz-focused music venue in the city, and Griffith said he has to balance between the number of jazz shows and the number of “other” shows — folk, blues, bluegrass — taking place at The Bassment during the year. According to the venue’s website, about 80 of 140 shows every year are specifically jazz shows.The number of jazz players in and around Saskatoon isn’t an issue. Thanks to the thriving jazz education programs in high schools and at the University of Saskatchewan, and big events like the annual SaskTel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival, the city has a strong core of talented musicians. But as the genre continues to change, the appetite — or lack thereof — for jazz from the public means places for those talented musicians to play aren’t always easy to come by.“I would say (the jazz scene) is simmering,” Griffith said. “You’ve got things that are cooking, and what we need to make it boil are more live venues … and maybe what we need to do is present more local jazz.”Emmett Fortosky, a bassist and prominent jazz performer in Saskatoon, agreed with Griffith. Fortosky named a couple of restaurants, such as Bon Temps Cafe, as being welcoming but said jazz performers have to push hard to get a place to play in more “traditional” Saskatoon music venues.“You can do a lot of things to create a scene for yourself,” Fortosky said. “It’s young and it’s growing, and it’s one that has a lot of potential.”Related
Fortosky graduated from the University of Saskatchewan before attending Humber College in Toronto. Since coming back to Saskatoon, Fortosky said one of the biggest struggles with getting jazz on stage is how most people market it. As Griffith put it, jazz is something of a dirty word — and Fortosky said when people think of jazz music they’re often thinking of a well-known niche of jazz that emerged during the mid-1900s.
Emmett Fortosky performs on the stand up bass during the TD Jazz Intensive composition concert at the Quance Theatre inside the University of Saskatchewan Education building in Saskatoon, SK on Friday, June 28, 2019.
Kayle Neis /
But jazz has grown substantially since then, and encompasses a wide variety of sub-genres: vocal, instrumental, Latin fusion, folk influences and more.“The biggest challenge that I’m looking to try to overcome, and I think other people are too, is how can we find a way to market jazz … in a way that shows our creative side and also lets people know what they’re walking in to.” Fortosky said.To succeed in Saskatoon, Fortosky has put as much time and effort into his music as possible. He’s currently playing with six different ensembles — Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra, The Rory Lynch Trio, Minivandals, Ellen Froese and the Hot Toddies, Sons of Django, and his own Emmett Fortosky Quartet — to try to make a go of it as a jazz musician on the prairies.“If no one’s pushing the envelope, then obviously the envelope won’t get sent,” Fortosky laughed.Saskatoon’s jazz music scene is full of veteran performers, but is also welcoming a new generation of jazz enthusiasts with the help of Dean McNeill and the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Music. A number of young jazz performers from in and around the city — like Fortosky — have come out of the U of S program.
Dean McNeil- Jazz aficionado and 20-year University of Saskatchewan music professor Dean McNeill leads Jazz Band rehearsal at the Education Building on the U of S campus in Saskatoon, SK on Monday, November 5, 2018.
Liam Richards /
McNeill, who has decades of performing and teaching experience under his belt, said the jazz scene in Saskatoon was definitely “punching above its weight.” He pointed out one clear effect that has grown out of a lack of places for both new and experienced musicians to play: as McNeill puts it, “the level of musicianship is higher” in other centres.“Montreal has two universities that have undergraduate and graduate degrees in jazz. So does Toronto. So does Vancouver,” McNeill said. “There are fewer venues per capita for people to play … and I’m a little bit alarmed by that.”McNeill, who also helps run initiatives like the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra and the jazz intensive during the festival in the summer, said musicians need to have opportunities to play to improve themselves, bring the level of musicianship up, and not get complacent. Fortosky had the right mindset, McNeill said: keep busy both in jazz and other genres to keep yourself marketable and to gain new skills.There’s a “beautiful part” of the jazz community in Saskatoon as well, according to McNeill: the amount of people in a city of Saskatoon’s size who are deeply invested in the success of the music community.“It’s unbelievable,” McNeill said. “The community is alive with people willing to come out to support the Jazz Festival, and the Folk Festival … and in that regard, I would suggest again that we are punching above our weight.”firstname.lastname@example.org