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Jazz Guru

Darryl Mar is the man responsible for jazzing-up Victoria — as the man behind the TD Victoria International Jazz Fest for the last 28 years, and counting. - Derek Ford
Darryl Mar is the man responsible for jazzing-up Victoria — as the man behind the TD Victoria International Jazz Fest for the last 28 years, and counting.
— image credit: Derek Ford

Darryl Mar is the man responsible for jazzing up Victoria.

As the artistic director of the TD Victoria International Jazz Fest and executive director of the Victoria Jazz Society, Mar has been the man with the plan for the last 28 years — as long as the festival has been running.

He credits his strong, stable leadership, warm and generous volunteers and his “open-eared” policy for the longevity of the festival, which he says is much more than just a jazz festival.

The Victoria Jazz Society hosts the jazz festival every summer, along with the Vancouver Island Blues Bash in September as well as a yearly presenting concert series.

“Our mandate is to present live jazz music in our community — jazz in all its forms — traditional to mainstream to avant-garde and improvised. And in the jazz genre we present blues, R & B music, world music and a bit of roots music, too,” says Mar.

“That is very deliberate on my part. Over the years, to keep our audiences interested, to keep the programming interesting, we have to go outside of jazz … Even though it’s called the jazz festival, there’s more than jazz in our festival, and that’s been the philosophy of what started out as Jazz Fest International to what is now the TD Victoria International JazzFest.”

Mar focuses on having the right mix of local performers, emerging artists, international artists and headliners to keep audiences coming back year after year.

“There’s no formula to it; it’s all based on what I think may be available in the festival year that I’m booking and I work very closely with my colleagues across Canada on that.”

The Victoria Jazz Society is a member of Jazz Festivals Canada, an association built of executive and artistic directors of Canada’s jazz festivals. The artistic directors meet three times a year to discuss which artists they’d like to book for the upcoming festival season.

Mar has successfully brought in many of the genre’s heavyweights, including Wynton Marsalis, Maceo Parker, Holly Cole and Madeleine Peyroux, and put them on the same stages as local favourites like Marc Atkinson, David Gogo and Emily Braden.

“Music is a passion for me,” says Mar.  “I think I’m very open-eared. I’m open to listening to all styles and forms of music.”

Born and raised in Victoria, Mar was turned on to jazz by a relative.

“When I was a teenager growing up my uncle listened to a lot of jazz music and I just started listening and developed an affinity towards it,” says Mar. After a career in the retail record business, Mar decided he wanted to turn his attention to promoting live music. Now it’s his passion.

Mar says his favourite part of the job is “booking the artists that I’ve always wanted to bring into Victoria and especially the emerging artists that I can introduce to Victoria audiences, like the Diana Kralls and the Esperanza Spaldings.”

“One of the great pleasures for me is turning people on to music that they’ve never heard before and being able to present emerging artists at the start of their careers. And a lot of the times they establish themselves so well that we can’t afford them in our city again ... that can be frustrating.”

But funding isn’t a problem for this festival as it is with so many other arts and culture festivals.

TD Canada Trust came on board as title sponsor in 2010 after five years as a national sponsor.

“It’s really fortunate that we have TD as a title sponsor. It’s very rare that anything in Victoria gets title sponsorships from a national company, the bucks traditionally stop in Vancouver,” says Mar.

This is the first time the festival has had the benefit of a title sponsor and Mar says it’s helped provide financial stability above and beyond the local show sponsors, which Mar says there are many.

The festival has come a long way since it started as a three-day festival with a budget under $10,000, “and now it’s $900,000, and we’re strong,” says Mar.

But it wasn’t always that way. “This festival didn’t get any government funding for the first two or three years, we had to prove ourselves,” says Mar.

“We made it grow in baby steps, you can blow your brains out in the first couple of years and if you blow it, you’re done, you won’t be back.”

“If there’s any word of advice I’d give to any start up festivals it’s make sure you have your financial partners in place. Don’t rely solely on ticket revenue because that’s an unknown.”

He says his “magic formula” of financial stability is funding from all three levels of government, corporate sponsorship and a growing audience base as ticket purchasers. Combine that with a small, dedicated staff and the continuity provided by having the same artistic direction for 28 years, and Victoria’s got a world-class festival for years to come.

“I’m going to do it as long as I enjoy it, and it’s still very enjoyable,” says Mar.

Mar says he’s proud of “the longevity of the festival and the respect that it gets within our community and across Canada.”

Mar visits an annual trade show in New York with Jazz Festivals Canada, and when people look at the program guide for Victoria he is always pleased with their reaction.

“First of all, a lot of people don’t know where Victoria is, but when I tell them it’s right across the water from Vancouver with its target an audience of over 3 million people, and I target an audience of 350,000, they’re just amazed at the stature of the artists I’m able to get in to our festival, the number of performances and the number of days that the festival runs in a city this size …on an island,” he says with a laugh.

With just over 100 days left before the 2012 festival (June 22 to July 1), the Victoria Jazz Society has already announced that ten-time Grammy-winning guitarist George Benson and standards singer Dianne Reeves are just two of the international jazz stars making their way to Vancouver Island.

In total we can expect hundreds of musicians performing at numerous venues over 10 days, playing music that ranges from jazz to avant-garde, blues, R &B, soul, world, Latin, Cuban, roots, soul and funk — and lots of things in between.

“That’s where the open-ear philosophy comes in. You have to give new things a chance. You can’t wait until they’re proven or you’ll miss out on too much. Just give it a chance.” M

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