In Montreal during jazz festival — one of the world’s finest — the ambient power of music looms large: it’s in the air, streets, and venues. It makes for a great excuse to visit this North American, would-be French city as June melts into July each year. The key word was “melts” during my 2018 visit to the heat-waved, humid city. Gods of global warming permitting, this year will spare us the withering temperatures, but if not, the city is equipped with a vast “underground city” network (built to escape from brutal winters), which offers plenty of space to escape the al fresco sauna.
During last year’s Jazz Festival, ears became both highly sensitized and slightly dazed with the glut of musical input. In the several-block radius of traffic-free urban space around the central Place des Artes, a steady flow of feelgood acts kept the free outdoor stages busy day and night. One could soak up the sounds booming from the main stage, amidst the hordes, while digging into the special festival-time delicacy, “pulled pork poutine” (the usual poutine, with cheese curd, fries and gravy, plus the pork & BBQ sauce), right there on Rue Ste. Catherine.
In more substantial musical terms, there were the memorable highlights of the festival’s indoor program: including Ry Cooder’s retrospective “this is my life” concert, the strikingly good and rising Norwegian saxist Marius Neset, chanteuse-with-the-most Cecile McLorin Salvant, a politically spiced set from edgy-cool guitarist Marc Ribot, party favors from Snarky Puppy and Kamasi Washington. (Local note: both Salvant and Snarky are played the 805 in UCSB Arts & Lectures series).
Riding the Metro, I repeatedly heard the three-note train stop motif seemingly swiped from the hyper-familiar harpsichord opening to the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” a hundred times or so, the lyric begins to haunt: “picture yourself on a boat on a river.” And I did. I imagined taking a cruise on the St. Lawrence River, a fine way to take stock of the waterways and islands that border much of the city.
Time and scheduling got in the way, though, and I ended up participating in a handful of other touristy lures in the 17th-century, bilingual city, teeming with pleasures and diversions. Take, for starters, Mont Royal (from which the English name Montreal is derived), a vast park designed by Frederick Law (NYC’s Central Park, Vancouver’s Stanley Park) Olmstead. As local lore and historical record have it, Breton explorer Jacque Cartier hiked up to the summit of the small mountain in 1535, guided by the indigenous Iroquois people (aka what Canadians now refer to as “First Nation” people), and named the new city Ville-Marie, later Mont Royal. From the high perch of the vast chalet and overlook area, the modern city gleams below, tourists lurk, snack, and snap selfies. A brave few play the funky, painted piano on the patio. When I visited, I got a taste of a gifted young Italian playing Bach, and then a jazz pianist whirling out an ornate and semi-classical invention (we all assumed he was connected to the jazz festival in progress far below us).
Trudge further up the trail beyond the chalet hang zone and bask in the presence of the large metallic cross, commemorating the wooden cross placed on this spot by city founder Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, in 1643 as a tribute to the Virgin Mary after the cessation of a calamitous flood.
Every Montreal visit demands at least a token brush with the “old town” (Vieux Montreal), the area most likely to be confused with the rues des France. One clear landmark in that waterfront part of town is the Notre-Dame Cathedral, a miniaturized facsimile of Paris’s landmark, which bedazzles in a softer way than its French counterpart. The secular tour is fine, but get into the bones and spirit of the edifice by going to a Sunday mass, which boasts its historic 1891 Casavant Frères pipe organ, the first public organ to use electropneumatic action.
Better yet, where church tourism is concerned, head over to a prime example of clerical gigantism, and reportedly the largest church in all of Canada, the massive multi-leveled St. Joseph Oratorio cathedral and compound in the Mount Royal area. One of many official sacred pilgrimage sites in Quebec province, St. Joseph’s draws supplicants and those seeking healing and blessing from around the world, some of whom crawl, laboriously and penuriously, up the concrete stairway to the church.
For a cheap, bean-fortified and delicious greasy-spoon breakfast on the way to St. Joseph’s, stop by La Binerie in the Mount Royal district, founded in 1938 and an epicurean experience incomplete without a little tub of its special “fèves au lard.” For a cheap late-night bite, order up the $4.25 (Canadian $) cheeseburger — done up “all dress” style — at the Montreal Pool Room, depuis (founded in) 1912 and centered in what was once the city’s red-light district. For a tourist-choked deli experience, endure the inevitable line at Schwartz’s, home of Montreal’s best (just ask them) smoke meat sandwich, piled high with the succulent pink stuff and begging for the yellowing agent of copious mustard. (Schwartz’s even toasted itself onstage with Schwartz, the Musical, circa 2011).
In healthier news, swimmers fond of finding unique pools in strange cities are required to proceed to the Olympic Stadium, site of the tallest inclined tower (trumping Pisa’s tower) in the world, and where the Olympic pool is open to the swim-minded public. Reportedly, the vastness of the pool’s scale and water volume increases one’s speed and efficiency, whilst slicing through the water, although it could be the effect of an illusion engendered by Olympic osmosis, or it could be so much hokum. Another watery leisure world awaits at the Complex Aquatique in the Parc Jean Drapeau across the river.
Montreal revels in civic monuments to Modernism, linked to major showcases of Montreal’s riches to the outside in years past. For example, the retro-Modernist landmark 1967 World’s Fair, with its massive geodesic dome, and the 1976 Olympic Park structures. Retro-Modernism is alive and aging well in this town.
Speaking of which, I traded in my “boat on a river” moment for a small jewel of offbeat tourism intrigue, the slightly out-of-the-way-but-worth-it Musee des Ondes Emile Berliner, celebrating the influential genius of Berliner, a Montrealer for much of his life. The German-born inventor emigrated to America, where he created the microphone component of Bell’s telephone (thus, effectively inventing the microphone), and then the gramophone, but legal/patent skirmishes in the States sent him north of the border to Montreal.
Among his other claims to fame: He essentially facilitated the advertising adoption of the beloved RCA mascot Nipper, the dog with the ear immortally cocked to the gramophone horn — and to the future! Prototypical airplane engine, early helicopters, and other trailblazing efforts were on his plate, as well. A visit to the Berliner museum, in the actual old RCA building where his work and company were based for the last few decades of his life, makes for a quirky, different kind of pilgrimage.
I’m picturing myself on a plane to a Montreal when next the jazz festival (2019 marks the 40th anniversary) offers its ripe excuse to revisit, consume poutine, and discover new crannies.