Upstairs & Schulich: 20 years running

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Blog post by Chris Maskell

For jazz performance students at the Schulich School of Music, playing at Montreal’s Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill has long been a cornerstone of the program. For years, groups from Schulich have been heard at the venue every Tuesday and Thursday evening, where they play repertoire rehearsed during their small ensemble classes and receive feedback from a rotating faculty member. This partnership between institution and jazz club offers students invaluable playing experience, and to learn more about its history, we spoke to Upstairs’ owner Joel Giberovitch in a recent email exchange.

How did the relationship between the Schulich School of Music and Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill come to be? When did it begin and what motivated you to establish it?

Upstairs’ relationship with McGill began around 20 years ago. After a trip to New York City around 1996, I decided that I wanted to transform Upstairs into a serious jazz club and listening room. At the time (like now), many of McGill’s teachers were regular performers at Upstairs, such as Kevin Dean, André White, Dave Laing and Alec Walkington.

As part of their program requirements, McGill students were in combos that would perform at the school and at Gerts, the campus bar. With this in mind, André White, Kevin Dean and I had a meeting and decided that it would be a great idea to have them perform at Upstairs as well. We thought that this would give them experience performing in a live jazz club setting and that audiences would have an opportunity to hear the next generation perform. It’s a wonderful partnership that we are very proud of and has stood the test of time. 

What do you think the opportunity to perform at Upstairs offers the students? What’s been the reaction from the Montreal music community about the series?

Upstairs has established an international reputation as a space where top-tier musicians perform, and so McGill students have opportunities to perform on the same stage that many of the greats have played on. It also allows them to perform in front of an audience that appreciates live jazz. People who come to Upstairs love jazz music and they want to discover the next generation of jazz musicians, so it’s also a great opportunity for the jazz community to come and meet the future generation. The series has developed quite the following and many people come specifically for it. It’s also a great way for fellow students and professors to come and support each other. 

How does it feel to have Schulich students return to later perform at Upstairs as headliners?

Upstairs has become an institution in Montreal over the course of its 22 years. One of the bonuses of this longevity is that we can really follow the progress of musicians from when they are just starting out to their development into important and active players in the jazz community. A great example of two of those musicians are Jim and Chet Doxas, who are both very active and accomplished musicians in their own right.

Coming from a musical family, the brothers went through McGill’s jazz program and performed at Upstairs with their school ensembles. Now, Chet lives in New York City, has released many albums as a leader and continues to be an important musical voice on the Montreal and international jazz scenes. Jim (who lives in Montreal) is one of the most active drummers in the city, having just released his first album as a leader and appearing on countless others as a sideman. He’s also the full time drummer in Oliver Jones’ trio, and has been hosting Upstairs’ weekly jam session for 6 years now.

It makes me very proud that early in their careers, both Jim and Chet performed regularly as part of the McGill Jazz combos. We get to witness the next generation of Jazz musicians and it’s very exciting to watch these musicians grow. It also allows us the opportunity to develop a relationship with them early in their careers.

The year’s first student performance at Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill will take place on September 29, and will continue every Tuesday and Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.