Something Else Festival: The Shuffle DemonsEvery year in Toronto – at least for this west coast transplant – summer seems to arrive all at once. Parkas transform into t-shirts; boots to sandals; a pervasive dread that winter shall never end is replaced by a cautious optimism that a few brief moments of respite are at least theoretically possible. The summer has many of the same delights to offer as the regular season for the dedicated music patron, but festival season also offers the appealing prospect of being jolted out of one’s usual routines.

There is a perennial question that swirls around the lineups of major summer jazz festivals, for example, one that routinely gets asked by musicians, jazz fans, and by just about everyone with a laptop and a social media account: but is it jazz? (For an interesting and thought-provoking read, check out the comment section from a May 8 post by the Instagram account Jazz Memes, which features appearances from a number of prominent jazz musicians discussing this very subject.) 

Without wading so far into this quagmire that my editor is tempted to excise this introduction, I would suggest that plurality seems to be a trend that many festivals are embracing this summer, and that creative programming choices which serve a number of overlapping community interests can yield exciting results. Below, check out a round-up of four Ontario festivals with both breadth and depth, all of which feature some of the best in Canadian music.

Something Else! Festival - Earth Wind + Choir.

Something Else! Festival: June 20 - 23

Taking place in Hamilton, this year’s Something Else! Festival continues its mandate to present “creative music, newer traditions in jazz, improvised music, the avant-garde, experimental sounds and adventurous art forms from all disciplines.” A DIY festival with an open spirit, ticketed festival shows take place at St. Cuthbert’s Presbyterian Church, with free shows at the Hamilton Public Library, and on the street, near the Jimmy Thompson Memorial Pool. (There are worse places to be, at the beginning of the summer, than listening to the Shuffle Demons in a pool.) 

Something Else! has a number of excellent shows on the docket, including a triple-bill on Thursday, June 20th at St. Cuthbert’s featuring festival opener Earth Wind + Choir, an adventurous vocal ensemble led by Sarah Good, Ugly Beauties, the incredible trio of pianist Marilyn Lerner, cellist Matt Brubeck and drummer Nick Fraser, as well as Gayle Young, whose unique compositions and self-made instruments close out the evening. On Saturday, June 22nd another triple bill at HPL: the duo of Sakina Abdou and Dave Rempis, Toronto-based violinist Aline Homzy’s Étoile magique and saxophonist Caroline Davis in duo format with guitarist Wendy Eisenberg.

This year's Toronto Arts Foundation Breakthrough Jazz Artist Award finalists at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. (L-R): Clarinetist Virginia MacDonald, Drummer Sanah Kadoura, and pianist Dánae Olano.

TD Toronto Jazz Festival: June 21 - 30

Ontario’s preeminent jazz festival, the Toronto Jazz Festival returns in its now-customary format, with a number of free outdoor shows throughout the Yorkville area, with stages on Avenue Road, on Cumberland, and in the Victoria College area of U of T, off of Charles. Ticketed shows will be taking place at some of the city’s most prominent (and comfortable) soft-seat venues, including Meridian Hall, Koerner Hall, and The Concert Hall. (Smaller, more intimate ticketed shows will also be taking place, in venues such as The Pilot and The Rex.) 

Highlights from this year’s ticketed offerings include the funky, gospel-influenced stylings of keyboardist Cory Henry (at The Concert Hall on June 29), the classic New Orleans ensemble Preservation Hall Jazz Band (also at The Concert Hall, on June 22), and Toronto-based singer Amanda Martinez (June 26, at Koerner Hall). 

At Jazz Bistro, playing two sets per night on June 28 and 29, catch Superblue, the new group from vocalist Kurt Elling and guitarist/bassist Charlie Hunter. Elling will likely be a familiar name to WholeNote readers; Hunter may not, though it is not for lack of appearances. Playing hybrid guitars on which he simultaneously crafts funky bass lines, chords, and melodies, Hunter has been a mainstay on the American jam band scene, as well as on recordings with the likes of John Mayer, D’Angelo and Snarky Puppy. 

A worthy show not yet on the schedule: a performance from the winner of the Toronto Arts Foundation’s Breakthrough Jazz Artist Award, which has traditionally been featured on one of the Toronto Jazz Festival’s free outdoor stages. This year’s finalists are drummer Sanah Kadoura, clarinetist Virginia MacDonald, and pianist Dánae Olano.

Stratford Jazz Academy

Stratford Summer Music: July 18 - August 11

A unique festival, Stratford Summer Music takes place, as the name suggests, in sunny Stratford, ON and features classical, jazz, Celtic music, mariachi and more. Performances take place at venues such as the Avondale Theatre, Revival House, Jobsite Brewing Company and, my personal favourite, The MusicBarge, a small (but literal) barge moored on the Avon River, with free early-afternoon performances. 

Stratford Summer Music also features two unique educational opportunities for young musicians. The Jazz Academy, led by bassist Jodi Proznick, drummer Jim Doxas, saxophonist Kelly Jefferson and pianist Florian Hoefner, is designed for students interested in improving their improvising, ensemble playing and performance skills. The Vocal Academy, meanwhile, is split into three separate streams: "Art Song with Kimberly Barber", "The Solo Cantatas of J.S. Bach with Daniel Lichti", and "Musical Theatre with Marcus Nance".

The Barn at Westben Summer Festival.

Westben Summer Festival: June 14 - August 4

One of Canada’s most charming summer concert destinations, Westben is a multifaceted performance centre in Campbellford, Ontario that hosts artist residencies, produces digital programs, and conjures gourmet food and drink offerings for guests. Rather than a condensed week (or weekend) of all-day events, their summer offerings extend throughout June, July and early August, with a wide range of musical styles represented. Westben’s three venues are the Barn, a 400-seat theatre housed in, you guessed, an old barn, Willow Hill, an amphitheatre by the site’s willow tree and pond, and The Campfire, a small, casual stage set up by, well, a campfire. 

On July 14, at 2pm in the Barn, check out the Performer Composer Residency Concert, which will showcase the collaborative work of 2024’s ten residents, exploring the theme of “Music of Many Gardens.”

Another unique Westben offering: the Sounds in Nature – Forest Bathing event, which takes place on July 6, at nearby Mary West Nature Reserve. Available in the early evening before concerts, this nature walk is led by Ewa Bednarczuk, a trained guide from the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Following this event, song carrier, composer, activist and ethnomusicologist Jeremy Dutcher – winner of a Polaris Music Prize and a Juno Award for Indigenous Artist of the Year – will perform at the Willow Hill amphitheatre.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at, and on Instagram and X (formerly Twitter).

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