Let The Good Times Roll

As organizers, musicians and fans gear up for the 20th Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival in June, they reflect on the profound power of filling a small town with big sounds.

March 16, 2024 | | Arts

For 19 of the past 20 years, June’s first weekend has brought live music to downtown Orangeville. But this year’s Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival promises to be the grandest yet, echoing New Orleans on Fat Tuesday. Indeed, the Ghost Town Blues Band, hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, will lead a New Orleans-style march through the downtown to kick off a Saturday packed with tunes.

The festival started modestly – on one Saturday in June 2003. On that day, a free concert in Alexandra Park behind Orangeville’s town hall was headlined by Jack de Keyzer, the British-born Canadian blues guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, who had just won his first Juno Award. Seven other artists included Orangeville-based saxophonist Ryan Grist, fresh out of college, with his quartet. He has played at every Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival since. In fact, check out Jim Menken’s wood carving at the corner of Alexandra Park and Second Street. That’s Ryan on the sax. The other is festival founder and musician Larry Kurtz playing his harmonica.

Festival founder Larry Kurtz and festival president Josh Leitch at Larry’s home in Orangeville. Behind them is Larry’s painting of Juno Award-winning Canadian jazz artist Emilie-Claire Barlow. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Ryan remembers those early days. “It’s hard to overstate how important that is to a young performer. I am deeply grateful to have had Larry’s trust and friendship over these past 20 years, and I am proud to have been a small part of something that has become truly great.”

The event grew from Larry’s love of blues, that deep down, soulful musical genre. Larry owns and operates Kurtz Millworks in Orangeville, but for more than 25 years his passion for blues has seen him sing and play his harmonica, or harp, at festivals and clubs around Ontario and beyond. He has favourite harp players – Little Walter, Charlie Musselwhite, and Kim Wilson among them – but he adds, “I like to play my own tunes such as ‘Millie’s Blues,’ written for my mom; ‘I’m a Carpenter’; and ‘You’re God’s Gift’ for my wife, Norma.”

orangeville blues and jazz 2024
Performers in 2023 included the jubilant Toronto Mass Choir. Festival photos courtesy the Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival.
Orangeville blues and jazz 2024
Nashville bluesman Dave Barnes in action.

For that inaugural event in June 2003, Larry the player took a backseat to Larry the organizer – and stagehand. “That first year, the stage arrived at 6 a.m. on Saturday,” he says. “We had just played Friday night, and when I got the call at 5:30 a.m., I thought I was hallucinating.” In the early light and pouring rain, Larry worked with the hired stage crew, their number bolstered by about five volunteers – family members and friends – to get the stage set up behind the town hall. The rest of the day was devoted to a rousing celebration of blues music to the delight of an audience of about 2,000.

The next year, the number of volunteers swelled to about 50, people who had seen the first show and wanted to get involved. “That’s when I knew it was going to work; it was going to be big,” says Larry, “but I had no idea about how involved it was going to be with the cars and motorcycles and such.”

Fast forward to today

Since then, the festival has grown every year – except for 2020 when Covid put paid to that year’s event. The audience has swelled to about 40,000 and the festival now spans three days, from Friday afternoon to Sunday. And for the 10th time since 2003, Festivals & Events Ontario has named it one of the top-100 festival events in the province.

This year’s festival takes place from May 31 to June 2, and Norm DiPietro and his wife wouldn’t miss it. The DiPietros live in Wasaga Beach, and he owns Blue Mountain Design Centre in Collingwood. “My wife, Dawn, and I come down every year and stay for the weekend,” says Norm. “We’ve already got our Airbnb booked for this year. That’s our first festival and we go to lots more during the summer. Orangeville is my hometown, so it’s like a high school reunion.”

Orangeville blues and jazz festival
Toronto-based singer Shakura S’Aida and musician Brooke Blackburn paired up in 2023.

He adds that the two love the music. “It gets into the heart. It’s into the soul. It’s like I can feel it. It’s raw. It’s truthful. It reflects certain things that happen in life. It’s food for the soul. Larry and all his crew just put on an amazing show, an amazing event.”

Musicians from in and around Orangeville, Toronto and other centres, as well as the United States and beyond take over the downtown core. Last year they numbered about 180. They played on street corners, in restaurants and pubs, on the main stage in Alexandra Park, in the opera house and on a stage set up on Broadway. A few are still earning their chops but many are nominees for and winners of Juno Awards, Maple Blues Awards, and other honours from the blues and jazz scene. The festival also organizes workshops so anyone with blues in their soul can learn how it’s done from the artists doing it.

Orangeville blues and jazz festival 2024 TD stage
A sunset concert last year featured Toronto performer Danny Marks near the Opera House.

Jack de Keyzer credits Larry with introducing blues to this community. “Right? Like your average person, they don’t really know what the blues is. It doesn’t get a lot of play on commercial radio. The Orangeville festival has brought blues knowledge, and now thousands of people know what the blues is. They’ve heard some great blues bands. They’ve seen the top people in Canada, and they’ve had a great time.”

That hometown crowd then becomes deeply loyal, an essential ingredient in the success of the festival, which relies on – and reflects – strong community support. “People come back every year,” says New Tecumseth singer-songwriter Erin McCallum, who has often brought her “big voice, big sound” to the festival. “And I think that speaks to that homegrown support the festival has. Yes, there are people that come from other communities, from all over, but there’s still that community support. And that’s something that’s palpable. I notice it every time we play. I feel like Orangeville is very community-involved, and I think that adds to the spirit of the festival.”

Orangeville blues singer Heather Katz, who co-owns the music store Broadway Music, agrees. “I’ve been here since 1988,” she says. “So there are people from all the different times in my life here … all of these people come out to hear me, and it’s like a cross between playing in your living room and playing on one of the greatest stages of any festival … you get a chance to connect with people who are already in your heart and people who can feel your heart anew from the stage.”

Orangeville blues and jazz
The 2023 Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival parade featured Toronto jazz/funk group The Shuffle Demons.

For a couple of years, festival organizers set up a stage in the parking lot on Broadway across from the town hall. That was my personal favourite, since I live in an apartment above a shop on the south side of Broadway. I could sit out on my back deck and enjoy the music.

It rained one year, but I was under the gazebo in a comfortable chair, with two fingers of whiskey in a short glass, listening to the Downchild Blues Band live on stage. I also remember one Friday when the classic cars wouldn’t come out in the rain. Larry has talked to people who think it rains every year, but he maintains it doesn’t. “We’ve had rain now and then – once three years in a row – but we’ve only had to cancel one performance in 19 years,” he says.

The musicians aren’t the only ones who attract the crowds. There are vendors of delicacies such as spiralled potatoes, sugar cane juice, beaver tails, blooming onions and more, as well as people selling things such as meditation mala beads, alpaca sweaters, organic cotton clothing and souvenirs. On Friday afternoon and evening, some 250 classic and antique cars park along Broadway and down Mill Street for the Blues Cruise. David Murphy of MacMaster Buick GMC organizes the gathering. “We’ve got rat rods. We’ve got hot rods. We’ve got muscle cars. We’ve got all the upcoming classics,” he says.

I like to see the cars we drove in the 1950s and ’60s … like the Ford Fairlane I drove when taking lessons. With a hood like an aircraft carrier, it had three-on-the-tree and no power steering. I had to really work to get it into a parking space.

Orangeville blues and jazz festival blues and bikes
Music fans stroll along Broadway at the Sunday Blues & Bikes event which features about 1,000 parked motorcycles.

I’m far from the only one who enjoys seeing the old cars. In fact, at last year’s event, there were so many people up and down Broadway that organizers had safety concerns, so this year they’re extending the Blues Cruise eastward. Cars will be parked right down the hill to Broadway and Fourth Street. And on Sunday the bikes rumble in: choppers and bobbers, rat bikes and baggers, 1,000 or so motorcycles of all kinds bring their swagger to Broadway and down Mill Street.

Strolling the pedestrian-only streets with throngs of families and music fans is all part of the fun. Orangeville mayor Lisa Post was awed by the crowds last year. “I love the energy of the Friday night … just walking about,” she says. “It took me two and a half hours just to walk along Broadway from Second to First, talking to people, and seeing faces I hadn’t seen for a while.”

She also recognizes the benefit the festival brings to the town. “Beyond the financial and tourist benefits of the festival, which are easy to measure, it’s the way it brings the town together and anchors Orangeville as an arts community. When I’m at conferences, I often hear people talk about our town as an arts community. They talk about our utility boxes, tree carvings, restaurants and the Blues and Jazz Festival.

“At a conference in Toronto, I was talking to a councillor from a town in New Brunswick – he was a musician – and when he heard I was from Orangeville, he started talking about the great Blues and Jazz Festival, and how it’s the place for blues musicians to go and get known.”

The Blues and Jazz boost

When the financial benefit of the festival is measured, it adds up to a substantial amount. Peter Ross, the festival’s director of development and marketing, says they use the Ontario Ministry of Tourism model to measure festivals and their economic impact. “We’re running about $2.4 million in economic impact,” he says.

“It’s not a bunch of concerts taking place on a soccer field outside town. It’s right in the downtown area,” says festival president Josh Leitch. “So the engagement that happens with the local merchants – that’s one of the things that stands out in our market research, that sense of community they get, the welcome they get from the volunteers, meeting the people in the town. It’s just a warmth and dynamics that really set us apart.”

Orangeville blues and jazz classic cars
An aerial view of the festival’s Friday Blues Cruise in 2023. At the annual event, Broadway is taken over by vintage cars and festivalgoers.

The festival is a not-for-profit organization, and as anyone who has ever attended soon discovers, most of the entertainment is free. You can stop and listen to all kinds of entertainers along Broadway and down Mill Street free of charge. But the cost of running the event is about $300,000, and much of that is spent long before the first act hits the stage.

Ticket sales to performances on the main stage and in the opera house, along with beverage sales in the beer tent, contribute roughly 30 per cent to the coffers, but the balance comes from grants and sponsorships. The town of Orangeville, the BIA and a host of local sponsoring businesses provide substantial contributions, as do the federal and Ontario governments.

“Unfortunately, the grants are down,” explains Josh. Last year Canadian Heritage dropped their grant by 30 per cent and another couple of points this year. They started at almost $39,000, but are now down to $26,000. “But that’s not a reflection of the festival,” he says.

The challenge is that available government funds are being reduced and the number of applicants is rising. “It’s harder to obtain the government’s funding now,” he says. “So we need that ticket revenue to help keep the festival going. Part of why we raise money is to help fund the type of quality productions we’re trying to do – with professional staging companies and stuff.”

An army of volunteers

One last essential element of the success of the festival – and a sure sign of its widespread community support – is its cadre of volunteers. Last year, some 190 volunteers performed yeoman’s service, and this year organizers are looking for 220 or 230 to wear the orange T-shirts and carry out a host of different chores.

Norm Trudeau, owner of Orangeville’s Q-Net Services, is the festival’s volunteer co-ordinator. He pulls together a variety of teams with experienced leaders. “The biggest team is the roustabouts – we call them rats – the young men and women who handle all of the setup and teardown, and various activities throughout the weekend.”

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  • There’s a fundraising team that carries large buckets and collects donations from people in the crowd, a survey team that collects comments and kudos, and a green team that works with Dufferin Waste to help keep the area clean. A merchandise team sells T-shirts, hats and other memorabilia, and another team handles the job of guiding visitors to parking and through the various areas of the festival. Gary Skinn, the festival director of operations, explains that a computer program keeps track of all the volunteers, what they’re doing and where they’re needed.

    “Volunteer orientation meetings through April and May will organize teams and let everyone know what’s expected,” says Norm. And when the festival begins, they’ll be ready for anything, such as picking up a tent, poles and all, on Mill Street and carrying it down Broadway to the TD parking lot. “They’re just great people,” he adds. “They’re enthusiastic and they’re doing what they need to do to make the festival a success.”

    One of the most visible, and perhaps demanding, accomplishments of the volunteer teams becomes clear on the morning after. On Monday morning, once 40,000 people, 250 classic cars, 1,000 motorcycles, and about 200 musicians have all left downtown, any trace of them has disappeared. “We’re proud of that,” says Larry. “You wouldn’t know we were there.” The volunteers have picked up every bit, every scrap … both Broadway and Alexandra Park look as if nothing has happened. But it surely has!


    Take a sneak peek at some 2024 Festival highlights

    FRIDAY, MAY 31

    The Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival begins Friday afternoon when the downtown is closed to traffic. As the parked cars leave Broadway, the classic cars start rolling in. When the automobiles have settled, the music begins.

    “On the Friday night, we’re looking at Downchild Blues Band. You know, the longest-running, most famous, medium blues band,” says festival founder Larry Kurtz. “This is actually their 55th anniversary of being a band. There’s one original member, Don Walsh, and some of the others have been in the band for 25 or 30 years.”

    Jack de Keyzer is on Friday night as well. “He was our headliner the first year. I want to make some kind of a big deal that he won the Juno in 2003. Bob Dylan once said, ‘If Jack de Keyzer was from New York, Chicago or LA, he’d be famous.’

    “We have a Friday concert in the opera house with Laila Biali, one of the top jazz performers in Canada,” says Larry. “She has a national radio show on CBC and is a worldwide touring artist.” She’ll also be a main stage headliner on Saturday. And watch for Chicago’s Nick Moss Band, featuring one of Larry’s favourite harmonica players, Dennis Gruenling, from Los Angeles.


    From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday morning, the Farmers’ Market will stretch out along Broadway, then the Ghost Town Blues Band will lead a Fat Tuesday–New Orleans-style march through the downtown. “The Ghost Town Blues Band is really popular in Canada,” says Larry, but this will be the band’s first appearance at the Orangeville festival.

    SheWolves of London have also been confirmed. This popular Ontario all-women blues group has toured with Randy Bachman.


    Then we come to Larry’s true passion. “On Sunday I have a special harmonica show called Harps of Gold with Steve Marriner, Paul Reddick – both Juno winners – myself, and one other player I’m trying to get: Jerome Godboo, if he’ll call ever me back,” he laughs.

    Sunday is also when the motorcycles arrive. The festival is expecting as many as 1,000 bikes to be parked along Broadway and down Mill Street.

    As musicians are confirmed, the Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival will distribute a schedule several weeks before the event. “I book about 40 to 45 bands,” says Larry, “and then if you include music in the clubs and so on, it brings it up to close to 80 bands, depending on how many clubs sign up.”

    Check orangevillebluesandjazz.ca for updates.

    About the Author More by Tony Reynolds

    Tony Reynolds is a freelance writer who lives happily above Broadway in Orangeville.

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