The Evolution of the SaskTel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival

As we start approaching one of the most anticipated events of the summer, we can’t help but wonder what the road to success looked like. We spoke with Artistic Director Kevin Tobin about the journey of the iconic SaskTel Jazz Festival.

In 1985, members of the Saskatoon Jazz Society came together to create what we recognize today as the SaskTel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival. These dedicated individuals, who also operate The Bassment, had a clear vision of preserving jazz music in Saskatchewan. This was the initial inspiration for the festival and 35 years later, it is recognized as the second largest jazz festival in Western Canada.

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Before the SaskTel Jazz Festival (@saskjazz) began, there were jazz events happening nearby in Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver. Musicians attending these events were on a touring schedule that toured them right through Saskatchewan – without even making a pit stop. The Jazz Society saw an opportunity to create an event that would welcome these talented musicians to our province and invite them to perform for our huge community of jazz lovers.

Members of the Jazz Society developed a festival committee that worked together to create the first ever three-day festival in 1987. The Jazz Society and a group of volunteers put their sweat and tears into making the early years of the festival happen. Kevin, who’s been with the festival since 2000, says the same vision has lasted for the entire 35 years. He says the original volunteers deserve a lot of credit for the history of the festival and the impact that it’s had on musicians and arts and culture in Saskatoon. Today, a committee of volunteers continues to work on being a destination for Canadian performers, as well as supporting local musicians.

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The SaskTel Jazz Festival started as an all-jazz music festival with 10 or 12 performances for the first number of years. Although there weren't many corporate sponsors at the time, there was a lot of dedication from the music community. A ton of effort and care was put into building the foundation of the festival by the Jazz Society and volunteers. Kevin says the first few years were all about building capacity, adding new elements, and really developing a festival vision.

Over the last 35 years, Kevin says there have been many memorable moments witnessing legendary artists perform in Saskatoon. It’s pretty incredible the SaskTel Jazz Festival can say Sonny Rollins, one of the biggest legends and innovators of jazz music, has performed here in Saskatoon.

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When Sonny arrived, he couldn’t wait to check out the countryside and see the prairies. Kevin mentioned a lot of the artists are used to living and performing in large cities, so when they come to Saskatchewan, they love seeing the big sky and feeling a slower pace.

For Kevin, sitting at TCU Place and watching Sonny on the stage was a surreal feeling. It reminded him of all those years it took to build up the resources and the capacity to be able to bring an artist like Sonny to the SaskTel Jazz Festival here in Saskatoon, and all the hard work competing with other world-class festivals.

Other notable musicians that have made an appearance at the SaskTel Jazz Festival are:

  • John Legend
  • Aaron Neville
  • Lauren Hill
  • Chick Corea
  • Little Richard
  • Ben Harper
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Something most people don’t know is the SaskTel Jazz Festival has had artists play at care homes in Saskatoon for the last 20 years. Growing up, Kevin played the ukulele at a care home his mom also played at and he remembers how much it meant to the residents. Kevin observed that as great as it is to see a popular artist performing on stage, it’s really something to see them performing at a care home.

Although they won’t be able to run a festival to the capacity they normally do, due to COVID-19, you can expect the scaled-back version to still have that festival feel. Artists this year include The Sheepdogs, The Washboard Union, Whitehorse, Karli June, and many more. From August 7 - 15, the SaskTel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival is returning with live and virtual performances to ensure those who are unable to attend can still enjoy the music.

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SaskTel has been a proud title sponsor for 25 years and we are so excited for the return of the festival after a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic. For more information on what you can expect to see at the 2021 SaskTel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival and to purchase your tickets, we encourage you to visit their website!

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