Kensington Market Jazz Festival returns for its third year to celebrate the pulse, passion, and people of Toronto’s colourful Kensington Market.

By Rick Muller

Whether it’s piano chords wafting through a home’s open windows, a sax wailing from a basement bar, or buskers in full swing on the sidewalk, the distinct sounds of a neighbourhood can reflect its residents and define an area’s vibe.

It makes sense then that community was top of mind for award-winning jazz singer-songwriter Molly Johnson and her partners Genevieve Marentette, and Ori Dagan as they established what would become Kensington Market Jazz Festival. Now in its third year, the annual September fest has grown into one of the most unique and community-fuelled music celebrations in Toronto, and one that accurately reflects the city’s bohemian pocket.

“The market is a very magical place and music is a game changer, a healer and a unifier of people,” says Johnson, who was born in Kensington Market and raised her two children there. “It’s so non-judgmental here… there is always someone here who’s just a little bit crazier than you.”

For adventurers stepping away from the glitz of TIFF, the streets of Kensington Market will be buzzing from September 14 through 16, with 24 venues showcasing 400 Canadian musicians with 170 performances all run by 150 volunteers. The festival is cash only and proceeds go straight back to the artists.

“We built this on fumes and took the model of donor-funded rather than big corporate sponsorships,” says Johnson. “People in Kensington are really committed to the culture and music of Toronto.”

Many of the venues and their accompanying acts reflect the neighbourhood’s uniqueness. On Bellevue Avenue, a 127-year old synagogue will host performances, as will St. Stephen’s Anglican Church just up the road. There’s also a youth stage in the Chinese Community Centre on Augusta Avenue that features musicians under the age of 25.

“There are some incredible musicians coming up, who we are proud to showcase,” says Johnson.

The festival itself is a dazzling burst of creative energy that lasts one weekend, but its endeavours carry on throughout the year in a variety of ways.

We produce albums over the winter and have free piano lessons for kids all year, which are paid for by local menswear shop owner Tom of Tom’s Place,” says Johnson. “We’re also players who work in jazz bars every night, so we’re in the trenches with them.”

For Johnson, her cofounders, and the army of volunteers they’ve gathered around them, the weekend is very much a grassroots passion play, which couldn’t be more suitable for the community it represents. The Kensington Market Jazz Festival brings out the neighbourhood’s best self for one weekend in September, and you should definitely stop by for a set or two, if you can swing it.

MOLLY JOHNSON PHOTO BY CHRIS NICHOLLS, FESTVIAL PHOTOS BY JASON GARETT HATCHER