The early history of Canadian festivals - ie, from the late 1950s to the late 1970s - is marked by various once-only or short-lived efforts. The term 'jazz festival' was applied to single concerts as early as 1953 - eg, the famous Massey Hall appearance of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie et al. The Vancouver Jazz Society mounted modest one- or two-day festivals 1958-60 but the first major event in Canada was a Toronto Jazz Festival held over four days in 1959 at the CNE Grandstand with more than 30 local and international bands.
In Montreal five annual festivals were produced at a succession of venues, beginning in 1961 at La Comédie-Canadienne and concluding in 1965 at PDA, again in each case with local bands and US headliners. Another Toronto Jazz Festival, 1963-6, offered a single night of local bands at Casa Loma. In July 1974, the travelling Belvedere King Size Jazz Festival, notable as an early instance of the corporate sponsorship of jazz in Canada, played Toronto (Varsity Stadium), Winnipeg (Winnipeg Arena) and Vancouver (Pacific Coliseum).
The festival movement in Canada began in earnest in 1978 with the first of two 'Festijazz' organized by Doudou Boiçel (of Montreal's Rising Sun nightclub) at PDA with a lineup of US jazz and blues musicians. The same year the first of four annual touring festivals of jazz and freely-improvised music, was mounted under the banner 'Ear It Live by the Music Gallery and presented in Toronto, Montreal and other Ontario and Quebec cities.
Over three days in late June 1979, the bassist Charles Biddle organized 'Jazz de chez nous' at the Expo Theatre of Man and His World in Montreal. On the same weekend in Toronto Ontario Place introduced the first of seven annual festivals of major Canadian and US musicians. In July of 1979 bassist Jim McHarg established the first Molson's Jazz Festival, a weekend of local dixieland and traditional jazz bands at Harbourfront, Toronto. In Vancouver, the New Orchestra Workshop sponsored the Creative Music Festival 1979-81.
The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (FIJM) and the Jazz City International Jazz Festival in Edmonton, were established in 1980, the former with seven concerts 2-10 July and the latter presenting 20 concerts 17-24 August. Festivals followed during the 1980s in many other Canadian cities, their rise aided by the sponsorship of cigaret, beer and - in the case of the FIJM, with a budget exceeding $5 million by 1989 - industrial companies. Canadian festivals typically include major presentations in concert halls, ancillary activities in nightclubs, and concerts on outdoor stages, the last usually on a free-admission basis.
The Calgary International Jazz Festival had its genesis in a single-day, outdoor event 1980-5 on Prince's Island Park, before growing to 10 days by 1987. The Ottawa International Jazz Festival was established as a trad-jazz event in 1981 at Major's Hall Park. Its programming grew more contemporary and internationally-based as the festival moved in turn to the Astrolab in 1984, the NAC and its environs 1985-8, and Confederation Park as of 1989. The artistic directorship of the Calgary and Ottawa jazz festivals has changed frequently.
The jazz-related Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV) was established in 1983. Several festivals were mounted during the mid-1980s in Toronto, among them the Molson Toronto International Jazz Festival in 1984, 'Great Jazz on the Lake' in 1985 and 1986 (the first bringing together the Ontario Place and Harbourfront events, the second based at Harbourfront alone), and the du Maurier International Jazz Festival in 1985 and 1986. The last was reconstituted by Roy Thomson Hall in 1987 as du Maurier Downtown Jazz, with Jim Galloway as artistic director, and subsumed the Harbourfront activities. In 1991 it came under the aegis of the newly-created Toronto Downtown Jazz Society.
In 1985 Vancouver's Pacific Jazz and Blues Festival Association (later, Coastal Jazz and Blues Society) introduced the Pacific Jazz and Blues Festival (du Maurier International Jazz Festival, as of 1986) and the Victoria Jazz Society under Darryl Mar established JazzFest International. In 1986 the bassist Michel Cloutier established les Nuits Bleue's Internationales de Jazz in Quebec City clubs and in 1987 the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival was introduced in Saskatoon under the direction of Jim Hill, and the Atlantic Jazz Festival in Halifax under Don Palmer.
By 1990, when events were also in place in Rimouski, Que, Moncton, NB, and Winnipeg, jazz festivals were a major element of the cultural life of their respective cities and represented one of the most significant developments in music in Canada during the previous decade. Festival attendance nationwide neared 2 million annually. Many of the major events are held in late June and early July, allowing organizers to co-ordinate their programming and share the artists' fees and travel expenses. Westcan Jazz, an umbrella organization of festivals in Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary and Saskatoon, was established in 1987 for this purpose.