Calgary International Blues Fest, a Place For All

Jazz singer Cindy McLeod is passionate about many things, but two or them are front and centre when she talks about The Calgary International Blues Fest, which runs from July 31 to August 6 this year at various venues. Since 2005, McLeod has been producer and artistic director of the fest, and the focus of her work is bringing people and great music together, so, music and inclusivity are cornerstones of the fest.

1. The festival embraces and promotes inclusivity

McLeod not only provides free events to decrease barriers to people enjoying the blues, she also encourages volunteers from agencies assisting the struggling and the homeless, like Calgary’s Alpha House, among her 500 volunteers.

“There is something important that happens when these (marginalized) people put on their volunteer T-shirt and become part of a team,” McLeod says. She will keep on inviting struggling people to volunteer even though working with the population has challenges. “It works and it doesn’t work in that today you might have five people and then you get none. Tomorrow you might have 20 and then you get none. And I don’t give a shit. I want the door to be open. You want to talk about inclusivity? You and I could talk for hours.”

She mentions a volunteer from one of these agencies who is profoundly deaf and had become so much a part of the fest family that he throws his arms around her when he sees her, then grins and lifts his T-shirt to reveal all his previous volunteer T-shirts underneath.

To include all, there are many free events. “All the front half of the week is free, because accessibility is really important to me personally. So, there’s the opening night at the King Eddy and it’s a dance party.

“We do a noon performance at the cathedral downtown. There’s a daycare that comes, there are people in wheelchairs. It’s really accessible and people bring their lunch.” 

Check the schedule to discover more free events.

2. McLeod strives to give opportunities to Black musicians —  after all, that’s were the blues came from

“It’s much like rock and roll, Black people are being pushed out of the blues. Ironically, it was a Black gay man who created rock and roll, Little Richard. You can’t find a Black band anywhere in rock and roll today, and jazz, it’s pretty similar,” says McLeod.

“All the people that I hire, (from) the States particularly … are telling me that they can’t even get a gig at a festival. You look at the bill and it’s all rock and rollers, who have now branded themselves blues guys, taking all the gigs. It’s pretty hideous. There’s all the investment from the record labels and there is zero Black presence in the infrastructure either.”

To show appreciation for the music’s source, hear the raw blues of Texas-born Sugaray Rayford, the Beale Street rooted Memphissippi Sounds duo, and Louisiana’s up-and-coming blues torch carrier D.K. Harrell.

3. Musicians are better than any textbook for helping people understand history

“I have Russell Jackson (singer, songwriter, and B.B. King’s bass player) and Tony Coleman (King’s drummer) coming up anyway. Wednesday night I always do a series called A Walk Through Blues History. And it’s about context,” notes McLeod.

“A lot of people … just don’t really fully comprehend the language, the history. So, these guys are going to talk about this very thing. They are both really articulate. It won’t be militant.”

The event is traditionally at The Eddy Wednesday night, hosted by Calgary’s own John Rutherford, who is currently enjoying international attention with his new EP Midnight Microphone. “He’s conducting this interview for the walk through and he does his homework and he hauls out his records and people walk in and go, ‘God, where did you find that?’

“We talked about this the other day, ‘Am I the right person?’ John, you’re exactly the right person. Your new album brought you to this place. You’re so respectful (of the traditions and music).”

4. Inclusivity means honouring the women who have played an important role in the blues since the start

“Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith … these women were sexually liberated; they were liberated in every way. They were the bosses. They had businesses. They hired men. And you and I were taught about Gloria Steinem. It was white washed,” says McLeod.

To that end, the forever-amazing guitarist and singer Rita Chiarelli plays Sunday, as does Texas-born Diunna Greanleaf, who has created her own version of the blues, and Canadian Angelique Francis. And that’s just a start. Look into the schedule for more knock-your-socks-into-next-Tuesday ladies.

5. Throughout the week, it’s all about music and musicians. 

“It’s meaningful work for musicians, exactly what I’m talking about, creating a legacy. It’s teaching musicians that they are worthy of dignity and respect. These are struggles I guess after a fashion, but more, it’s been of great reward. The blues has always had a loyal fan base in Calgary, but there was never any organization underneath it. That’s part of it, to create something that lives and breathes for the blues in Calgary.”

6. As an organizer, it’s hard to pick just a few, but …

“I have a thing on the Sunday night that’s kind of groovy and it’s a Part Two where I have pulled harmonica players from across Canada together and put them one setting with a backing band,” says McLeod. “They’re all world-class players and they all have surprising different styles, and people have never seen this before, it’s never happened in Canada before. So, I did that the first time last year and I’m doing it again this year. I have Shawn Hall from Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer, Big Dave McLean, Steve Mariner who is with Colin James and Harry Manx.”

Calgary International Blues Fest runs July 31 to August 6 at various venues around town. For tickets and the full schedule please go to