Montreal's 2010 Jazz Fest: Cyndi Lauper, Lionel Richie and More

Jazz festival advertisingStart with Canada's cultural capital. Add a celeb-packed entertainment roster. Throw in noon-to-midnight concerts (550 of them, to be exact) over 12 days of fun — and voilà! It's Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, www.montrealjazzfest.com. Running from June 25 to July 6, the event is now in its 31st season.

Jazz festival performanceBut why Montreal and why jazz? Co-founder André Ménard says the goal was to restore the city's 1930s and '40s reputation as a hotbed of jazz (the scene took a beating in the '50s when a moral crusade led to a clampdown). Jazz still dominates the program, but different musical genres have always featured. R&B great Ray Charles graced the original 1980 bill, which attracted 12,000. Three decades and an annual 2.5 million visitors later, it's ranked the jazz world's largest festival by Guinness World Records. "It's fresh, joyful, inclusive," says Ménard.

The sheer variety on offer goes a long way toward explaining the event's popularity. Venues range from big symphony halls to little jazz clubs. This year's opening gala spotlights Cassandra Wilson and Lionel Richie. Phenom pianist and nonagenarian Dave Brubeck plays on July 5, while soul legend Smokey Robinson, pop queen Cyndi Lauper, Eric Burdon and Boz Scaggs are making appearances. Rap godfather Gil Scott Heron plays a club gig on opening night. Fans of more straightforward jazz can select from performances by David Sanborn, Sonny Rollins, George Benson and many others.

With 3,000 musicians and performances taking place in 12 concert halls and on nine outdoor stages, you'll need a spreadsheet to track it all. Or you could keep it simple by heading to the outdoor Place des Festivals and just wandering from stage to stage. Inaugurated last year with Stevie Wonder's opening night, this permanent downtown location is free to the public. In fact, all 370 outdoor concerts in the 2010 program are free. It doesn't get better than that.