Fest honors Detroit's jazz legacy


In the past two years the Detroit International Jazz Festival has showcased Detroit's jazz tradition alongside those of Chicago and Philadelphia. But the 2009 festival -- the 30th anniversary of the event -- is all about the home team.

The annual Labor Day weekend festival is marking its landmark birthday by doubling down on its celebration of Detroit. Most notably, the festival has commissioned its 2009 artist-in-residence, bassist and composer John Clayton, to write a major work that pays homage to icons of Detroit jazz history and the city's architecture -- the Pontiac-bred Jones brothers (Hank, Thad and Elvin) and the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit.

The commission, funded by a $50,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation of Chicago, will be given its world premiere on the closing night of the festival Sept. 7 by the Clayton Brothers Quintet and the Detroit-based Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra. The piece will be cast as a concerto grosso -- a small body of soloists working within the fabric of a large ensemble. The commission, the first of its kind for the Detroit festival, represents another step forward in its expanding artistic ambitions.

The 2009 festival will also focus on great families in jazz and include at least one other commissioned work, according to festival executive director Terri Pontremoli. The lineup will be announced in April. The 2009 festival will be Sept. 4-7 at Hart Plaza and the downtown core. Admission is free.

Pianist Hank Jones, a leading figure who turned 90 in 2008 and was scheduled to perform at last year's festival but canceled, is on the festival's want list but not yet confirmed. His younger brothers, Elvin Jones (1927-2004), a drummer, and Thad Jones (1923-86), a composer, trumpeter and bandleader, are both recognized as innovators.

The Joyce Foundation grant, which will be announced Tuesday, will also support residency activities for the Los Angeles-based Clayton, who will visit Detroit six or seven times to work with college and high school students and mentor Gwinnell, 34, an accomplished young composer, pianist and bandleader on the local scene.

Clayton, 56, is a bassist with a sound as big and warm as a bear hug. But he's best known as a charismatic composer and arranger and coleader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, one of the finest big bands in jazz. He's a logical choice for the Detroit festival because he was deeply influenced by the big band writing of Thad Jones, is himself part of a notable jazz family -- his brother Jeff plays saxophone and his son Gerald is a fast-rising pianist -- and because he's a natural communicator.

"You want someone who is wonderful with people and students and are just pied pipers of a good time," said Pontremoli. "John makes people smile, and he's got chops like mad and can do all kinds of things."

The Detroit Jazz Festival, the largest free jazz festival in North America, is recognized nationally by critics and audiences as one of the country's leading festivals devoted to unadulterated jazz. Produced by the Detroit International Jazz Festival Foundation, founded by philanthropist Gretchen Valade, the quality of the festival has risen steadily since Pontremoli took the artistic reins in 2007, with thematic programming, an artist in residence and a broader menu of significant jazz musicians and styles.

The commission grew out of Pontremoli's desire to honor Detroit's jazz legacy. She brought the Guardian Building, an art deco masterpiece that symbolizes Detroit at its zenith, into the equation to enhance the appeal to the Joyce Foundation, which encourages cultural groups to reach beyond their core audiences. In this case, the festival is hoping to attract architectural aficionados.

The foundation supports the creation of new works by artists of color for cultural groups in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Festival leaders are also planning events under the umbrella of "Another Great Day in Detroit," including noontime concerts at the Guardian Building beginning in April and lectures and tours of the building.
The first is a meet-the-artist party with Clayton at the Guardian Building on Feb. 10.


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