If my first Detroit Jazz Festival (2008) was a revelation, my second last weekend was at least as much an ear-opening and even more inspiring experience.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary with a focus on Detroit’s jazz lineage, the theme “Keepin’ Up With Joneses” not only recognized the legacy of native sons Hank, Elvin and Thad Jones, but brought “home” famed Detroiters Sheila Jordan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Charles McPherson, Geri Allen, Louis Hayes, Bennie Maupin, Karriem Riggins, Rodney Whitaker and Carlos McKinney, and a few more who made the Detroit area home, including Gerald Wilson and Marcus Belgrave.
But it was not all about Detroit, as the festival sought to celebrate other musical families—the Brubecks, the Heaths, the Coryells, the Pizzarellis, the Escovedos, the Claytons. Last year’s Artist in Residence Christian McBride appeared in several configurations, as did the 2009 Artist in Residence and another noted bassist, John Clayton. In further tribute to Detroit and the festival’s long history, there were world premiers of commissioned works by Gerald Wilson and John Clayton; a recreation of Detroit legend Donald Byrd’s Blue Note recording, A New Perspective; and recognition of four of Detroit’s “Jazz Guardians” (Hank Jones, Marcus Belgrave, festival founder Robert McCabe, and longtime Detroit jazz educator Ernie Rodgers).
With over 100 music performances scattered across 3 ½ days and five stages, it’s easy to identify the DJF as one of the world’s largest jazz events, and the nation’s largest free jazz festival. Yet the significance of the DJF transcends the art itself, as one of the city’s critical opportunities to push aside its economic challenges and negative public image, and instead show the world a diverse community bound together by artistic pride and a commitment to cultural education equaled by few urban centers.
Jazz needs Detroit as much as Detroit needs jazz. And for 750,000 on Labor Day Weekend, Detroit and jazz are inseparable and inspiring.
Experiencing the friendly efficiency and artistic integrity of the 2009 DJF, it’s hard to remember that only three years ago, the attainment of a thirty-year anniversary seemed unlikely. In 2006, a jazz angel in the form of Carhartt heiress/Mack Avenue Records owner Gretchen Valade offered a ten million-dollar endowment to ensure the future of jazz in Detroit and stimulate further funding efforts.
Valade was a familiar presence throughout the festival, as was Festival Executive Director Terri Pontremoli and an army of spirited, usually smiling volunteers. Having convinced several friends to try Detroit this year, I am confident my recommendations are still credible. In particular, the Detroit festival boasts:
Only free music—no ticketing of selected headliners, everything is free to everyone.
Mostly open seating--there are a few rows reserved for VIP seating (for donors) at the three largest venues, otherwise its first come, first seated, and comfort in setting up your own chair if you prefer. Like other outdoor festival’s I’ve attended, I’ve never had a problem leaving my chair to hit another stage or concessions, always finding it where I left it. There’s an etiquette among jazz festival attendees that seems universal.
Diverse music largely within the umbrella of “jazz”―and leaning more toward bebop and post bop mainstream eras with a small smattering of Detroit’s “other” sounds that often find their way into jazz—Motown, soul, gospel, blues, hip-hop. None of the smooth palp that confuses naïve audiences about the difference between Kenny Garrett and Kenny G.
More headline acts per day than any one individual can attend (or absorb!)
Strong emphasis on “passing it on” via performances from middle and high school bands, area and national college bands, even a “Kid Bop” tent for the youngest fans to enjoy some hands-on experiences. College student musicians appeared on the main stages with such luminaries as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Stefon Harris and Eddie Daniels.