Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Jazz Love in Detroit: First and Lasting Impressions

Detroit is not a destination city. Its depressed economy, high unemployment, and reputed urban crime rates have served to separate Motor City from more appealing centers of Midwest tourism and conventioneering. But consider the origins of jazz, a music that rose like the Phoenix from the ashes of adversity, swathed in a spirit of hope in the future and simply joy in living another day. Jazz of course was not born in Detroit, but the city nevertheless embraces this music as if it is indeed its native tongue, and when Labor Day weekend comes around, Detroit is no longer Mo’town. It’s Bop City.

This was my first Detroit Jazz Festival, and the massive gathering at the continent’s largest free jazz festival, one of the world’s largest jazz happenings, offered a striking contrast to the typical attention paid to America’s own music in our own country. From the first scatted verses from Dianne Reeves on Friday’s opening night to the last hot notes of the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Band in the final hour of Labor Day, more than half a million eager listeners flocked to six stages to see and hear more than 100 jazz acts representing the full range of the genre. And of course, this is Detroit, there had to be a smattering of the Motown Sound, most notably the opening night tribute to hometown legend Marvin Gaye (and featuring Twin Cities native Jose James blowing out the field on vocals). But unlike some big festivals and many “jazz” clubs today, the Detroit Jazz Festival is thoroughly focused on jazz. This year, the theme was Brotherly Love, connecting the jazz legends of Detroit and Philadelphia. Native Philadelphian and honorary Detroiter Christian McBride, a bass legend-to-be, served generously and intelligently as Artistic Director.

Metro Detroit is home to about 5 million residents. Labor Day Weekend, about 15% spent their free time at the jazz festival. Of course there were many visitors, like me, from out of town, but given the cost of travel these days, it is a fair guess that the vast majority on Hart Plaza were local. And it is not as if there was nothing else to do in Detroit this weekend. In neighboring Pontiac, an even bigger “Arts, Beats and Eats” festival enticed about a million; the famed Belle Isle Grand Prix drew its share of car racing fans. Yet, given those options, as well as the usual array of family picnics, over half a million chose jazz. Here in the Twin Cities, with a metro area about two-thirds the size of Detroit, we draw maybe 25,000 to our annual jazz festival. Why?

Minneapolis in many ways is a much more vibrant jazz community than Detroit, given the number of musicians, schools, and jazz oriented venues. The Detroit festival, now in its 29th year, nearly folded up its tent a few years back due to lack of funding and an erosion of its “real jazz” lineup. But the DJF now has something we don’t have in the Twin Cities—community support through the newly formed Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation. The Foundation is largely supported by a ten million dollar endowment from Detroit’s Mack Avenue Records Chairperson, Gretchen Valade, as well as a growing membership base of corporate and private donors. Like Monterey and other major festivals, DJF is a year-round operation. After spending four days not only listening to some of the best jazz on the planet but watching the well-oiled machine of festival operations, I wonder where our struggling Twin Cities Jazz Festival would be if, say, a 3M or Target heir decided to invest in the future of American music?

The Detroit Festival has a three-pronged mission: 1) foster the history and nurture the development of jazz; 2) perpetuate Detroit’s significant jazz legacy through educational and collaborative opportunities accessible to all; and 3) present a world-class signature event that makes Detroit a tourist destination. The 2008 event succeeded on all dimensions.
Throughout the weekend, we learned and heard about the many influences of Detroit and Philadelphia on the development of the music. Philly native Benny Golson told stories about playing as a teen with fellow Philadelphia John Coltrane. Ravi Coltrane (embodying the merger of Detroit and Philadelphia) led a transcendent tribute to his mother (and Detroit native) Alice Coltrane. Detroit natives Gerald Wilson (who at nearly 90 was perhaps the oldest performer and certainly the oldest big band leader on site), iconic pianist/educator Barry Harris, legendary guitarist Kenny Burrell, superstar vocalist Dianne Reeves, elegant pianist and composer Geri Allen, alto sax star Kenny Garrett, the brash man of many reeds, James Carter, and many more helped us trace the development of jazz from early bop to modern avant garde, as did their compatriots from Philadelphia, saxman Sonny Fortune, piano lyricist Kenny Barron, tireless composer and bandleader Jimmy Heath, inventive trombonist Robin Eubanks... and of course host Christian McBride.

Not only did the many performances and commentary nurture appreciation for the legacy of jazz, but on the Here and Now and Stage, rising stars like Sachal Vasandani, Esperenza Spalding and the Brubeck Institute Quintet, gave us a taste of the vitality of the present and promise of the future, as did some of the true innovators of the current day on the Mack Avenue Records Pyramid Stage--Robin Eubanks’ EB-3 (via loops, Robin managed a trombone quintet, solo), the high energy Arts and Crafts Quartet led by Matt Wilson, and the exciting compositions of pianist Gerald Clayton.

The festival was not just about performance but about promoting jazz as local culture, across generations. The Pepsi Talk Tent provided opportunities to hear from the legends that performed throughout the weekend; the Kid Bop stage provided a variety of performances and demonstrations aimed at the youngest jazz fans, complete with colored chalk and other appealing activities. The Jazz Garden stage presented student bands throughout the weekend, and many area college jazz bands were featured as well, often in the company of such heroes as John Faddis, Terrel Stafford and Jimmy Heath.

And finally, without a doubt, Detroit presented a world class event. The sea of red-shirted volunteers covered the festival grounds like an army of ants, answering questions, directing traffic, supervising and supporting the artists, and maintaining a safe and orderly routine. They were a genuinely friendly bunch, some clearly jazz aficionados, some curious to learn more. The food vendors were busy and lines long, but everyone seemed in good humor and committed to making this festival a showcase for Detroit hospitality.

A four-day annual event will not by itself make Detroit a tourist destination. But at least for Labor Day Weekend, the Detroit Jazz Festival should be on the top of the list –worldwide—for jazz destinations. Next year will be the 30th anniversary celebration.
Photos: Three generations of Detroit/Philadelphia jazz, top to bottom: An energetic 89, Gerald Wilson led his acclaimed orchestra in a battle of the bands with the Count Basie Orchestra; pianist and composer Geri Allen appeared with both the Christian McBride band and Ravi Coltrane's tribute to late mom Alice; Philly bassist Christian McBride served ably as Artistic Director and the festival's busiest performer. (Photos: Andrea Canter)