Detroit Jazz Fest Soldiers On, Dreams Big


Kenny Garrett and Ron Bruner perform at the 2021 Detroit Jazz Fest. Garrett will be celebrated this summer, too.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

The Detroit Jazz Festival, the largest free jazz festival in the world, remains resolutely jazz. You’ll not find Tangerine Dream or Bruce Springsteen on the bill. Thus attendance at its four outdoor stages is healthy, knowledgable and navigable.

“Thirty years ago, the metrics suddenly jumped 20 percent, but it would be mathematically impossible to get 1.5 million people in that area during the festival,” said Chris Collins, DJF Foundation president and artistic director. “We decided to get honest, remove the hyperbole and hired a company to count the crowd. We get between 325,000 and 350,000 attendees over the four days, plus 2.5 million live streamers in 42 countries.”

When DownBeat called Collins, he was outside Milan with Italian bassist/composer Robert Mattei, pianist Lorenzo Blardone and drummer Massimiliano Salina, who will bring their collaboration to the festival, much as Collins did with Omar Sosa and the Havana-Detroit Project and last year’s Tottori-Detroit Reunion, which connected with Japan.

“I’m a big fan of regionalism,” said Collins, “There are so many regions around the world that have their own take on the jazz tradition and have evolved identifiable stylistic traits within the music. A cross-fertilization of cultures brought to Detroit enriches the patron experience.”

That regionalism pertains pointedly to home base, too. “I read a Phil Woods interview in DownBeat where Woods emphasized young talent should create a scene in their own area, be that Kansas City, Chicago, St. Louis or Detroit, they didn’t have to move to New York to move the needle forward on the art form.”

So what is the essence of Detroit jazz?

“Growing up around here, the melodic and harmonic language and craft of bebop, that’s one of the prime parts of the style, so musicians have to know that. But this is a blue collar town so folk are working all kinds of jobs. The whole feel, vibe of the R&B and Motown greats, that simplicity musicians are aware of and strive for, that groove-oriented approach. Then there’s a healthy dose of free and post-avant garde, other ambitions that are about developing a unique voice, interaction and communication, without skipping over feel and craft.”

Bassist Marion Hayden has hardly missed playing the festival in the past quarter century and agrees that the festival has a special homegrown, yet far from provincial, character.

In 2019, Hayden was musical director for veteran Detroit vocalist Sheila Jordan, still touring relentlessly at 94. “Sheila is an incredible artist, had the audience eating out of her hand,” recalled Hayden, “I also sat in with Johnny O’Neal and Mulgrew Miller, a beautiful set at the Pyramid Stage, four hands on the piano.”

Hayden has helmed her all-female quartet Straight Ahead since the ’90s: Alina Morr, Gayelynn McKinney and Kym Wright; and worked under several festival artistic directors, including Frank Malfitano and Terri Pontremoli.

DJF strives to make things as easy as possible for performers. “We provide artists with a multitrack recording of their sets and publishing assistance if they are interested,” Collins said. The latter provision led to a recording of the late Wayne Shorter’s 2017 appearance with Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding and pianist Leo Genovese, who won a 2023 Grammy for Best Improvised Jazz Solo on Shorter’s album Live At The Detroit Jazz Festival.

Despite formative creative triumphs, however, the DJF’s fate was precarious when Ford Motor Co. pulled sponsorship in 2005. Enter Gretchen Valade, a jazz lover, Carhartt heiress and chairwoman of Mack Avenue Records. She founded the Detroit International Jazz Festival Foundation, which took over production and management, fueling a complete renaissance.

“She opened one of the best jazz clubs anywhere also,” Cleveland tenorist Ernie Krivda told DownBeat, “The Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe (in Grosse Pointe), where musicians are treated with respect and provided with luxurious quarters, fabulous food and a first rate piano.” Hayden goes further, “During the pandemic Gretchen provided free meals to out-of-work musicians.”

After a storied life, the woman Collins dubbed a “jazz angel” and Krivda refers to as “the patron saint of Detroit jazz” passed last December at 97. She’d survived the pandemic and helped the DJF hurdle that disaster with defiant custom streaming/broadcasting studios purpose-built in the Marriott HQ. The Gretchen C. Valade Endowment for the Arts, in cahoots with the festival non-profit Foundation, the continued largesse of independent donors and corporate sponsors such as Rocket Mortgage seem set to maintain the phenomenal programming that annually refutes what Collins calls the “one size fits all” format of other festivals.

Collins divulged that this year’s Artist in Residence will be drummer and homeslice Karriem Riggins, and, since three out of four of the 2023 NEA Jazz Masters are from the Motor City, Louis Hayes, Regina Carter and Kenny Garrett will each be celebrated with feature sets. DB

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