Detroit Jazz Fest Emphasizes Quality Over Quantity

The Detroit Jazz Festival, which takes place over the Labor Day Weekend, is not the only free jazz festival in the world — there are several — but it might be the biggest. Guitarist Pat Metheny, this year’s Artist-in-Residence, calls it “the hippest jazz festival in the world.”

According to organizers, the 36th edition, which ended Sept. 7, attracted approximately 275,000 attendees over the course of its four days, a 25% increase over last year’s festivities. (Specific attendance figures are difficult to compile given that it’s a ticketless event.) But as the programming proved, it’s not the quantity, but the quality that counts.

Metheny, who played in four different settings, including two with his dynamic drummer Antonio Sanchez and his mentor Gary Burton, was most certainly the biggest draw. His Sunday evening duet with Detroit native Ron Carter at the Wayne State University Pyramid stage was so packed that latecomers could only hear, but not see, what emanated from the concaved arena.

But most of the attractions, more than 70 acts overall, could be considered state-of-the-art. Offerings ranged from clarinetist Anat Cohen’s sinewy world music musings to pianist Joanne Brackeen’s muscular post bop to saxophonist Oliver Lake’s stunning bassless Organ Quartet — a free-jazz powerhouse that, in the wishful-thinking realm, evoked what it might have been like to see Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking stint at New York’s Five Spot in 1959: fearless, risk-taking modern jazz at its most timeless. Other headliners included Kenny Garrett, also from Detroit, Maria Schneider, John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Danilo Perez and the late Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, featuring conductor Carla Bley and bassist Steve Swallow.

There are a lot of events that call themselves “jazz festivals,” from New Orleans to L.A.’s Playboy Jazz Festival, which dilute their bills with crowd-pleasing acts, many of whom have a peripheral relationship, at best, with America’s most indigenous art form. But Detroit takes a more purist approach.

“I’m a jazz musician, that’s been the guiding light of my life since I was very young,” says Chris Collins, the artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival for four years running. “And when I was asked to be the artistic director I was pretty clear about a couple of things: one is Detroit has an amazing history that’s symbiotic with jazz, and I wanted to make sure that we celebrated the city and its great jazz musicians. Secondly, what we’re about here at the Detroit Jazz Festival is jazz. So everything that falls from that tree; it doesn’t exclude any of the other forms that integrate and infuse and corroborate with jazz, but it always comes from that place.”

The guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer,” with his power funk trio featuring vocalist Queen Ester, and Ester Rada (no relation), the Israeli-born Ethiopian singer whose debt to such heroines as Nina Simon, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott is apparent, was about as genre-mixing as the program got. But it was clear that all these acts drew from a similar vocabulary.

Jazz is not an easy form to support, given its limited appeal. According to Nielsen’s year-end report for 2014, jazz is the least-consumed genre in all of recorded music, accounting for less that 2% of sales. And yet Detroit swarmed with crowds over its four days, despite temperatures that topped 100 degrees over its last two, along with the attendant Midwestern humidity.

And the music could be heard everywhere, from street corners to bars and restaurants to the late-night jam sessions at the Detroit Marriott, where most the musicians stayed.

Organizers say the fest’s operating budget is roughly $4 million dollars — a drop in the bucket compared to, say, Lalapalooza’s reported $41 million cost — with an economic impact on the city “in the area of $50 million.”

Certainly the city has something to prove given it’s bankruptcy woes over the past couple years. Signs like “Choose Detroit!” and “Detroit Hustles Harder” abounded in the city, and planners made sure the city’s downtown area — with the streets around the event’s JPMorgan Chase Main Stage closed off to traffic — was spiffed up for the occasion.

The event’s other three venues — all clustered around the waterfront Hart Plaza — were all within a five-minute walking distance of each other, with no sound bleed from stage to stage. The proximity made it easy to hop from one arena to another with relative ease, with the timing of the sets making it possible to see most of the headliners without having to choose one over the other.

And everybody with a vested interest in advancing the music, not to mention boosting the city’s lure as a cultural hotbed on the rebound, seemed to be in on the act, from big-ticket donors like Chase, Quicken Loans, DTE Energy Foundation and conspicuous local jazz label Mack Avenue Records — whose founder Gretchen Valade helped revive the fest when the country’s economy plummeted in 2007 — to the DJs from the city’s handful of jazz stations who introduced many of the acts.

One thing that sets the Detroit Jazz Fest apart from its rivals is the event nature of the programming, which featured the world premieres of Perez’s “Detroit World Suite” and the North American premiere of Metheny’s “Hommage,” a tribute to bassist Eberhard Webber, which reunited Metheny with his former colleague in the old Pat Metheny Band, drummer Danny Gottlieb, after 31 years. (Before his set, Metheny talked about visiting Detroit as a pre-teen with his dad, who was a Dodge dealer in Missouri, as if he were seeing New York for the first time.)

Perez’s set also underscored the educational outreach of the Detroit Jazz Fest’s mandate, featuring musicians from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, visiting musicians from Perez’s native Panama and Detroit’s own Wayne State Big Band, with Collins, himself a local, conducting the band. Before Carter’s popular trio set at the Carhartt Ampitheater Stage on the fest’s last day, it was noted that he started out playing cello in Detroit’s public schools and later switched to the upright bass at Detroit Cass Technical High School. (It’s also notable that Carter, like Perez and Lake to Carter, are also educators.)

Then there’s the festival’s Jazz Infusion Program, entering its seventh year, which pairs students in the area with “Educators in Residence,” comprised of the most cultivated local talents.

Says Collins: “It is an important part of the jazz tradition to be mentors to the next generation.”

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