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Detroit Jazz Fest Celebrates 30th Year

Of the Oakland Press

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Robert McCabe recalls standing on Detroit's Hart Plaza at the start of Labor Day weekend in 1980, surveying the crowd arriving for the city's first jazz festival and thinking, "Wow, it worked!"

He'll feel the same way this year, when the four-day event, now known as the Detroit International Jazz Festival and considered the largest free jazz festival in North America, celebrates its 30th year with the tattoo of the 36-member Alma College Percussion Ensemble.

"It's different than it was the first year," says McCabe, who still works as a consultant with the Detroit International Festival Foundation, which has produced and managed the festival since 2006. "It's still here, though, and it's still a great, great event.

"It was hard to do (in 1980) because at the time people were not used to coming downtown for entertainment. But now we see 750,000 people coming downtown ever Labor Day weekend, so we can still say it worked, can't we?"

"It's miraculous we're still around," adds Terry Pontremoli, who's been the festival's Cleveland-based executive director since 2007. "The great thing is it's not just a festival anymore. This used to be just the festival, and now we're doing so many great things and we're doing them throughout the year and being great partners to other institutions who present and teach the music.

"It's an ongoing effort, and it culminates every year at the festival itself."

The festival, known as DJF, has indeed grown in ways McCabe and the other founders dreamed of. The event now encompasses a footprint that stretches from Hart Plaza on the Detroit River up Woodward Avenue into the Campus Martius Park area, with four stages playing host to 58 acts this year. The presence of university and even high school bands, often collaborating with national artists, attests to the DJF's continuing educational outreach, while a Jazz Talk Tent, relocated this year to Congress Street on the festival's north end, lets fans inside the music with planned appearances by Pontiac piano legend Hank Jones, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and his biographer Michelle Mercer, and a DownBeat Blindfold Test with pianist Charles McPherson.

DJF also presents live performances around the metro area throughout the year, including a recent work-in-progress airing of festival Artist in Residence John Clayton's "T.H.E. Family, Detroit" suite at Cliff Bell's and a mid-week Detroit River cruise on the Ovation Yacht.

The DJF even has its own Apple iPhone application this year.

"The artistic direction they're going in is really good," says John Penney, director of creative development at the Farmington Hills-based American Music Research Foundation and host of the new "JazzFest Detroit" program debuting at 7 p.m. Sept. 12 on WRCJ-Fm (90.9).

"The increase in emphasis on education, the extension of activities throughout the year are all great innovations. It's in a very healthy place right now."

That wasn't always the case, however.


The festival certainly started on a strong note. It was the brainchild of McCabe at Detroit Renaissance, an organization created to provide economic stimulus projects for the city in the early '70s, including housing projects and the construction of what is now the GM Detroit Renaissance Center.

"We had concentrated on physical developments," McCabe says, "but we needed to do some additional things that would have a more rapid economic impact on the downtown area." The idea of a jazz festival -- developed concurrently with the original Detroit Grand Prix -- came to McCabe "in view of Detroit's history as a great jazz center back in the twenties and the strong music heritage of the public schools. Music was a very important factor, and it was time to revive it."

Partnering with sister city Montreux, Switzerland -- itself the home of a renowned jazz festival -- the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival launched in 1980, combining free shows in Hart Plaza with ticketed performances at other downtown venues. McCabe warmly remembers trumpeter Oscar Peterson's performance at the first festival, as well as singer Carmen McRae telling a soaked outdoor crowd that "you people must be crazy. I would never come out to see me in this rain!"

A succession of legends and up-and-comers graced the festival stages over the years, and the economic impact was much as McCabe and Detroit Renaissance hope; one study indicated that Montreux-Detroit was bringing $90 million into the area each Labor Day weekend.

Times changed, however, and not necessarily for the better. Detroit Renaissance got out of the live event business in 1994, with the Music Hall Center taking over the jazz festival. Sponsors tightened their purse strings, and the advent of Arts, Beats & Eats in Pontiac brought increased competition for both corporate dollars and attendance. The festival made its own adjustments, moving to an all-free format and broadening the definition of "jazz" to include performers with broader appeal such as Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls and Dr. John.

"I think it's impossible to run a pure jazz festival now," former executive Frank Malfitano explained in 2006. "You need the (attendance) numbers to attract sponsors. We're trying to keep jazz at the core and add things to make it audience friendly."

The AMRF's Penney acknowledges that when that happened, "people were scared. We were worried it wasn't going to be jazz anymore. My fear was it was going to turn into a Smooth Jazz festival. It took me a couple years to appreciate that...in the long view, it may have been necessary to do it that way and lure people down there."


What could have been the festival's death knell occurred in 2005, when the Ford Motor Company withdrew its $250,000 title sponsorship. The DJF was, in effect, saved by Gretchen Valade, heiress of the Carhartt clothing empire and chairman of the then-new Mack Avenue Records label. Endowing the DJF with $10 million and, along with Mack Avenue partner Tom Robinson, refreshing the festival's administration, Valade, a longtime jazz enthusiast, put the festival's current spate of growth in motion.

"The festival has always been a great festival, no doubt about that," says executive producer Pontremoli. "It's always been about the music. The audience has always been there for it. Now we're starting to get better at telling our own story and are starting to reap the benefits of that."

Despite tough economic times, this year's festival has, in fact, lured a record amount of independent sponsorship money -- a report $825,000 so far in corporate donations, grants and gifts to its Jazz Guardian Campaign -- while membership in its Rhythm Section club has doubled to around 170, according to Pontremoli.

The DJF also secured a prestigious Joyce Foundation grant for Clayton's "T.H.E. Family, Detroit" [i]concerto grosso[/i] -- which pays tribute to Thad, Hank and Elvin Jones (hence the T.H.E.) -- and has received funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, NEA Jazz Masters Live, the Kresge Foundation, the Erb Foundation and the Michigan Council on Arts and Cultural Affairs.

"We've exceeded our goals in every category -- and in a year where it's really ugly out here," says Pontremoli. "It goes to show that you've just got to kind of keep your head down and plug away and that hard work will eventually pay off."


Those successes have allowed the DJF to celebrate its 30th anniversary as what Downbeat magazine calls "an ongoing testimony for the city's belief in the music." This year's festival will certainly have its contemporary component -- including acts such as 2004 Thelonious Monk Award winner Gretchen Parlato, pianist Alfredo Rodriguez (a Quincy Jones discovery) and vocalist Jose James, who was part of the Marvin Gaye tribute at the 2008 DJF. But it will also be extremely mindful of its past.

Subtitled "Keeping Up With The Joneses," the festival will actually honor a number of jazz families with performances by the Clayton Brothers, the Brubecks, Larry and Julian Coryell, John and Bucky Pizzarelli, Pete and Juan Escovedo and keyboardist Brian Auger with children Karma and Savannah as part of his Oblivion Express. Detroit's famed Clark Sisters will be part of the DJF's Gospel Monday, while members of the McKinney family, whose lineage dates back to the 1940s, reunite as the McKinfolk for an hour-long set.

There will be a tribute to the late organist Lyman Woodard, and an all-star group led by bassist and educator will recreate Detroit trumpet great Donald Byrd's 1963 recording "A New Perspective," which is also a nod to the Blue Note label's 50th anniversary.

But nowhere will Detroit's legacy be celebrated more than in bandleader/composer Wilson's "Detroit." The commissioned pieces is an eight-piece suite that includes a salute to Valade ("Miss Gretchen") as well as sonic homages to "Blues on Belle Isle," "Cass Tech," where Wilson attended and studied music, "The Detroit River" and Detroit's jazz history ("Before Motown").

"Detroit is like home to me," says the Mississippi-born Wilson, who turns 91 on Friday, a 1990 NEA Jazz Master who will premiere Detroit at 4:30 p.m. Sunday before its Sept. 29 release on album. "Detroit is fabulous. There's a love there and a freedom there. I got to go to school and study...and there was no segregation, and you could go to Belle Isle and there were black and white people there, all together...

"And it was such a mecca for jazz. Not only could I learn about the music -- I could hear it there, (in) so many places, (like) the Greystone Ballroom, (from) so many people. So ('Detroit') lets me thank the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan for allowing me to do so much."

Taken together, Pontremoli says these elements, combined with the festival's financial fortunes, are getting DJF off to a strong start to its fourth decade.

"You cannot ignore how important Detroit is to this music," she explains. "It slaps you in the face. I keep saying that Detroit is every bit as important a music city as New Orleans. It just [i]is[/i]. To be able to put together this kind of festival really shows that, I think."

Festival founder McCabe adds that, "What I'm most pleased about is it's got a steady base of people who love the festival and will work to make it happen. [i]I'm[/i] still active in the festival -- and I'm never leaving. They'll have to drag me out."

Because, as McCabe might say, it's still working.

The 30th Detroit International Jazz Festival takes place Friday through Monday (Sept. 4-7) from Hart Plaza to Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit. Admission is free. Visit www.detroitjazzfest.com.

Web Site: www.detroitjazzfest.com

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