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New jazz festival director wants to put Detroit stamp on the weekend

for Journal Register Newspapers

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Chris Collins was "flattered" when Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation chairman (and chief financier) Gretchen Valade called him in late last year to pick his brain about programming for 2012.

And then he was a bit surprised when she offered him the job as the festival's Artistic Director -- although he acknowledges that "it wasn't something i immediately jumped all over."

"It wasn't something I was looking for in my life," explains Collins, 48, a Detroit native and director of Jazz Studies at Wayne State University who's been on the festival's Board of Trustees for many years and has served as an adviser for its educational activities. "The truth is I feel really full and very blessed with the amount of performances I get to do and, of course the university stuff.

"So it was a tough decision. I had to had to find a way to balance something that was very important to me, personally, and very important to a lot of people --and to the city. In the end I decided it was just another joyous extension of being an artist and an opportunity to express that artistry in a different way. So I said 'yes.' "

Collins hasn't looked back since then -- and really hasn't had time to. Taking over from Terri Pontremoli's six-year reign over the Labor Day weekend festival -- operations duties this year have been taken on by Paxahau, which also produces the annual Movement Electronic Music Festival -- Collins has overseen not only the booking and programming of the festival but also the continuing development of events such as the Detroit Torino Urban Jazz Project and the J.C. Heard JazzWeek @ Wayne, both of which he helped to launch as a festival board member, as well as the festival's Youth Jazz Vocalist Competition, National Saxophone Competition and other outreach and educational programs.

"I'm able to reach into communities I don't work in as a musician now," Collins says. "It's exciting to find out about new talent and finding musicians around the country who are pouring their heart and souls into projects and to bring them to (Detroit) to celebrate what they do and what we do.

"It's not just about booking Sonny Rollins and Wynton Marsalis -- it's amazing that we do that, for free (for the audience) -- but also finding all those other things that really make this (festival) so unique."

Collins, of course, brings a formidable set of his own credentials to the job. With a bachelor's degree in Jazz Studies from Wayne State and a masters in jazz composition for Northern Illinois University, his resume includes stints playing live and recording with the Phil Collins Big Band, Doc Severinsen, Michael Feinstein, Mel Torme and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He's taught courses and workshops in Japan, Italy, South Africa and Scotland, and he's written extensively about artists, styles and musical technologies.

His latest solo album, "Electro Monk, Acoustic Funk" came out in 2010.

Being the DJF's artistic director, however, has taken him even deeper into the music -- but also beyond it.

"The learning curve has been interesting," says Collins, who's married and has a 14-year-old son. "I can say that every year I've been involved with anything, but certainly with the festival there's been a lot of new challenges." But he's hardly daunted by the non-musical side of his new job.

"There's an organizational structure and protocols, but with my years with the university and doing my own grant projects and things like that, I have those tools," he says. "I know how to work towards deadlines. You do have to work hard to make sure those structural elements of hierarchy and communication with the artists is secured, but that's not foreign for me."

Collins says there are a few "catch phrases" to express the goals for this year's DJF, but it ultimately comes down to one thing. "Gretchen's interest is pretty basic; she wants this to be the greatest jazz festival in the world, and a [i]Detroit[/b] jazz festival that really does celebrate the music of Detroit and the jazz heritage of the city," he says. That led to the establishment of a Homecoming Band led by Marcus Belgrave and featuring Detroit expatriates such as Curtis Fuller, Kenny Garrett, Geri Allen, Marion Hayden and Louis Hayes, as well as a Mentor-Disciple series celebrating the relationships of saxophonists George Benson and Rick Margitza and multi-instrumentalist Gene Parker with vibraphonist Rob Pipho. Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records has put together a Superband for the festival, and Collins has bulked up the after-hours jam sessions with guaranteed appearances by players such as Margitza, Rodney Whitaker, Dwight Adams and others.

The DJF's international reputation, meanwhile, will be holstered by Marsalis' and Rollins' first appearances since 1987 and guitarist Pat Metheny's first performance ever, as well as by special collaborations such as the New Orleans-themed "A Night in Treme" with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and others.

"We want to create an environment where musicians can come in, play, interact, display what they do," Collins explains. "I feel it's my responsibility to do as much as I can to have these opportunities...and let these artists know there's a reason for them to be here and do these things.

"We want to be an organization that inspires artists to be at their best and to push themselves creatively, knowing there's a venue looking for that in the artistic world."

And while the first note hasn't yet been sounded at this year's 33rd edition of the festival, Collins is already eyeballing -- casually -- next year. And beyond.

"Everything we've done this year will be done earlier next year, wtih even more outreach to local and national communities," he says. "We want the artists, [i]all[/i] of the artists, to be fully aware of all the opportunities that are available to them and take advantage of them so we can continue to keep growing."

The 33rd Annual Detroit Jazz Festival takes place Friday-Monday, Aug. 31-Sept. 3, in Hart Plaza and Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit. Sixty-five acts play on four stages, and admission is free. Visit www.detroitjazzfest for schedules and other information.

Web Site: www.detroitjazzfest.com

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