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Artists in Residence boost Detroit Jazz Fest status, impact

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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Regina Carter never has to have her arm twisted to be part of the Detroit Jazz Festival. "I just love playing it," says the Detroit native and Oakland University music graduate.

But the violinist is proud to have the distinction of being the festival's first Artist in Residence, back in 2007.

"It's a great idea," says Carter, who's now based in New Jersey and is one of six former Artists in Residence returning for this year's 40th anniversary edition of the Labor Day weekend festival in downtown Detroit. "For sure the festival has many large names, but to be able to focus on one artist and let them present different projects or different sides of themselves, musical, that's always fun. It's a deeper experience for that artist, and for the audience, too."

The DJF's Artist in Residence ranks had indeed included some of jazz's biggest names including Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea and this year's choice, Stanley Clarke. The festival has also hosted homegrown figures such as Carter and bassist Ron Carter (no relation) and has shined a spotlight on incendiary artists deserving of wider notice, such as Christian McBride, John Clayton, Mulgrew Miller, Jeff Train Watts, Danilo Perez, Joshua Redman and Terrance Blanchard.

Both Carters, Metheny, Perez, Blanchard and Redman are coming back to play at the DJF this year.

With multiple performances and configurations as well as pre-festival visits to Detroit for special shows and educational programs each year's Artist in Residence has set a tone for each year that provides additional structure and context for the lineup.

"It provides something of an artistic anchor not only for the festival but amplifying the fact that the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation is an active, year-round institution that culminates with something special at the festival," explains current Artistic Director and President Chris Collins. "It creates a very special bond not only between musicians and artists, but the artists get to know Detroit better, get to know the festival better. And they'll go out into the world and carry the beautiful of the festival and the city.

"They become ambassadors of the Detroit vibe and jazz culture."

The DJF's Artist in Residence program modeled after similar positions in other settings, including festivals and universities was formally launched by Terri Pontremoli, who was the artistic director from 2005-2011. "I just really liked the experience of bringing people to Detroit," recalls Pontremoli, now the artistic and executive director of the Tri-City Jazz Festival in Cleveland. "I think it's important to build that relationship, and also I liked the idea of not just having that artist be in Detroit just for the festival but to build a relationship."

That was established early on in the Artist in Residency cycle. For example, Pontermoli recalls McBride being excited to check out the Motown Museum and also to visit, and jamming at, Baker's Keyboard Lounge for the first time. She remembers a fan recognizing and shouting out to Miller not one of jazz's most recognizable faces near the Detroit Institute of Arts. Watts played a special free public concert at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and Collins notes that more recent Artists in Residence, including Clarke earlier this year, have worked out with the DJF's Alumni Band, performing together and mentoring.

"It's an interesting way to take a large, important legacy artist and allow them to have more contact and influence on the community and present more than just one performance," Collins says. Regina Carter, meanwhile, adds that, "I really enjoyed it. You're part of (the festival) in a different way than if you were just coming in and doing a performance."

Some of the special Artist in Residence moments also came from new pieces, some commissioned, that have been debuted at the DJF. McBride put together a tribute to Motown legend Marvin Gaye during his 2008 residency. Perez played his "Panama Suite" in 2013, while Metheny presented the North American premiere of "Hommage," his multimedia tribute to German bassist Eberhard Weber, two years later. This year, Clarke will close the DJF on Sept. 2 his third performance of the weekend by recreating his score for the late John Singleton's film "Boyz in the Hood" with a string orchestra.

Pontremoli remembers one near-miss, too. In 2010 Miller asked to play piano duets with Aretha Franklin who, it turned out, was not familiar with his work. The collaboration could not be arranged, but after listening to Miller's albums the Queen of Soul subsequently hired him to perform at one of her birthday parties.

Collins acknowledges that he's already speaking to "several artists" after future DJF residencies. But, he says, the process is not as cut-and-dry as assigning a performer to a particular years. "You don't want to get too far ahead of yourself," Collins says. "I always remind people that the jazz world is fluid and evolves constantly. In some cases an artist may be perfect for a residency but you want to find the right year for them.

"There's a whole tumultuous challenge of scheduling artists of that ilk and stature. But the results are always worth that effort."

The 40th annual Detroit Jazz Festival takes place Aug. 30-Sept. 2 at Hart Plaza and in Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit. Admission is free. VIP and other packages are available. detroitjazzfest.com.

Web Site: www.detroitjazzfest.com

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