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Like the music itself, Detroit Jazz Fest improvises to survive pandemic
To make the 39th annual Detroit Jazz Festival happen this year, organizers had to do what the musicians do so well.
The Labor Day Weekend event's lineup was announced March 23 -- the day Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her first stay-home orders to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Festival President and Artistic Director Chris Collins' mantra at the time was "full steam ahead," but as circumstances continued to dictate otherwise, the DJF pivoted into a new kind of event -- live performances still, but broadcast and streamcast from the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center rather than in front of 300,000 or so in Hart Plaza and Campus Martius Park, focusing primarily on Detroit-based artists though with some international luminaries traveling in as well.
"We announced the (initial) lineup out of hope -- a need for hope and light at the end of the tunnel," Collins, who's also Director of Jazz Studies at Wayne State University, says now. But he adds that "before we even announced the lineup I had put together task force to begin to explore" alternative ways of presenting the festival.
"Our concern, first and foremost, is people's health and safety -- the audience, the artists, the crew and volunteers, everyone involved," Collins explains. "When we saw the way things were going, it was clear we could not put on the kind of festival we usually do."
This year's DJF can be seen as some pretty tasty chicken salad, then.
The four-day event, running Sept. 4-7, will feature more than 30 live performances on state-of-the-art soundstages in the Marriott's main ballroom and the 42 Degrees North nightclub. They'll be broadcast, all or in part via Detroit Public Television (Channel 56, on Friday night), Detroit's Channel 22 arts and culture channel, and simulcast via radio stations WDET-FM (101.1), WRCJ-FM (90.9) and WEMU (89.1). It will also be streamed via DJF's Facebook Live and Instagram, as well as on the Detroit Jazz Fest LIVE! app.
Safety protocols will be in pace for artists and staff throughout the festival, with a "bubble"-like atmosphere set up in the hotel.
"This is an opportunity to apply our creativity and expand ourselves given this unique challenge," Collins says. "When an artist is challenged, you need to use it and reinvent and move on. Life can't come to an end.
Paxahau's Sam Fotias, who serves as DJF's site operations manager, adds that, "What we've had to do is really shift our thought process in regard to how to take the show from a traditional outdoor music festival into a broadcast format. It's a very exciting thing to be a part of."
The DJF did have a leg up in its transition, of course. Thanks to its app, which has been around for three years, the festival is well-versed in livestreaming. Financially, meanwhile, it's in good shape thanks to a substantial endowment from the Gretchen C. Valade Foundation For the Arts, as well as a dedicated group of sponsors, many of several years running. And its reputation as the country's largest free (as in no-charge) jazz festival made it attractive for artists even in these strange times for traveling and playing.
Nevertheless, Collins acknowledges that some hard choices had to be made in re-tooling the announced lineup, including holding off on Artist In Residence Dee Dee Bridgewater.
"Along the way, frankly, there were some artists that wanted to do the festival but the reality and truth of it was it was more appropriate that they wait," Collins notes. "The situation isn't quite right at the moment. I don't want to twist anyone's arm or make an artist feel like if they don't do it now they might never get the chance to do it again. If it's not right on any individual level, we'll look at another opportunity."
In addition to a wealth of Detroit-based artists, the DJF is bringing in a few from out of town, including Robert Glasper -- who's closing the festival on Sept. 7 -- Steve Turre and Joey Alexander. And Pharoah Sanders, who turns 80 on Oct. 13, chose to play at the DJF after canceling all of his other planned performances. His set will be carried live at 9:30 p.m. Friday on DPTV.
"We had a long conversation with Pharoah Sanders," Collins recalls. "He said, 'I personally need to do this. I want to be there.'" The DJF is doing "special things to make sure he's protected," Collins adds, although special measures will be extended to all of the performers.
"From the moment they arrive in Michigan, there's complete isolation -- thermal checks, questionnaires, face coverings, some unique things beyond regular disinfecting. We've taken the issue very seriously." The performances will also be staggered in a manner that allows for extensive cleaning and disinfecting of the stages and equipment before the next act begins setting up.
"(Safety) is a whole other layer of consideration right now." Fotias explains. "Everything has been meticulously planned; Even though the public is going to see a seamless, uninterrupted broadcast, there will be significant amounts of down time on each stage between acts to let the particles in the air rest and go through disinfecting protocols." And that cleaning process is no simple feat.
"We're dealing with vocalists, with horn players and everything," Fotias says. "It's everything from microphone stands and music stands to $150,000 pianos and $250,000 sound desks you can't just wipe down with Lysol wipes. There's a whole other layer of consideration that needs to be taken into maintaining the integrity of the instruments or a $200,000 microphone or the rest of the environment."
All told, a crew of more than 200 will work on the festival during a 12-day window setting up, operating and then tearing down, according to Fotias. Crews will be staggered to keep contact minimal and adhere to state gathering regulations, and during the performances themselves only essential personnel will be allowed in stage areas. Broadcasting will be done from an isolated area nearby.
Getting it right is paramount, according to Collins -- and perhaps not only for this year but to have a model in place if the live music industry is not ready to return in full force next year, either. "God willing we will be somewhat traditional by next year," he says, "but there is a possibility it won't. If that's the case we'll just have to be creative again."
There are some silver linings amidst the cloud the pandemic has cast, however. This year weather will not be a factor in delaying or canceling planned performances, as it has at past festivals. There will also be no overlap in the shows, meaning anyone tuning in will be able to catch every note played during the DJF rather than picking and choosing what to see.
And the broadcast and streaming partnerships will give the festival a different kind of global reach, even beyond the app.
"The jazz fest has gotten its due recognition, but it's now going to be globally accessible through so many platforms," says Fotias, who also helms production of the Movement Electronic Music Festival. "Due to these unfortunate circumstances it default becomes a fortunate way of exposing this incredibly significant asset to way more people around the world. I think that's going to be a very big positive that comes out of this, and it's going to explode from there."
• The 39th annual Detroit Jazz Festival runs 6:15-11:45 p.m. Friday, Sept. 4, 11:20 a.m.-midnight Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 5-6, and 11:20 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday, Sept. 7.
• Performances will be carried on Detroit's Channel 22 and on radio stations WDET-FM (101.9), WRCJ-FM (90.9) and WEMU-FM (89.1), Check listings for broadcast times.
• The festival will also stream on the festival's Facebook Live and Instagram pages and the Detroit Jazz Fest LIVE! app.
• Detroit Public Television (Channel 56) will air Pharoah Sanders' performance at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 4.
• detroitjazzfest.org for more details.
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