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Detroit Jazz Fest triumphs in opening night of virtual edition
DETROIT -- To say the start of the annual Detroit Jazz Festival was different is a substantial understatement.
There was no VIP dinner outside on Friday night, Sept. 4. No jazz parade to kick off the music. No food trucks hawking everything from French fries to funnel cakes.
And, most notably, no throngs of fans packed into the Campus Martius Park area.
The coronavirus pandemic has turned the 41st edition of the world's largest free (as in no-charge) jazz festival into a broadcast and streaming event via multiple outlets throughout Labor Day Weekend. The three stages are indoors at the Detroit Marriott at Renaissance Center hotel, and attendance is limited to organizers, crew, some media and, of course, the musicians themselves. The mood was muted and serious, but the music was live and the feeling at the hotel -- and carried over the airwaves -- was triumphant.
"Strangely, it feels great," Keith Kaminski of the Motor City Horns, playing saxophone for Ursula Walker and Buddy Budson, said in the Marriott lobby. "I think we're all just happy to be playing music with people again."
That bonhomie was certainly present around the festival site, as masked musicians who had quarantined to various degrees greeted each other like they were attending a socially distanced class reunion. Joyous exclamations of greeting echoed around the hotel, and Steve Turre, one of the handful of artists who traveled to play at this year's festival, was greeted warmly as he arrived during the evening.
"It's a little spiritual," noted pianist Mike Jellick, who composed a section for "Justice," the four-part suite that kicked off the festival, performing on the Absopure Soundstage with the Detroit River and Windsor skyline as his backdrop. "I think knowing what we're doing this for and to be part of a festival that couldn’t' have happened if we didn't put our efforts together makes for a very special experience."
Bassist Robert Hurst, who composed the closing piece for "Justice," added that it was only his second performance during the last six months. I've been at home practicing and driving my family crazy, he said with a laugh. "Now I get to be here driving other people crazy."
In accordance with the times, the DJF site was abundantly tight and safety conscious. Temperature checks were taken at every entrance of the Renaissance Center as well as at the stage sites. Boxes of masks, gloves and wipes and bottles of hand sanitizer were positioned seemingly every few feet. "I feel very comfortable and safe," Jellick said. "Everyone's very aware of how we've been living and taking to the highest regard their role in putting together such a huge festival indoors, all virtual."
The music, meanwhile, was still the star, both inside the DJF bubble and especially outside.
The "Justice" suite, inspired by the summer's civil unrest and the death of U.S. Representative and civil rights activist John Lewis, covered all three stages, with blending three ensemble arrangements with Jellick's solo piano piece, "Promise and Perseverance," accented by tap dancer Claudia Rahardjanoto. Singer Lulu Fall joined the Kris Johnson Group for set of brassy neo-soul on the Absopure Soundstage.
And Pharoah Sanders, playing the only show of his planned 80th birthday tour, lived up to his icon status with a nearly 70-minute set that gave abundant space to his band members Nathaniel Reeves on bass, Jonathan Blake on drums and pianist Benito Gonzalez -- who shined despite his grand piano having to be swapped out shortly before the show began. With Sanders, sporting a fedora and comfy slippers, picking his shots carefully and tastefully, the quartet blew through epic renditions of "Midnight in Berkeley Square," John Coltrane's "Ole" and "G2" before finishing with a quick take on the spiritual chant "The Creator Has a Master Plan."
The DJF continues through Monday, Sept. 7, carried in its entirety on the festival Facebook Live and Instagram pages, Detroit's Channel 22 arts channel and on WDET-FM (101.1) as well as the Detroit Jazz Fest LIVE! app. WRCJ-FM (90.9) and WEMU (89.1) will carry select performances.
Schedules and more information at detroitjazzfest.org.
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