The Detroit Jazz Festival returns to the city virtually over Labor Day Weekend with smooth tunes and historic performances
BY JEFF WARANIAK
Last Labor Day Weekend, after a summer marked by political tension, racial unrest, and an average of around 150 Covid cases reported daily, the city of Detroit ushered in the fall on a relative high note: The Detroit Jazz Festival — one of the city’s longest-running annual events, and the largest free jazz festival in the world — played on.
Patrons couldn’t attend the 2020 festival in person, of course, but the event still found its audience. Leading up to the festival, four custom sound stages were built at the Detroit Marriott inside the Renaissance Center. The Detroit Jazz Fest LIVE! app live streamed 40-plus hours of jazz across four days, and an ensemble piece named Justice — inspired by the work and words of the late civil rights icon John Lewis — debuted on opening night. In total, nearly 1 million unique viewers from 32 countries tuned in.
This year, bolstered by support from jazz fans near and far, the Detroit Jazz Fest is returning again. It was originally scheduled as a live event, but as concerns over Covid and the delta variant mounted this summer, organizers decided in August to shift to a virtual format. The festival — which is free to watch — will be streamed and broadcast live, in real time. For fans who want to groove with a group, an outdoor, in-person viewing party is scheduled to take place at Campus Martius downtown (BYO chairs and watch the performances on a big screen).
The 2021 lineup includes legendary jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock, Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, singer-songwriter Gregory Porter, and the festival’s Artist-in-Residence Dee Dee Bridgewater, who will perform throughout the weekend with several female groups, including an opening-night set with alumna from the Woodshed Network, a jazz-career mentorship program she launched with her daughter, Tulani Bridgewater.
“Being the artist in residence, I wanted to turn the focus away from myself and highlight younger women in the industry,” says Bridge-water, a Flint native who started out as a jazz and R&B singer in the ’60s before going on to win three Grammy Awards, a Tony Award and, in 2017, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award. “There are many, many women who are now enjoying some limelight in jazz, and I’m excited to introduce these amazing women to the Detroit Jazz Festival, which is an amazing audience.”
Since its launch in 1980 through a partnership with the international jazz festival in Montreaux, Switzerland, the Detroit Jazz Festival — now in its 42nd iteration — has grown into the largest free jazz festival in the world. Typically attracting more than 325,000 attendees, the event remains an annual highlight for its consistent ability to attract top talent: It has hosted performers including Dave Brubeck, Gary Burton, Wynston Marsalis, and Macy Gray. And unlike other jazz shows, the Detroit Jazz Fest — which offers a unique blend of modern and traditional jazz — doesn’t just take place on one stage but several, typically stretching from Hart Plaza into Campus Martius and up Woodward Avenue.
While strong headliners have consistently kept festival-goers entertained, performers are drawn to its lively audiences — that is, in non-pandemic years — says Chris Collins, Detroit Jazz Festival president and artistic director. “Many of our artists like to do live from the Detroit Jazz Festival re-leases because the audiences are so great,” Collins says. “You can feel it. The artists feel it. The energy, the diversity, it’s amplified here.”
For the past decade, Collins has worked to expand the diversity, reach, and creative excellence of the Jazz Festival. A working jazz musician himself and professor of jazz at Wayne State University, Collins’ influence has helped invigorate festival lineups with international jazz musicians, such as Israeli clarinetist-saxophonist Anat Cohen and South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, while also showcasing Michigan talent like top Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles, a jazz professor at Michigan State University. As of press time, the lineup was still being finalized but will include approximately 40 acts.
“Any jazz musician around the world will tell you Detroit was and continues to be an important breeding ground for creative jazz artists,” Collins says. “Jazz music is in [our] blood. It’s the music that shaped all American music and in fact, shaped American culture. There’s something that’s connected to all of us in this music.”
And hopefully next year jazz fans can experience that connection in person. As Collins says, nothing compares to the live experience. “There’s a certain vibe, a feeling that comes with the Detroit Jazz Festival because it’s in the city,” he says. “You can wander around and see someone you don’t know or never heard before, and it’s absolutely stunning. Whether you come for the art and the craft of jazz or you’re there just to feel good and hear some good music that takes you to an optimistic and uplifting place, the Detroit Jazz Festival is the place to be.”
NOTE: The Downtown Detroit Partnership is offering families a safe and relaxing way to enjoy Detroit Jazz Festival at their outdoor viewing party at Campus Martius Park. Presented by Rocket Mortgage, the event will be live-streamed on its big screen.
For more information and a complete schedule, click here.