Detroit’s ‘jazz angel’ gifts the city with performance space

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published February 20, 2018

 Businesswoman and philanthropist Gretchen Valade, a Grosse Pointe Farms resident, has announced another substantial donation to Wayne State University to support jazz education and performance opportunities.

Businesswoman and philanthropist Gretchen Valade, a Grosse Pointe Farms resident, has announced another substantial donation to Wayne State University to support jazz education and performance opportunities.

Photo provided by Wayne State University

DETROIT — Businesswoman and philanthropist Gretchen Valade, of Grosse Pointe Farms, is increasing her efforts to make sure that Detroit’s rich jazz legacy continues to grow and flourish.

Valade, the chair of the nonprofit Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation, recently committed another $2 million to Wayne State University. The university announced that it will use the money to convert the Studio Theatre — inside the basement of the Hilberry Theatre — into a jazz performance space that will be called the Jazz Underground.

The new funds are in addition to the $7.5 million that Valade committed to WSU in December 2015 to create the future Gretchen Valade Jazz Center and establish an endowed jazz chair and a jazz scholarship. An estimated $5 million of the original gift is expected to be used to restore and renovate the Hilberry Theatre at 4743 Cass Ave., where WSU’s graduate theater students now perform.

The historic Hilberry and its exterior will be preserved, but the first-floor interior will be transformed into what WSU Director of Jazz Studies Chris Collins said will be a jazz-specific 200- to 400-seat venue with great acoustics and flexible seating so that it can host a solo pianist or a large ensemble with equal ease. A new theater for plays will be constructed on the corner of Cass and Forest avenues for the Hilberry Company. The Gretchen Valade Jazz Center is part of a nearly $65 million endeavor that will result in the Hilberry Gateway Performance Complex, which will not only feature Hilberry Company performances, but also other dance, music and theater productions.

“I’m passionate about jazz artists and spotlighting Detroit’s rich jazz heritage,” Valade said in a press release. “So I’m pleased to move Wayne State closer to creating a new jazz performance space in the city. I hope others in the community who are passionate about the arts will also support the Hilberry Gateway project so we can share this gift with future generations.”

Collins, who is also the artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival, said that WSU has the oldest jazz studies program in Michigan and one of the oldest in the country, and it has long benefited from the leading jazz musicians who have come from Detroit, a number of whom have been on the school’s faculty.

He praised Valade for her generosity and work to create educational opportunities for aspiring jazz musicians, as well as unique venues for musicians to perform and audiences to listen to jazz.

“I always call her a jazz angel, (but) she’s more than a jazz angel — she’s an angel of Detroit,” Collins said of Valade.

The new gift is “another example of the level of excellence that she supports in education, in the city and in the creation of jazz,” he said.

Collins said the Jazz Underground is slated to seat an estimated 125 to 175 patrons in “a very hip atmosphere.”

“It’s a very intimate environment (but) bigger than the typical jazz club,” Collins said.

WSU said the lobby for the Jazz Underground would become the Detroit Jazz Festival Café and would be decorated with vintage Detroit Jazz Festival memorabilia.

“Both of these (performance) spaces will be some of the first in the area that are designed around jazz (needs),” Collins said. “This is very exciting, and speaks to Gretchen Valade’s unending support of our community and of this music.”

Other WSU officials are also thrilled about the gift.

“Leading institutions of higher education like Wayne State must reaffirm their commitment to the arts and humanities,” WSU President M. Roy Wilson said in a press release. “The Gretchen Valade Jazz Center and the Hilberry Gateway Performance Complex will send a strong signal of Wayne State’s support for excellence in the arts. I am so very grateful to Gretchen for her continuing generosity.”

Besides jazz concerts, the Jazz Underground space is expected to be used for jam sessions, workshops, jazz film screenings, theater and dance performances, and other programs.

“In addition to supporting our jazz legacy, Gretchen Valade is helping to build the Hilberry Gateway Performance Complex, which will provide needed space for all of our performing arts students,” Matthew Seeger, dean of WSU’s College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, said in a press release. “Jazz, music, theater and dance are important parts of Detroit’s artistic traditions, and Gretchen’s support has ensured that those traditions continue.”

The Gretchen Valade Jazz Center is slated to be the final phase in the Hilberry Gateway Performance Complex project. A start date for construction hadn’t been set at press time, but Collins said the Hilberry complex project is expected to take about three years to build.