Detroit Jazz Festival offers new takes on legendary jazz works, artists

By: K. Michelle Moran | C&G Newspapers | Published August 21, 2014

 This year’s Detroit Jazz Festival artist-in-residence, jazz saxophonist and composer Joshua Redman, will be performing with other artists throughout the Labor Day weekend event.

This year’s Detroit Jazz Festival artist-in-residence, jazz saxophonist and composer Joshua Redman, will be performing with other artists throughout the Labor Day weekend event.

Photo courtesy of the Detroit Jazz Festival

DETROIT — Crowds and musicians will again be swingin’ as the 35th annual Detroit Jazz Festival takes over downtown Detroit during the Labor Day weekend.

The free festival, which runs Aug. 29-Sept. 1 in and around Hart Plaza, features jazz greats such as Pharoah Sanders; Diane Schuur with a string orchestra conducted by Alan Broadbent; Stanley Clarke; Regina Carter; Dave Holland and Prism with Kevin Eubanks; Lou Donaldson Organ Quartet; Christian McBride Trio; Phil Woods Quintet; Joey DeFrancesco Quartet; Mike Stern Band; Randy Weston’s African Rhythms; Sean Jones Quartet; and many others. DJF Artistic Director Chris Collins, of Grosse Pointe Shores, said Sanders — one of the many legends and jazz vets on this year’s lineup — has never played this festival before.

Collins said the DJF is the largest free jazz festival in the world, and one of the elements that has made it such a huge draw for jazz lovers has been the unique collaborations it has staged. On opening night alone, from 7-8:15 p.m. Aug. 29, this year’s artist-in-residence, jazz saxophonist and composer Joshua Redman, will join The Bad Plus in what Collins said will be “a very different context” for both acts.

“We start right off … with an unexpected coming together of artists,” Collins said.

Another highlight is the “A Night at the Apollo” performance from 8:45-10 p.m. Aug. 29, featuring Ted Louis Levy, Kevin Mahogany, Margot B, the Wonder Twins, and David Berger’s NYC Big Band. Berger, a former Lincoln Center director, is a leading Duke Ellington scholar, and vocalists Mahogany and Margot B “just tear it up,” said Collins. The Wonder Twins mix various dance styles from different eras, he said. Because of the variety, he said this is a performance that should appeal to everyone from diehard jazz fans to those who are new to the music, including kids.

“We put together basically what’s going to feel like a night at the Apollo (Theatre),” said Collins, noting that the famed venue gave festival organizers permission to use its name. “The Apollo is part of the history of jazz in our culture. It’s about dance, it’s about instrumental (music), it’s about vocal jazz. … It’s a coming together of all of the cultures of jazz in one show.”

Senior jazz statesmen playing the festival include 92-year-old Jimmy Wilkins, who’ll be conducting the music of his brother, Ernie Wilkins, during a concert from 1:45-3 p.m. Sept. 1 featuring the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra, Barry Harris, Regina Carter and Tim Ries.

Artists like Wilkins “are definitive legends that shaped the sound and focus of this music,” Collins said. “We make sure to get living legends here” and give them every resource possible.

With nightly jam sessions and artists mingling with audiences to catch their own favorites, Collins said the DJF also gives the public a chance to meet and chat with jazz stars.

Freda Payne might be better known for her pop career, said Collins, but she’s also a jazz vocalist, and she’ll be performing from 7:45-9 p.m. Aug. 30 with the USAF Airmen of Note Big Band, when she’ll also present and sing with this year’s DJF Youth Vocalist winner, Emma Aboukasm.

A number of the artists this year aren’t just playing their own music — they’re paying homage to their predecessors. Ramsey Lewis and John Pizzarelli will perform a tribute to Nat King Cole, Marcus Belgrave will offer a tribute to Louis Armstrong, Nicholas Payton is saluting Miles Davis and Gil Evans and their breakthrough collaboration, and Ron Carter and Peter Bernstein are performing a tribute to Jim Hall. In addition, the Detroit Jazz Festival All-Stars will pay tribute to Sonny Red and other Detroit composers in a performance, and Mel Tormé’s son, Steve March-Tormé, will recreate his father’s 1955 recording; March-Tormé said via email that this will be his first time playing the DJF.

Select high school and college bands have been chosen to perform in showcases, including the Michigan State University Big Band and Central Michigan University Big Band. The Fraser High School Jazz Band will take the stage from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Aug. 30.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of passage of the Civil Rights Act, Redman will lead a concert inspired by the Civil Rights Movement from 4:15-5:30 p.m. Sept. 1 titled “Jazz Speaks for Life,” an expression coined by Martin Luther King Jr. The Wayne State University Big Band, the Motown Legends Choir, Aaron Goldberg, Reuben Rogers, Gregory Hutchinson and others will perform new arrangements prepared by Detroiters, Collins said — including new spins on “This Little Light of Mine” and Charles Mingus’ “Meditations on Integration.”

“This concert is not only a celebration of Civil Rights, but also it is a representation of how the artist-in-residence integrates himself into the community,” said Collins, noting Redman’s commissioning of new arrangements, some prepared by students. “The concert will reflect the results of (Redman’s) yearlong residency.”

Since 2011, the festival has worked with DTE Energy to reduce the event’s carbon footprint.

“The Detroit Jazz Festival brings thousands of jazz enthusiasts to Detroit every Labor Day weekend, making it a great opportunity to showcase the beauty of Detroit and educate people about the DTE Greening Program and how to be green in their everyday lives,” said Faye Nelson, DTE Energy vice president of Public Affairs and president of the DTE Foundation, in a prepared statement. “This year, we are looking forward to expanding the program and implementing new and improved processes in an effort to collect more recyclables than ever before.”

Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation Board Chair Gretchen Valade, of Grosse Pointe Farms, said she was “elated” to be teaming with DTE again.

“Each year, we are amazed by the amount of waste this program keeps out of landfills, and hope that 2014 will be a record-breaking year,” Valade said in a prepared statement. “This program is a great way for us to show our commitment to the environment and to the city of Detroit. As the world’s largest free jazz festival … (this) is a good opportunity to highlight all that Detroit has accomplished and to leave festivalgoers with a positive and lasting impression that will keep them coming back year after year.”

Valade said almost 26 percent of those who attend the festival come from outside Michigan, but even local residents might want to take advantage of the many hotel and VIP packages that offer dinner, exclusive access and other benefits, said Collins. Donors and sponsors keep the festival free, and people who purchase special packages can help support this event and keep it going. As Detroit’s comeback continues, Collins said the festival is a reminder of the city’s rich musical legacy; the festival, like the city, has weathered tough times and emerged stronger and better than ever.

“Sometimes we forget the value of our culture and our arts. … The jazz festival has been an amazingly constant force in our landscape,” Collins said. “The city is the stage. The city is the backdrop. You marvel at the architecture and you marvel at the thousands of people milling in the streets and (enjoying) artistic excellence.”

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