Tenor saxophonist David McMurray’s latest musical project, the band Black Light Collective, will perform live during this year’s virtual Detroit Jazz Festival.

Tenor saxophonist David McMurray’s latest musical project, the band Black Light Collective, will perform live during this year’s virtual Detroit Jazz Festival.

Photo provided by the Detroit Jazz Festival

Detroit Jazz Festival hopes to raise the bar on virtual performances

By: K. Michelle Moran | Advertiser Times | Published August 20, 2020

 Sabbatical Bob is one of the local groups that will be performing during the Detroit Jazz Festival Sept. 5.

Sabbatical Bob is one of the local groups that will be performing during the Detroit Jazz Festival Sept. 5.

Photo provided by the Detroit Jazz Festival

DETROIT — If your idea of live music during the COVID-19 pandemic is someone strumming an acoustic guitar in front of a GoPro camera, be prepared to have that image upended by the Detroit Jazz Festival.

The 41st annual festival won’t be in front of crowds this year, but it will still have all the production values that audiences have come to expect, said Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation President and Artistic Director Chris Collins, of Grosse Pointe Shores.

The Labor Day weekend festival will take place from 6:15 p.m. to 11:45 p.m. Sept. 4, 11:20 a.m. to midnight Sept. 5 and 6, and 11:20 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sept. 7. It will still be free and accessible, as well as live, with performances streamed on the festival’s Facebook and Instagram pages, new Detroit arts and entertainment television channel 22, WDET-FM 101.9, WRCJ-FM 90.9, WEMU-FM 89.1 and Detroit Public Television.

The whole festival will also be available through the proprietary Detroit Jazz Fest LIVE! App, available through the App Store and Google Play.

The Detroit-centric lineup includes local luminaries like Joan Belgrave, Rodney Whitaker, Marion Hayden and Dave Bennett, as well as legends like Pharoah Sanders and Robert Glasper. Sanders turns 80 this year, and Collins said he really wanted to do at least one concert to mark this milestone; his other 2020 shows have gotten canceled.

Following strict safety protocols and social distancing recommendations, Collins said, the performances will be filmed using high-definition video and audio, full lighting and multiple cameras on expansive, specially-built stages inside the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, a longtime festival supporter. Rocket Mortgage is this year’s presenting sponsor.

“We’re poised to put together something that’s really special,” Collins said. “There’s no cheering crowds, but with jazz, so much of this (music is built on) camaraderie (and nonverbal) communication (among the musicians).”

Collins said they’re trying to provide musicians with “the best environment” in which to perform.

“It’s a very big production, and they’ll feel the weight of the moment,” he said.

Audiences will experience the music in real time.

“It’s really the feeling of you are there, and it makes it as tangible and real as we possibly can be,” Collins said.

Tenor saxophonist David McMurray — who played in Was (Not Was) with super-producer Don Was and has performed alongside musical greats including Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Patti Smith and the Rolling Stones — will be playing with Rayse Biggs Sept. 6 and with his new band, Black Light Collective, Sept. 7. McMurray, who grew up on Detroit’s east side and still lives in the city, attended the now-shuttered Howe Elementary School with Biggs, and the two have been friends and frequent musical collaborators ever since.

Black Light Collective released their eponymous debut album on Ropeadope Records July 17, and while it’s doing well, McMurray said shows to promote it were canceled.

“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” McMurray said of the festival. “It’s going to be great playing live and playing the music that’s on the record.”

The band is a mix of veteran musicians like McMurray alongside newcomers. Black Light Collective’s sound is a mixture of genres, including jazz, funk and hip-hop, that’s reflective of the music McMurray remembers listening to growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.

“It was kind of soulful sounding and it had a certain groove to it,” he said of the music from that era. “It was a growing period, a turbulent period, and the music went along with it.”

The same could be said of today, making Black Light Collective’s debut fresh and timely.

Also timely is the festival’s inclusion of “JUSTICE,” an original, four-movement composition by Collins with input from the musicians who’ll be performing the movements — Sister Strings, Detroit Jazz Fest All-Stars Generations Band, Michael Jellick Sextet and Robert Hurst presents The Black Current Jam Band. “JUSTICE” opens the festival and reflects the legacy of late civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis.

“He was brave,” Collins said. “He was fearless. And he helped us understand the roots of the civil rights movement.”

Collins said the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation considered canceling this year’s event, as has been the case for most other festivals, but they decided that if they could produce the festival in a way that was safe for all involved, they should move forward with it.

“We may be the last tree standing in the forest, and we are,” Collins said. “It’s not a boastful thing. We mourn the loss of these other festivals.”

Musicians, sound and stage crews and others in the industry have been economically devastated by COVID-19, so being able to provide them with work was one reason Collins said they decided to hold the festival. The festival’s positive economic impact on Detroit is another.

“We moved very carefully and with a lot of input (from experts),” Collins said. “And if the data should change Sept. 3, I’d be the first one to pull the plug (on the festival). Life and health are more important than anything.”

Organizers hope to entertain and engage audiences worldwide during this difficult time.

“I believe we need hope,” Collins said. “We need light at the end of the tunnel. … We truly expect this to be uplifting for everyone.”

For the full lineup and more information, visit www.detroitjazzfest.org.