Ralphe Armstrong, Gayelynn McKinney and Bennie Maupin perform during the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival. Armstrong will return to this year’s event.

Ralphe Armstrong, Gayelynn McKinney and Bennie Maupin perform during the 2018 Detroit Jazz Festival. Armstrong will return to this year’s event.

Photo provided by Ralphe Armstrong


All that jazz is back downtown Labor Day weekend

By: K. Michelle Moran | Metro | Published August 5, 2022

DETROIT — After two years of live virtual programming, Detroit Jazz Festival organizers are looking forward to staging concerts in front of crowds again.

The 43rd annual free festival will take place over Labor Day weekend, Sept. 2-5, in downtown Detroit. Audiences can once again thrill to the sounds of jazz legends and exciting newcomers, including The Soul Rebels, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Dianne Reeves, the Charles McPherson Quintet featuring Brian Lynch, Artemis, Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya, Ranky Tanky with special guest Lisa Fischer, and artist-in-residence Chucho Valdés, among many others.

“I wanted a fresh sheen, a fresh air around the jazz festival programming,” said Chris Collins, of Grosse Pointe Shores, the president and artistic director of the nonprofit Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation, which produces the festival. “I paid a lot of attention to new artists coming up. There’s quite a few new combinations and artists on the lineup, mixed with those legacy performers.”

Collins is a professional jazz woodwind musician who has toured the world and is sharing his knowledge with the next generation of jazz players as the director of jazz studies and the Valade Endowed Chair in Jazz at Wayne State University.

“So much of jazz is about collaboration onstage and off,” Collins said. “The best way to experience jazz is live and in person. To have that camaraderie and that community (with) people from Detroit and all over the world — that is a key element. … (Each) moment is special and will never happen again.”

Employing strict health and safety protocols, the show went on during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, but as live concerts in Detroit for virtual audiences. Collins said they had nearly 1 million viewers from across the globe in 2020, and that number more than doubled last year, to almost 2.5 million viewers from more than 30 countries in 2021. Because of the success and popularity of the live broadcast, Collins said they’re continuing that this year, and there’s no longer an app for which people need to pay to access the concerts — they can just go to the DJF website.

Detroit has a long history of producing great musicians in many genres — including jazz — and the festival lineup reflects that, with artists including Leslie DeShazor, the Allen Dennard Quintet, the Keith Hall Trio, the Michael Dease Quintet and Anissa Lea scheduled to perform for the hometown crowd.

Among the legends with Motown roots is bassist Ralphe Armstrong, who has performed alongside the likes of Aretha Franklin, Frank Zappa, Jean-Luc Ponty and Herbie Hancock, as well as helming his own ensembles. A teenage Armstrong successfully auditioned for a spot in John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. But while Armstrong calls Detroit home, don’t call him a “local musician.”

“I get offended by the term, ‘local musician,’” Armstrong said. “I’m not a local musician. I live here. I’ve traveled all over the world (as a performer). I’m a concert artist.”

The Ralphe Armstrong Trio — with Gerard Gibbs on keyboard, Gayelynn McKinney on drums and special guest Evan Garr — is slated to perform 2:15-3:15 p.m. Sept. 5 on the Absopure Waterfront Stage in Hart Plaza.

Armstrong, 66, is looking forward to playing again for a live festival audience. This will be his first DJF appearance since 2018.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Armstrong said of the return of in-person performances. “I’m glad to be doing it. It’s about time. … I love playing. That’s what keeps me alive. It keeps me young.”

Collins said artists with Detroit roots form “the cornerstone” of the festival.

Keeping the festival free and accessible now and in the future is critical for organizers, but that takes money. DJF officials hope jazz fans who are able to contribute will do so — even if it’s just a dollar or two. People can now donate using their phone by texting DJFF to 243725.

“We want to keep it free and keep it jazz forever and ever,” Collins said.

There are also festival VIP seating packages. To make those more accessible, Collins said VIP tickets can be purchased for just a day, as well as the weekend VIP seating option.

Keeping the festival free is especially important now, as inflation and the higher costs for everyday needs are leaving many families struggling to make ends meet.

“Jazz was born of the people, for the people,” Collins said. “We want everyone to feel welcome and on an equal playing field.”

The DJF is the largest free jazz festival in the world, attracting more than 300,000 visitors to downtown each year.

“There is no better place in the world for jazz than Labor Day weekend in Detroit,” said businesswoman and philanthropist Gretchen Valade, of Grosse Pointe Farms, the chair of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation board of directors, in a press release. “We’re truly excited for another great jazz festival and welcome our guests from around the world to our beautiful city.”

For more information about the Detroit Jazz Festival — including the complete schedule — visit www.detroitjazzfest.org or call (313) 469-6564.