Community remembers many contributions of ‘Angel of Jazz’ Gretchen Carhartt Valade

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 10, 2023

 Lifelong Grosse Pointe Farms resident Gretchen Carhartt Valade was known for her many philanthropic efforts, especially in support of jazz.

Lifelong Grosse Pointe Farms resident Gretchen Carhartt Valade was known for her many philanthropic efforts, especially in support of jazz.

Photo provided by Carhartt

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Motown has lost its “Angel of Jazz.”

Surrounded by family, businesswoman and philanthropist Gretchen Carhartt Valade, 97, died at her Grosse Pointe Farms home Dec. 30. The chair of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation, Valade is known for rescuing the festival and establishing a foundation to keep it going and keep it free of charge in 2006. She refused to put her name on the festival or foundation.

“It’s important that the Detroit Jazz Festival remain accessible to all that want to enjoy listening and celebrating Detroit’s rich history of jazz,” Valade is quoted as saying in an obituary released by her family business, Carhartt. “People may reference that it’s my festival, but it’s not. This festival belongs to the people and city of Detroit.”

Valade was born to Gretchen S. Stearns and Wylie Carhartt on Aug. 27, 1925 — a birthdate she shared with her grandfather, Hamilton Carhartt, who in 1899 launched the workwear business that bears the family name. She was musically inclined from a young age, but it was Valade’s older sisters, Eugenie and Patricia, who would introduce her to jazz. As recounted in a press release from Carhartt, Valade would become fully immersed in the music while visiting New York’s famous jazz clubs.

In 1948, Valade married Grosse Pointe native Robert C. Valade. While he served as Carhartt’s president for four decades — until his death in 1998 — his wife remained involved in the business as well. She succeeded him as president of the Carhartt Board of Directors in 1998 and served in that capacity for a number of years. Her son Mark is now the company’s CEO and board chair.

In 1999, a 74-year-old Valade created the music label Mack Avenue Records, which has today grown into one of the most respected and honored jazz labels in the industry, with eight Grammy Awards and more than 50 Grammy nominations. Her affiliation with the label led Valade to become a sponsor of what was formerly known as the Detroit International Jazz Festival and then led to her decision to rescue the festival when it was on the verge of shutting down.

One of those who worked most closely with Valade was Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation President and Artistic Director Christopher Collins, director of Jazz Studies and Valade Endowed Chair in Jazz at Wayne State University. Collins, of Grosse Pointe Shores, is also a professional saxophonist who has toured the world.

“I saw how she respected other people. I saw her dream of amplifying this music, this jazz tradition. … She wasn’t doing these things to cement her reputation or for personal gain,” Collins said.

It was Collins who dubbed Valade the “Angel of Jazz.” It was a nickname that stuck. Like the Biblical heavenly figure, Valade’s efforts on behalf of the music she loved came from a place of pure benevolence. While she played piano and wrote songs, Valade’s support of jazz and jazz musicians wasn’t linked to any attempts to make a name for herself as a songsmith.

“All of this was real,” Collins said. “It wasn’t tainted. It didn’t have ulterior motives. She did this for the music and the city.”

Valade’s songs have been recorded by a number of notable artists, including Freda Payne, but she was content to sit at the bar at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms — one of the businesses she founded — and listen as others performed.

“She never needed to inject herself,” Collins said. “She would just sit there and enjoy the music like everyone else.”

She wasn’t shy about shushing people who were talking too loudly in the Dirty Dog, though, because, as Collins pointed out, she wanted to make sure the musicians got the respect they deserved.

The Detroit Jazz Festival issued a statement in the wake of Valade’s death that states, “With a very heavy heart, we are saddened to announce the passing of Our Angel of Jazz, Gretchen C. Valade.  We join the world in mourning her death and celebrate her lifelong contributions to the Detroit community, specifically her unwavering commitment to the propagation of Detroit’s jazz legacy and the preservation of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation and the Detroit Jazz Festival, the world’s largest admission-free jazz festival.

”We will continue to honor Gretchen’s vision and legacy through our mission of jazz for everyone in Detroit and around the world.”

Valade was just as committed to nurturing the jazz artists and audiences of the future. In 2018, she increased her contribution to Wayne State University to $9.5 million for the Gretchen C. Valade Jazz Center at WSU, which included converting the Hilberry Theatre and the basement Studio Theatre into specially engineered jazz performance spaces.

“We are all so very grateful to Gretchen Valade for her enormous generosity,” Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson said in a statement. “Gretchen’s gifts expanded Wayne State’s commitment to excellence in the arts and humanities. She will be greatly missed, but her commitment to jazz lives on at Wayne State through the Gretchen C. Valade Jazz Center.”

Valade attended Grosse Pointe Country Day School, a predecessor of University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods, which honored her in 2011 with its Distinguished Alumni award for her support of jazz music and artists.

“University Liggett School joins in celebrating the remarkable life of Gretchen Valade, who attended Grosse Pointe Country Day School, one of our four predecessor institutions,” ULS Head of School Bart Bronk said by email. “The esteem with which our community held Ms. Valade, given her remarkable contributions to business, civic and musical life in Grosse Pointe, Detroit and the region, was evident in her selection as the 2011 Distinguished Alumna, the School’s highest honor.”

Valade left a significant imprint on her lifelong hometown of Grosse Pointe Farms. In 2008, she opened the Dirty Dog Jazz Café on Kercheval Avenue in the Hill business district. The intimate restaurant and music venue was one of three Hill businesses that Valade established; the others were the women’s shoe, clothing and accessories boutique Capricious, and Morning Glory Coffee & Pastries. While her family might have run a business known for its durable workwear, Valade was known for being impeccably dressed and coifed, showcasing her eye for elegant, timeless style.

“When there was a need in the Hill business district, she filled the need, whether it was a coffee and pastry shop or a women’s clothing store,” Farms City Manager Shane Reeside said. “And she did it at the highest level. … All of those businesses have been great assets to the community.”

Reeside — who fondly remembered Valade as someone who “lived life with gusto” and was “no shrinking violet” — said that the Farms “was a benefactor of the two great passions that she had — jazz and dogs.”

Valade, who had her own dogs, made sure to provide a water station outside the Dirty Dog for any thirsty pups who might be strolling the sidewalk with their people. She also paid for the Farms’ first K-9 officer, German shepherd Duke, who retired last fall. As Reeside noted, Duke was “named after jazz great Duke Ellington.”

Valade not only paid for Duke, but also covered related expenses over the course of his career.

The K-9 program was established during the tenure of former Farms Public Safety Director Daniel Jensen. A lifelong Farms resident like Valade, Jensen became friends with Valade.

“She was just a caring, friendly woman,” Jensen said. “I miss her dearly. … She was a good friend of mine and a good friend to the department.”

He said she was community oriented.

“She meant a lot to the police department,” Jensen said. “She loved (Duke). We would bring him into the Dirty Dog on occasion.”

She was also known for her sarcastic wit and honesty.

“She called it like she saw it,” Jensen said of Valade, who he knew for more than 20 years. “Whenever you talked to her, you had her undivided attention. She always had something funny to say or some good advice to give.”

Another of Valade’s friends was artist and fellow jazz lover John Osler, of Grosse Pointe Shores.

“Gretchen really hid her big heart, but it didn’t work. … She’d do anything for an individual artist,” Osler said. “When things were tough, especially for musicians, she always stepped forward.”

While Valade’s support of the Detroit Jazz Festival and some other projects came with public accolades, he said she purposely and quietly lent a hand to many in need, including musicians.

“She was really uncomfortable in the spotlight,” Osler said.

Like Jensen, Osler recalled Valade’s “great sense of humor.”

Musician RJ Spangler, of Grosse Pointe Park, has performed with some of his bands at the Dirty Dog and saw the release of two Planet D Nonet CDs and one Tbone Paxton CD on Valade’s Detroit Music Factory label. He considered Valade a friend as well.

“Her Dirty Dog Jazz Café has been a haven for jazz musicians,” Spangler said in an email. “She literally saved the Detroit Jazz Festival. We will miss her greatly.”

While she was best known for her support of jazz, Valade also contributed to other causes, including Ascension St. John Hospital, the Humane Society of Huron County, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and Detroit’s Coalition on Temporary Shelter, or COTS. Valade owned Sweet Melissa’s Café in Sanibel Island, Florida.

Valade was predeceased in death by her son, Christopher, and is survived by her daughter, Gretchen Garth, son Mark Valade, six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Collins said Valade would want those who knew her to celebrate, not mourn.

“Gretchen would want us to remember the joy and the beauty and the things we built together,” Collins said. “The vision and the dream is still the guiding force. Her (vision) is the light at the end of the tunnel.”

At press time, Valade’s family was planning a private funeral service. That won’t keep her legacy from looming large, though.

“She just did not want attention, but now she can’t stop us,” Osler said.