Detroit Jazz Festival cites safety in decision to go virtual again this year

By: K. Michelle Moran | Metro | Published August 20, 2021

 Pianist and composer Zen Zadravec, of Livonia, is one of the hometown artists selected to play during the virtual 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival.

Pianist and composer Zen Zadravec, of Livonia, is one of the hometown artists selected to play during the virtual 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival.

Photo provided by Detroit Jazz Festival

 Jazz great and Michigan native Dee Dee Bridgewater, the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival artist-in-residence, will be performing several times during the festival.

Jazz great and Michigan native Dee Dee Bridgewater, the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival artist-in-residence, will be performing several times during the festival.

Photo provided by Detroit Jazz Festival

 Kurt Elling’s “The Big Blind” is expected to be one of the highlights of the event.

Kurt Elling’s “The Big Blind” is expected to be one of the highlights of the event.

Photo provided by Detroit Jazz Festival

DETROIT — Despite initial plans to return to an in-person format this year, Detroit Jazz Festival organizers announced Aug. 17 that they would be reverting to a virtual event, instead, over concerns about the delta variant of COVID-19.

The lineup and dates for the Labor Day weekend tradition — which runs Sept. 3 through 6 — will remain the same, but set times will be changing for some artists, explained Chris Collins, of Grosse Pointe Shores, president and artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation.

“We’ll be doing it all live in Detroit … and in an environment that reduces the risk to our audiences and our artists,” Collins said. “It’s the best call (for us) at the moment. I would hate to (wait) all the way up to opening night … and have to cancel (the entire festival).”

Collins said pivoting to a virtual event now allows them to set up soundstages at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, where artists and production crew members can be socially distanced and performances can be filmed and livestreamed with top-notch audio and video, as was done last year.

Besides being offered online for free viewing, for those without internet access, festival organizers are also arranging to show the festival on television and do simulcast broadcasts on some public radio stations; full details will be available on the festival’s website. Collins said they hoped at least some performances would also air on Detroit Public Television.

Headliners this year include Artist-in-Residence Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kenny Garrett, Herbie Hancock, Gregory Porter, Keyon Harrold, Kurt Elling’s “The Big Blind” and Omar Sosa. The festival is presented by Rocket Mortgage and other sponsors.

Construction at Hart Plaza, which won’t be complete until later this fall, eliminated the social distancing opportunities festival organizers had hoped to offer and forced programming to take place entirely in Campus Martius, packing patrons closer together in what Collins said is already a bustling downtown area.

“The biggest impact was the loss of our ability to socially distance,” Collins said.

He said they also can’t meet what is becoming the concert industry “gold standard” of requiring audiences to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for admittance.

“Physically, we couldn’t enforce that because we don’t have a gated entrance,” Collins said.

Prominent local artists will perform, along with national and international acts. Among them is pianist, composer and saxophonist Zen Zadravec, of Livonia, who’ll be playing with his quartet Sept. 5. He has performed with artists including Ron Carter, Karriem Riggins and Louis Hayes.

Zadravec had been looking forward to engaging with a live audience again, but the father of four boys said he also needs to be responsible for himself and his family.

“No gig, no matter how big or small, is worth your health,” Zadravec said.

Throughout the pandemic, he has performed livestream concerts and taught virtually.

“I can’t let this slow me down,” Zadravec said.

The Canadian-born Zadravec’s latest album, “Human Revolution,” was released last year on Marmite Records; it was financed by FACTOR, a granting organization for Canadian artists. He said his biggest influences include the late Chick Correa — who was the DJF artist-in-residence in 2018 — and Herbie Hancock.

“My music’s based on the human experience,” Zadravec said. “I’m hoping that it inspires people and touches people’s hearts. I’m trying to encourage people with my music.”

People can set up their own small viewing parties at home on a large screen, and Collins said some parks might be setting up screens, as well, for people to watch while socially distancing. Screening locations hadn’t been announced at press time.

Collins said the decision to go virtual was one they felt was best for the DJF, and they aren’t saying it’s the right call for every festival. He said audiences for jazz tend to be older than for some other musical genres, and vaccination rates remain low in the city of Detroit, making an in-person event too risky.

“We are excited about the work we do to seek out new talent, promote excellence, produce everything jazz and celebrate all of it at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend in an environment that is safe for everyone,” said Gretchen Valade, of Grosse Pointe Farms, chair of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation Executive Board, in a prepared statement.

Collins said last year’s virtual festival was well received. They hope to build on that success and quality this year.

“Many people from around the world (will be) watching and interacting (online),” Collins said. “There is still that feeling of community. You are experiencing as close as you would get to being at that stage. It’s all live and in real time.”

For more information, visit www.detroitjazzfest.org.