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Detroit Jazz Festival brings artists from around world to town for 32nd annual event

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 20, 2011

 High school students at the Detroit School of Performing Arts perform as the DSA Jazz Ensemble during a press and corporate partner preview April 12 at the Detroit Athletic Club for the 2011 Detroit Jazz Festival.

High school students at the Detroit School of Performing Arts perform as the DSA Jazz Ensemble during a press and corporate partner preview April 12 at the Detroit Athletic Club for the 2011 Detroit Jazz Festival.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

DETROIT — Fans of Detroit’s popular jazz festival downtown will notice something different this year.

Gone is the word “international” from the name of the event, now being called simply the Detroit Jazz Festival. It’s an unexpected development considering this year’s theme, “We Bring You the World,” which is enhanced by the presence of musicians from Japan, South Africa, England, Brazil, Israel and the Netherlands. But the change, said organizers, comes from the fact that the international aspect of the festival — in its 32nd year — is understood.

“We’re going to be able to sample the flavors that other countries bring to our music,” said DJF Executive Director Terri Pontremoli.

During a press and corporate partner preview luncheon April 12 at the Detroit Athletic Club, festival organizers unveiled the initial lineup and a new logo for the festival, which takes place Sept. 2-5 in downtown Detroit. Artists on the bill include Angelique Kidjo, Kevin Eubanks, Curtis Fuller, Dave Holland Octet, Vertical Engine, Amina Figarova, Sean Jones Quintet, the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note, Sun Ra Arkestra, Dianne Reeves and Toots Thielemans, among many others.

“We might take jazz a little for granted,” said Pontremoli, noting the presence of the music in so many settings, “but it is truly the soundtrack for this country. … It’s really America’s most wondrous gift to the world artistically. … And the best thing is, it’s not a thing of the past. It’s a very current and lively and living form.”

In keeping with the international theme, this year’s artist in residence is acclaimed jazz drummer and Grammy Award-winner Jeff “Tain” Watts, who has worked with Harry Connick Jr., George Benson, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and Alice Coltrane; co-starred in Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues”; and led his own band, among other accomplishments. Pontremoli said the drum is the one instrument common to all cultures, and she called Watts “one of the best drummers in the world.”

“I’m proud to be here and to represent … this great musical tradition,” said Watts, who performed at the preview alongside members of the Wayne State University Jazz Ensemble. Watts will be working with local students throughout the year as part of his residency.

Detroit Deputy Mayor Saul Green spoke on behalf of Mayor Dave Bing, who couldn’t attend because he was presenting a proposed budget to the Detroit City Council. Green said the festival has been voted one of the top three festivals in North America by more than one poll and brings about $90 million to the region. Roughly 23 percent of attendees come from outside of metro Detroit and Michigan, and the event brings multiple local cultural organizations together for collaborations, he said.

“For over three decades, (the festival has been) a unique asset to southeastern Michigan, (having an) ongoing positive impact on the region,” said WJR-AM radio host Paul W. Smith, a resident of the Grosse Pointes. “It’s an unsurpassed cultural experience … right in the heart of our city, putting our city on the national and international stage.”

Christine Kageff, vice president of philanthropy and community relations for JPMorgan Chase — one of the festival’s major sponsors — said this event provides a great showcase for the city.

“It provides wonderful music in a family-friendly setting. … It’s one event that truly unites Detroit and shows the world what’s great about our city,” Kageff said.

Artists this year range in age from 11 to over 90, and festival-goers will hear jazz legends alongside promising newcomers, Pontremoli said.

The woman Smith called “the fairy godmother of jazz,” Festival Chair Gretchen Valade of Grosse Pointe Farms, is of course excited about the music — especially a scheduled performance by aging jazz great Dave Brubeck — but she’s even more pleased with developments behind the scenes.

“I think it’s just (great) the way everybody’s coming together,” said Valade, noting increased unity among the festival trustees and board.

Dr. Stanley M. Berry, chair of the festival’s board of trustees and corporate chair of OB-GYN for Beaumont Hospitals, said that while Valade’s generosity has been invaluable, they’re working on setting up an endowment to guarantee future funding for the festival.

“Funding is always an issue. … Like I tell everyone, (it’s) free to the public, but (the festival is) not free,” he said.

Parade Co. CEO Tony Michaels, who worked on the new logo and branding for this year’s festival, said they’re launching a new program, called Jazz Ambassadors. Jazz students from Wayne State University will don purple polo shirts and volunteer over the weekend, offering everything from information about the artists to directions on where to get food, he said. Three of those students — sophomore John Gallo of Harrison Township, junior Aleksandr Kasitperko of West Bloomfield and junior Christen Williams of Chesterfield Township — were on hand for the press preview.

Williams said jazz is “a big part of our lives,” so the students were happy about the opportunity to share some of their knowledge with visitors.

“It’s exciting, because a lot of times people don’t get to hear the student perspective,” she said. “I think it’s a great thing.”

Detroit-born tech businessman Josh Linkner, author of the bestseller “Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity,” was also on hand to show his support.

“I’m a business guy, but jazz is my passion,” said the Southfield native, who plays traditional jazz guitar.

Organizers say the upcoming festival is not to be missed.

“It’s going to be fantastic,” Berry said.

For more about the festival, visit www.detroitjazzfest.com.