Now in its 37th year, the Detroit Jazz Festival is a beloved local institution. After all, what four-day festival is still free these days? And one with such a reverently compiled roster of remarkably high-quality acts, at that?
Within seconds of beginning a conversation with Chris Collins, the festival’s president and artistic director, one is struck with his love of jazz music and passion toward its legacy in Detroit. He calls the lineup “custom programming with commissioned works,” a carefully considered way to describe a roster with “a serious focus on combinations and performances that are totally new.” Last year, for example, this year’s artist-in-residence Ron Carter shared the stage for the first time with last year’s artist-in-residence, Grammy-winning guitarist Pat Metheny, as an acoustic duo, a singular experience that was essentially produced by Detroit Jazz Fest. The pairing was so successful that the two went on to play several dates together around the world.
“The Detroit Jazz Festival has a uniqueness to it tied directly to the community and collaboration within,” Collins says. “The symbiotic relationship between jazz and Detroit culture is one of a kind, [and] something I feel very passionately about.”
When asked to identify an overarching theme, his answer is immediate: “For me, the theme is very clear — it’s what started this festival and unifies 37 years of it. The theme is great jazz!” Deeply abiding veneration for the genre is always present. Collins adds, “The craft is there, mixed with creativity and freedom — that is essential.”
The festival also features a number of series designed to reflect the heritage of jazz in the city and how that spirit is kept alive, denoted by such names as Homecoming, Legacy, Mentor-Disciple, and New Voices. This year, the Homecoming Series in particular, dedicated to showcasing Detroit natives, has expanded. “There are more [performances], and they are different,” Collins says. “It sends a powerful message, and also suggests why the Detroit Jazz Festival is not a jazz festival in Detroit, but the Detroit Jazz Festival.”
Precious little is free these days, and yet the Detroit Jazz Festival remains so, open to anyone who cares to stop by and check out the many terrific performances taking place at four stages across four days during Labor Day Weekend. Here are 11 acts you owe it to yourself not to miss!
1. Homecoming Series: Ron Carter
The Homecoming Series is a means to celebrate those who grew up here, and Collins’ goal is to accomplish this in varying ways. “We have the responsibility to reach out to artists and invite them home,” he tells us. No one, then, could be more fitting as headliner and ultimate Homecoming Series artist than this year’s artist-in-residence and most-recorded jazz bassist in history, Carter, a graduate of Cass Tech who also happens to have been born in Ferndale. You get the chance to see him lead four performances: nonet, quartet, trio, and big band. Each promises to bring a unique experience to the table with the inestimable Carter as writer and composer at the helm.
Nonet plays on Friday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m., on the JPMorgan Chase Main Stage.
Quartet plays on Saturday, Sept. 3 at 7:30 p.m. on the Pyramid Stage.
Trio plays on Sunday, Sept. 4 at 5:15 p.m. on the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage.
Big Band plays on Monday, Sept. 5 at 5:15 p.m. on the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage.
2. Legacy Series: Kenn Cox Reunion Celebration
In a performance that is guaranteed to be a treat, a selection of special guests gather together to celebrate the impressive musical legacy of pianist Cox, who died in 2008. In Collins’ words, he “defined the Detroit sound,” making him a perfect candidate for the Legacy Series. To heighten the local dimension even further, Cox was also responsible for the short-lived but important label Strata Records, which released several Detroit gems including the Lyman Woodard Organization’s Saturday Night Special and Cox’s Clap Clap! The Joyful Noise.
Saturday, Sept. 3 at 2:45 p.m. on the Water Front Stage.
3. Legacy Series: David Weiss & Point of Departure celebrate the music of Kenn Cox and Charles Moore
Cox had a profound effect on the Detroit jazz scene, and this performance by trumpeter Weiss and the Point of Departure is set to honor that. They are doing their own tribute to the music of both Cox and Charles Moore (trumpeter in Cox’s underappreciated Contemporary Jazz Quintet and one of a dozen Detroit residents who founded the Detroit Artists’ Workshop; he died in 2014), which is sure to be an intriguing reimagination of two powerful, sonically ambitious Detroit players.
Performance takes place on Sunday, Sept. 4 at 4:45 p.m. on the Water Front Stage.
4. Mentor-Disciple Series: Randy Weston’s African Rhythms & the Wayne State University Big Band – 90th Birthday Celebration!!!
When Weston comes up in conversation, Collins points to a “freedom in his playing that is unbelievable and daunting.” Hailed as a visionary pianist and composer, the particular importance 90-year-old Weston places on African musical heritage comes through vigorously in his work. This performance combining his African Rhythms with the Wayne State University Big Band is sure to be a freshly compelling expression of the traditional African roots of American jazz.
The big band plays Saturday, Sept. 3 at 3:15 p.m. on the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage.
5. Homecoming Series: Stanley Cowell Quintet featuring Billy Harper and Charles Tolliver
A different take on the Homecoming Series comes our way via accomplished pianist (and co-founder of seminal jazz label Strata-East Records) Stanley Cowell. While not born in Detroit, one of Cowell’s many formal music achievements includes a Master of Music from the University of Michigan; he also played with Charles Moore and others in the Detroit Artist’s Workshop Jazz Ensemble in the mid-’60s. This year, his quintet features trumpeter and fellow Strata East co-founder Tolliver, as well as saxophonist Harper — whose debut album on Strata East, Capra Black, is required listening for its moving sonic portrayal of ‘70s black consciousness.
The quintet plays Saturday, Sept. 3 at 5:30 p.m. on the Pyramid Stage.
6. Luciana Souza: “Speaking in Tongues”
Souza is a force of “emotional freedom,” in Collins’ words. Another word that comes up is “ethereal,” which describes Souza’s style, and this particular musical suite, in spades. For this set, which is also her latest album, she has combined her vocal talents with four diverse players from the current jazz scene to present a distinctively global experience. If the concept of breaking down physical barriers of language through active experimentation with sound piques your interest, as it reasonably should, this is one performance you need to check out.
Souza plays Saturday, Sept. 3 at 5:15 p.m. on the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage.
7. Homecoming Series: The Homecoming Band: Kirk Lightsey/Louis Hayes Trio
Yet one more Homecoming Series set that cannot be missed is the trio co-led by Detroit natives Lightsey on piano and Hayes on drums. Lightsey, who continues to perform with unrestrained vigor, is — according to Collins — “one of the definitions of the Detroit sound,” with roots stretching all the way back to playing clarinet in the high school band alongside this year’s headliner Ron Carter at Cass Tech, while Hayes is another legendary Detroit-bred player from the golden age of hard bop.
The trio performs on Sunday, Sept. 4 at 3:15 p.m. on the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage.
8. Freddy Cole with Detroit Jazz Festival String Orchestra — Remembering Nat and Natalie Cole
Anyone with an interest in music history must attend this celebration of the Cole family. Collins tells us that singer and pianist Freddy Cole (brother to Nat and uncle to Natalie) will be performing a set he’s never done before, accompanied by the Detroit Jazz Festival String Orchestra. “People of any age, with any interest in jazz [can] experience the real history of this music through the looking glass of his family,” Collins says — not least of which is because on Saturday and Sunday night respectively, four recently unearthed, never-before-seen episodes of The Nat King Cole Show will be aired.
The performance takes place on Sunday, Sept. 4 at 9:15 p.m. on the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage.
9. Homecoming Series: PubliQuartet
One of the ways in which the Homecoming Series has expanded is to showcase not only established legends and local heroes, but rising new players as well. PubliQuartet is one such group — one of the violinists, Jannina Norpoth, made her debut as a soloist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at age 14. A stirring, almost abrasive, combination of two violins, one viola, and a cello, the members of PubliQuartet perform their own arrangements and interpretations of classical pieces with a decidedly modern approach, displaying an intensity and sense of focus sorely needed in all forms of art.
PubliQuartet performs on Sunday, Sept. 4 at 3:45 p.m. on the Pyramid Stage.
10. Homecoming Series: Dave McMurray Trio/Detroit 3
Saxophonist McMurray has been playing jazz fest since its inception; he performed the first three years as a member of Faruq Z. Bey’s excellent Griot Galaxy. (They were “such a fun group,” he tells MT, exploring the reaches of avant-garde in an era, the early ’80s, when that style was beginning to all but disappear). Since then, his career has spanned numerous jazz genres; this year, however, he’s performing in a trio, which is something he hasn’t done in a while. “[Without] chordal instruments, [it’s] very open,” McMurray says. He’ll be on tenor sax, accompanied only by bass and drums. “A sax power trio,” he calls it. People can expect to see some strange covers of current songs, as well as original music. “It’s kinda funky. It’s accessible, but different,” he tells me. This is also his first trip back to Detroit in some time, so he’s looking forward to that. “Playing at home is always a different dynamic,” he says. Having spent time performing in France recently, he notes that players around the world have a massive respect for Detroit musicians.
The trio performs on Monday, Sept. 5 at 4:45 p.m. on the Pyramid Stage.
11. The Soul Rebels
For those who fear that jazz can be too serious or even intimidating, a group like New Orleans’ Soul Rebels is a thoroughly accessible modern entryway. Collins describes them as an “incredible cadre of rising stars,” bringing an “energetic and fresh approach” to the traditional New Orleans brass brand. You can’t help but pick up on the infectious joy obviously propelling their heart-pumping takes of both popular songs and original material — and quite often, that right there is enough to win you over into swinging your head along to the spirited beat.
The Soul Rebels perform on Friday, Sept. 2 at 8:15 p.m., on the JPMorgan Chase Main Stage.
They also perform on Saturday, Sept. 3 at 6 p.m. on the JPMorgan Chase Main Stage.
If you can’t make it to Detroit Jazz Fest, or want access to all the stages simultaneously, a brand-new digital component is on hand this year: the Detroit Jazz Festival Live app. Available to purchase for $30, it allows you to view a live stream of over 50 performances during any festival day from a mobile phone, tablet, or PC.
Enjoy four days of music and culture as expressed by hundreds of musicians across four stages in Hart Plaza and Campus Martius in downtown Detroit, Sept. 2-5. Admittance to the festival is free.