Pinning jazz saxophonist Chris Collins down for a sit-down or telephone interview these days is almost impossible, given all the projects he's involved with. At Wayne State University, Collins runs the Jazz Studies program. Twice a month, during the school year, he oversees a student oriented jam session twice a month at Cliff Bell's. He's in and out of town promoting the Detroit Jazz Festival, and he's been putting the final touches on the premiere of the Detroit-Torino Urban Jazz project, a concert that pairs the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with his Detroit-Torino jazz quartet.
When you finally get Collins on the telephone, all he wants to talk about is his new job as artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival. In fact, he squeezes in the chat while driving, fittingly, to Metro Airport where he'll catch a flight for a trip promoting the festival.
He's so contagiously hyped up about the festival that you wish it were starting tomorrow, even if you're not a jazz fan. It's hard not to be hyped when jazz royalty such as Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, the team of Chick Corea and Gary Burton, Joe Lovano are among the headliners. When the local heroes like Marcus Belgrave are being given all-star showcases. When there's a 100-voice choir slated to perform Duke Ellington's sacred music. When there are program specials like "A Night in Treme" saluting the music of New Orleans and a bunch of hot Latin groups led by folks like Jerry Gonzalez, Poncho Sanchez.
"It a big undertaking to add to my life, and I want to do the festival justice," he said. "As a kid, my parents didn't have the money to send me to a music camp like Blue Lake or pay for private lessons, so when the jazz festival started 33 years ago it was like a gift.
"I was able to go downtown and hear all my heroes for free. Now as the director of the festival it's my responsibility to give back that gift to the next generation, to students and to the festival audience because the festival changed my life."
Collins grew up on Detroit's eastside and in St. Clair Shores. His mom owned a bakery, and his dad was an avid jazz fan. At age 10, Collins started playing the clarinet, and as a teen he switched to sax under the spell of one of his dad's Coleman Hawkins albums.
Collins played in the big band at St. Clair Shores' Lake View High School. He studied with Matt Michaels at Wayne State University and earned a master's degree at Northern Illinois University. After Michaels' retirement, Collins took over as the head of the jazz studies program in 2006.
His accomplishments are too many to list, but he's played with Lou Rawls, Phil Collins, Doc Severinsen and Mel Tormé. With various jazz bands, he's toured Japan, Europe and China. On his own he put out a string of top-notched jazz albums such as Electo-Monk, Acoustic Funk and Urban Solitude.
Collins, 47, is the first working jazz musician to head the Detroit festival, and the fifth person to call the shots following corporate wheeler-dealer Robert McCabe, broadcaster-writer-promoter Jim Dulzo, broadcaster Ed Love, and two experienced festival hands, Frank Malfitano and Terri Pontremoli. Each reoriented the festival, some more drastically than others, as the umbrella for the festival also shifted from the founding Detroit Renaissance to Music Hall to the current independent foundation backed by Carhartt heiress Gretchen Valade.
Under Dulzo's leadership, for example, the festival centered on hardcore post-bop with such welcomed additions as a full day of avant-garde acts on one stage, not to mention swing and blues acts. One of his biggest presentations was a decidedly avantish main stage Yusef Lateef homecoming. He did a main stage Motown tribute and a good bit of Latin too, which made his tenure one of the more storied.
Malfitano opened the festival up to more Motown, blues, gospel and R&B acts, which bothered some hardcore Detroit jazz festival fans, but boosted attendance.
Pontremoli created annual artist residencies beginning with Regina Carter and continuing with Christian McBride, John Clayton, Mulgrew Miller and Jeff "Tain" Watts (a feature retained this year with Terence Blanchard). Her festivals were theme-driven ("We Bring You the World" was last year's catchphrase), and in 2010, the Detroit was named one of the top jazz festivals internationally.
Collins intends to be known for increasing attention on Detroit and Detroit-rooted musicians, especially those who may not be the biggest international names.
"There were good and bad in all of them from the days Bob McCabe had it to when Gretchen took over seven years ago," Collins says of his predecessors.
As to his own mission: "I have to find new ways to enhance the Detroit-ness of the festival, but still appeal as a global festival with international acts."
He continued: "Integrating Detroit acts with the international acts past and present is one of the themes that we will be doing every year. We have a whole collection of Detroit artists that were important here and have gone on to have great careers".
One of the capstones of this year's festival will be the tribute to Marcus Belgrave, which features former and current Detroiter's Curtis Fuller, Kenny Garrett, Louis Hayes and Marion Hayden. Detroiter Charlie Gabriel, now a regular with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, will be featured with the famed New Orleans group and honored on his own in a special 80th birthday set.
The aforementioned Garrett and Hayes will lead their own bands during the fest, as will homecoming Detroiters, including Rick Margitza, Walter White, Gerald Cleaver, Harvey Thompson and Charles McPherson, not to mention city stalwarts such as the team of Buddy Budson and Ursula Walker.
What this festival won't have are big non-jazz acts like Chaka Khan or Common, or crossovers like Take Six or roots performers like the Blind Boys of Alabama. In the past, some festivals have gone so far from their jazz traditions — whether to stay afloat or cash in — that they've been pilloried by loyalists; some have dropped jazz from their titles. Collins understands why some programmers take that road, but he believes a pure jazz festival can survive and grow without a lot of non-jazz attractions.
And he points to gospel, blues and R&B influences in his lineup, although in a jazz context, in the organ trios, for instance. (Saxophonist Ellery Eskelin's organ trio is slated, as is the trio of organist Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Bill Stewart.)
For instance, he said, "We're doing a series of organ trios, and we're doing that because blues, gospel and R&B are important to Detroit music. Those genres feed jazz and jazz feeds them. Will we have traditional blues, gospel music at the festival? That's possible in the future."
Asked if he's worried the festival will lose many attendees by returning it to a relatively pure jazz format, Collins said no.
Collins believes "that by preserving the art form, ultimately artists and people around the world will see Detroit as the place where jazz is served in its pure form.
"I want the festival to be seen as the Detroit Jazz Festival not just a jazz festival in Detroit".
The Detroit-Torino Urban Jazz Project links together two auto cities in the post-industrial century. Chris Collins' quartet teams with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to play commissions by Wayne State University composer James Hartway and Torino's Carlo Boccadoro (against a backdrop of time-lapse and still photos of the two cities, no less). 7:30 p.m., Friday, June 1, at Max M. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-576-5111. Admission is free with tickets from the Max box office; 313- 576-5111, or visit dso.org; limit four per person. Box seats available for $99.
The Detroit Jazz Festival is Aug. 31-Sept. 3 in downtown Detroit. The full lineup to-date is at detroitjazzfest.com.
Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times and writes the blog I Dig Jazz. Send comments to [email protected]