Twenty-five years ago, Detroit Renaissance, a movers-and-shakers civic group better known for pouring concrete than promoting culture, set tongues wagging with the idea of a downtown jazz festival. And it did so with a savvy sleight of hand. Thanks to Detroit Renaissance, this city that had long been a leading exporter of jazz talent imported the buzz factor of a successful — and very commercial — festival in the Alps to sell masses of metro Detroiters on what was largely their own music in the first place.
That was how the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival was born in 1980. The connection with the Swiss Montreux Jazz Festival was never more than ceremonial and cosmetic — an exchange of dignitaries and a couple of local bands, and the fact that stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis invariably had played the Swiss fest at some point or another. But that was enough to spark the enterprise.
Not that it was an instant success. A number of festivals — including the earliest and most recent — ended with fans wondering whether the fest would survive.
At the outset the festival was a schizophrenic affair with “local” musicians performing on Hart Plaza; ticketed events at venues from the old Ford Auditorium to the Detroit Institute of Arts were primarily the domain of “national” musicians and select local openers. The festival competed against itself and left many local musicians complaining about second-class treatment.
Over the years, the festival organizers began presenting acts like Betty Carter amid the hometowners on Hart Plaza, and by 1987 they threw in the towel on most ticketed events — which lost money more often than had been hoped — and made free attractions on Hart Plaza the essence of the festival. Coinciding with the “jazz is back” thrum of Wynton Marsalis and his generations of “young lions,” that move ushered in the salad days of the festival.
There’ve been some rocky times since. When Detroit Renaissance decided to drop the festival 1993 there were months of uncertainty before Music Hall took over (and eventually cut the “Montreux” from the festival title, causing nary a ripple of concern). More recently, falling attendance in some years has led to finger-pointing and debates. Was the festival too mainstream? Not mainstream enough? Was jazz losing the young audience?
And as the granddaddy of the major, civic music festivals in this region, was the jazz fest a victim of its success? After all, it directly competes with the Arts, Beats and Eats fest in Pontiac on Labor Day weekend. Tastefest, Detroit Festival of the Arts, Concert of Colors, the Birmingham Jazz Festival and similar big events now crowd a festival-lover’s calendar between spring and fall.
In the fight for attendance, last year’s jazz festival banked on big names less associated with jazz than with pop (Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack and Natalie Cole). This year’s biggest headliners are jazz-pop stars Lou Rawls and Ramsey Lewis, plus Aretha Franklin (expected to be in a jazzy mood) for the Monday night, main stage finale.
And the plan for next year’s fest is to leave Hart Plaza entirely, moving the music to multiple downtown venues, while stretching the genres beyond jazz and mixing up ticketed and free events. (Which sounds like both a further step away from jazz and a return to the conflict of competing free and ticketed events.)
In the meantime, there’s a simultaneous silver anniversary and end-of-an-era festival on Hart Plaza this weekend. We offer a look at some of the attractions.
—W. Kim Heron
The Gerald Wilson Orchestra
When Gerald Wilson first arrived in Detroit some 70 years ago, the Great Depression had the city by the throat. Times were tough but music flowed through and around the D. Wilson, then 16, attended Cass Technical High School, a top-notch learning facility with a world-class music department that graduated many gifted musicians.
Wilson spent six years here playing trumpet in Cecil Lee’s band, working Paradise Valley “nighteries.” When renowned bandleader Jimmie Lunceford heard Wilson during a visit to Cass Tech, he offered the youngster a spot in his group. Wilson loved Lunceford’s band — one of America’s most popular dance ensembles — and he soon contributed arrangements that complemented its unique sound and style.
Upon a visit to Los Angeles in 1940 to film Blues In The Night, Wilson was seduced by the Southern California ambience. “… When I got to Los Angeles and I saw how pretty it was, I said, ‘This will be my home.’” He quit Lunceford in 1942, served two years in the Navy, and settled in Los Angeles. Wilson knew he’d found his niche, on Central Avenue, right in the heart of Los Angeles’ black community, the West Coast equivalent of Paradise Valley, a vibrant space filled with music and life.
He organized his first big band in 1944 and attracted much attention. Cross-country tours followed; by 1946, Wilson’s band played gigs in Manhattan and he suddenly realized he’d “made it” in the big-time world of show biz. But it wasn’t what he wanted: Gerald was keen to learn more about music theory, to study formally; he believed he could make a “meaningful” contribution to jazz. He even plumbed the depths of music theory and composed a symphony, 5/21/72, that was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
At 85, Gerald Wilson has seen it all, and done most of it: arranged for Ellington, played with Basie, received accolades from significant cultural institutions, scored films and television programs, raised a family and created a body of beautiful music that would, in a just world, see his name a household word. In 2003 his New York, New Sound (on local label Mack Avenue Records) received a Grammy nod. His visit to the D is a wonderful homecoming. —Jim Gallert
Amphitheatre Stage, Monday at 3 p.m.
Alongside, say, engraving religious icons on needleheads and the mouse-catching innovations of Rube Goldberg, vocalese has to be one of the all-time oddest niches in human expression. Take a recorded instrumental solo that packs in all the immediacy of the moments of its creation. Then learn it, note-for-note as frozen for eternity on the disc (no small feat for 99.999 percent of humanity) and craft a set of lyrics to that musical explosion that riffs on the original’s title and recaptures its vitality.
It’s an art form that’s been mastered by few, none more so than Jon Hendricks, “the bard of bop” as he’s been called.
Take Miles Davis’ 1950’s classic “Four,” the title of which reflected nothing more than the number of musicians on the original session. As Hendricks once explained to Metro Times, he found himself stuck on how to translate the Davis tune into vocalese. Question No. 1: “What four?”
“I’m always very philosophical,” Hendricks explained, recounting how he answered the riddle. “What are the four important values in life? Well, truth, honor, happiness and love. That gave me the structure, the plot, so I went from there.”
Which is to say he gave the head of the tune a jaunty set of lyrics that seem sing-along natural (“Of the wonderful things that you need out of life there are four/That may not seem many, but nobody needs any more”) and continued with lines that ride the splatter of notes in the Davis solo, which is to say “Four” becomes a sing-along for only the most dedicated singers. But this bard still enthralls listeners with his wit, proclaiming in a rush of syllables: “That even though you think it’s a boresome/Two and two together constitute a foursome.”
As a teen in Toledo, Hendricks sang with the much-worshiped jazz piano wizard Art Tatum. But he might have become a lawyer if not for the advice Charlie Parker laid upon him one night, years later, when Hendricks sat in for a tune with Bird’s band.
As Hendricks recounted the encounter:
“He said, ‘What are you doing.’ And I said, ‘I’m studying law.’ He says, ‘You ain’t no lawyer.’ I said, ‘What am I?’ He said, ‘You’re a jazz singer.’”
And when money got tight for law school, Hendricks took Bird’s advice and moved to New York to sing.
Hendricks scuffled too much in the years that followed to invoke the “rest is history” cliché, but he eventually became one-third of the vocalese group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, one of the biggest jazz-crossover sensations of the late ’50s and early ’60s. “We went from obscurity to stardom in a month,” he said.
And he’s continued to practice and promulgate his craft
And just to think that but for Charlie Parker’s advice,
the bard of bop might have ended up as the king of torts.
—W. Kim Heron
Waterfront Stage, Monday at 5:45 p.m.
The James Carter Quintet
James Carter’s résumé reads like a man seasoned beyond his years. The Detroit saxophonist began playing at 11. Recorded his first album at 22 (JC on the Set — a record that had critics gushing, calling it the finest debut by a saxophonist in ages) and has since added eight other laudable works (on three different major labels) to his discography, all of which showed stylistic and interpretive detours from the standard jazz repertoire
The wunderkind studied under Marcus Belgrave, had blown with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, saxophonists Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett, and trumpeter Lester Bowie among others.
Carter’s most recent record, 2004’s Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, captures some of the finest live performances in Detroit jazz history. The CD shows how Carter is a master with the reeds, how he lets loose and feeds off the audience.
Of performing live, Carter says, “I think there’s always more to catch in a live situation. There’s definitely more things to give you a sense of inspiration. You know just the whole atmosphere. The bright lights in front of you, and the immediate reaction from the crowd. You don’t have to wonder if the crowd will like what you are doing because they’re right there to respond to what you are doing, which can catapult you into making something else happen.” Indeed.
Waterfront Stage, Monday at 8:30 p.m
Maybe it has something to do with youth, but Ann Arbor-based Urban Transport refuses to build a set from recycling old songs. The instrumental foursome, whose average age is around 26, composes music regularly — if not relentlessly — and brings fresh songs to its live sets. That way, they say, the listener experiences something new with each performance.
The group’s co-founder, trombonist Vincent Chandler, says he and his band mates — drummer Sean Dobbins, alto saxophonist Dean Moore, and bassist Josef Deas — are able to keep their work interesting and stimulating by writing music, sometimes spontaneously, that reflects their personal experiences.
“Sometimes you can play a song and it may be a good song, but it’s not what you’re feeling at the moment,” Chandler says. “We try to keep up to date with our new life experiences and what we are feeling. What we feel in our heads and in our hearts is what we are trying to be.”
At the risk of sounding gushy, Urban Transport is a convincing study of skilled musicians who play off each other as much as they play for the song, which is evidenced nicely on their 2004 debut Introducing Urban Transport.
Over the last couple years, the quartet has earned a reputation as a top jazz ensemble, composed of members continuing to grow as both writers and performers. And it’s not just the youth talking when Chandler and Urban Transport say that they now want to learn how to play music. That’s called wisdom. “We are all at a point where we have been playing music for years. But then you finally get to the point where you learn how to play music.”
Pyramid Stage, Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
Think of drummer Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton as a West Coast Art Blakey. Like Blakey, Hamilton understands that younger players must speak the language of jazz if the music is to prosper. In fact, Hamilton’s bands have trained younger musicians for 50 years (including guitarist Larry Coryell, appearing at this year’s festival). At 81, the guy hasn’t slowed.
Hamilton was weaned on Los Angeles’ fabled Central Avenue, the Los Angeles version of New York’s 52nd Street, where top jazzmen like Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum and Gerald Wilson practiced their art. Hamilton’s worked with most of the greats, including Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus and Lester Young.
His groups feature a left-of-center sound and instrumentation: bass, drums, two reeds and cello. During the 1950s, jazz was home to Third Stream, a concept that attempted to fuse jazz and European chamber music into one seamless entity. Noted musicians, including pianist John Lewis and composer Gunther Schuller, championed the idea, but critics weighed in, leveling the dreaded “it doesn’t swing” charges against their efforts. But the concept is strong and Hamilton’s groups, in particular, yielded worthy sounds. Hamilton also employed solid jazzmen like Eric Dolphy, Buddy Collette, Charlie Mariano and Detroiter George Bohanon. By 1961 the cello was dropped in favor of a trombone, which gave his ensemble more of a hard-bop feel. In 2004 Hamilton was awarded a NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship by the International Association of Jazz Educators.
Amphitheatre Stage, Sunday at 5:15 p.m.
The guys of Bop Culture were destined to be together. “We find it hard to stay away from each other,” explains trumpeter Mark Byerly. The Bop Culture co-founder isn’t being facetious; there is a genuine love connection between the members of his band. It’s nothing sexual, mind you, just pure musical chemistry. Bop Culture is an accumulation of individual successes, sure, but one that has developed a singular style that recalls the controlled freedom often associated with Miles Davis’ quintet of the 1960s. Flattered by the comparison (though somewhat confounded by it), the four members of Bop Culture — including pianist Rick Roe, drummer Bill Higgins and bassist Paul Keller — say they have no desire to be emulative and that it’s their compatibility that keeps them focused. “Of course we love that music, but it has never been a conscious effort to make our band sound like other bands,” says Byerly. “I love Miles, Rick loves Herbie [Hancock], and Bill loves Tony Williams, so how can you avoid those kind of influences? What we always try to keep in mind is that the group is a collective effort.”
Pyramid Stage, Saturday at 6:45 p.m.
The Ford Detroit International Jazz Fest runs Saturday, Sept. 4,
through Monday, Sept. 6, at Hart Plaza (at the foot of Woodward,
downtown Detroit). Call 313-963-7622 or go to www.detroitjazzfest.com. Admission is free.