Tradition with a twist

Aug 31, 2005 at 12:00 am

Since their beginning in 1980, the variously named jazz festivals in Detroit have tinkered to find a winning formula. In the rough early years, the issue was how to balance ticketed acts with free ones, and national acts with Detroiters. (The solution was to put everyone on free stages to create the largest free jazz fest in North America.)

In the rougher recent years, the issue has been how to balance the competing strands of jazz with a conviction that something other than jazz was needed to draw a competitive crowd. Last year, that meant shows by big star Chaka Khan and megastar Aretha Franklin.

Geographically, this year’s formula adds new downtown stages a walk up Woodward from Hart Plaza.

Musically it uses a lineup that’s strong on the jazz mainstream, including one of the last surviving household names in jazz (Dave Brubeck), veterans well-known to even casual fans (McCoy Tyner and Les McCann, for example), a smattering of fusion (Medeski Martin and Wood, the Zawinul Syndicate), send-ups to the jazz past (organist Joey DeFrancesco’s tribute to Jimmy Smith, and Thelonious Monk’s son, T.S.), new names of the last 15 years (such as Geri Allen and Sean Jones) and an assortment of city swingers (from Hot Club of Detroit to Donald Walden to a tribute to the late Larry Nozero). If the avant-garde is missing, the festival, at least, taps the adventurous mainstream.

And beyond jazz, the festival tilts less to pop crossovers (the Funk Brothers notwithstanding) than to what loosely falls under the heading of “roots music”: from the New Orleans gumbo of Dr. John to the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Funk Brothers. They could have dubbed this the Detroit International Jazz and Heritage Festival.

The full artists list and schedule are online at

A few words on and with some of the notables:

• Saxophonist David Fathead Newman started his solo recording career with Ray Charles Presents “Fathead” in 1959, and he’s currently riding his most successful recording in years with I Remember Brother Ray. And his gigs of late include a number of tributes to Charles with whom he worked for a solid decade (1954-64) plus various later reunions. His Detroit International Jazz Festival show is a Charles tribute in which he’s joined by fellow Charles band alums Marcus Belgrave and Howard Johnson. To say his career has been tied up with that of Charles — whose acquaintance he made when they were both sidemen on the chitlin’ circuit — is an understatement.

Here are some of Newman’s thoughts of late on Charles, the movie Ray and other topics.

On meeting Charles: “We played together in the early ’50s when he was being featured with the band called the Lowell Fulson band and I was being featured with the T Bone Walker band. These were like blues bands — like Big Joe Turner. We would play these one-nighters across the country — and this was ’51, ’52 — and that’s when I first met Ray. We became very, very close, and he said he was going to be forming a band pretty soon. I told him I’d really love to be a part of it. Sure enough, when he did form his band in ’54, he gave me a call and that was the beginning. I knew all along that Ray was a big talent.”

On the movie Ray: “My perspective was I felt that we could have used more of Ray Charles’ presence and what he brought to the table, his music and his talent. Directors like to sensationalize and fictionalize, so we seem to dwell on his sexual escapades and drugs.”

On the Newman character in the movie: Newman agrees wholeheartedly with the assessment of Charles’ biographer David Ritz in the online journal Slate [link to] that the movie reduced a sensitive man and Charles’ “closest musical and personal peer” to “little more than a loudmouthed junkie.” Newman says, “The character that was cast on the screen was a brash character more inaccurate than anything else because it wasn’t me at all, but again that’s what a director does. The actor, Bokeem Woodbine, is fine actor, but he was only doing what he was told to do.” Newman says that at one point the movie was to show Newman introducing Charles to drugs, which Newman strongly insisted be changed. “Charles had been introduced to drugs long before I met him,” Newman says.

On playing with Charles: The essence of Charles’ genius, Newman says, is hard to sum up. Charles pulled things from Newman to where he was able to articulate things he’d always wanted to say in his music, “feeling, playing with feeling and things I had wanted to do.” And Charles’ arrangements and the cast of skilled musicians that he recruited aided that.

Upcoming projects: Newman just finished a project with “a new feel,” a big horn section, Newman plus baritone sax, trumpet and trombone, “something like what was done by James Moody in the Last Train from Overbrook days.” (He was referring to a classic jazz album from 1959.) Further ahead, Newman is considering a tribute to Herbie Mann, with whom Newman worked for more than a decade after leaving the Ray Charles band. (Friday, 8 p.m., Campus Martius stage; Sunday, 6:45 p.m., amphitheater stage.)


• Since the 1950s, pianist Randy Weston has made so much of the motherland that he’s a virtual one-man bop-to-Africa movement. The composer of jazz classics “Hi-Fly” and “Little Niles,” Weston has led some incredible bands and recording dates over the years, collaborating with Gnawa B musicans of North Africa, Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, fellow jazz stars from Dizzy Gillespie to Pharoah Sanders. And while plenty of musicians have made musical pilgrimages to the motherland, Weston became an expatriate and lived there seven years, running a jazz club in Morocco.

Weston spoke to Metro Times from a hotel room in Paris where he was touring. He appears in Detroit with an appropriate non-standard trio. He’ll be accompanied by bass and African percussion.

On the influence of his parents: “My father, he let me know I was an African born in America and I had to know the history of Africa when Africa was great. So he had wonderful books in the house growing up in Brooklyn, New York. And he made me take piano lessons, so he was very influential. And my mother gave me the black church. I grew up in New York in a time when there was no disco, no television; everything was live. It was beautiful. There was music everywhere, everywhere.”

On Africa in America: Weston was a pioneer in celebrating Africa in jazz. In some ways, the world, musically and otherwise seems to have caught up with him. “The spirit of ancestors of ancient Africa” is making is its presence felt, he says. “You see it in the sculpture, you see it in the architecture now, hair styles. You see African culture really asserting itself, almost like a spiritual force.”

More on the attraction of African music: “it’s like going back to your mother and father. Civilization begins there, and from there it spreads all over the planet. So the whole idea for me has always been to try to understand more about the music, more about ancient Africa.”

On his role in promoting this sort of musical Pan-Africanism: Weston first notes that there were plenty of pioneers before him. “Ellington was doing this in the ’20s and ’30s with African themes,” he says. Pressed to say more about his contributions, he simply says, “I think everything happens the way it’s supposed to happen.”

On his time in Morocco: “I had a wonderful club for a few years, and all kinds of music: blues to singers from the Congo to Moroccan traditional music. But it didn’t work out too well business-wise. So I left in ’72, and at the same time I realized that some of the music that I had experienced, it was time to take that music to the rest of the world, and in my way sort of transform it for the piano. This is very spiritual music, so I think it was time to make that move.” (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., amphitheater stage.)


• Former Detroit pianist Geri Allen has excelled in musical contexts from Bill Evans-styled trios to blaring fusion, but she’s a wonder working with vocalists, including Andy Bey and the late Betty Carter. She shares the stage with singer Mary Stallings to bring that side of her artistry home for the first time. (Sunday, 2:15 p.m., amphitheater stage.)


Read past articles on Medeski Martin and Wood, Tad Weed, Urban Transport, Gerard Gibbs, T.S. Monk, Brothers Groove, Bettye Lavette, Alberta Adams, Marcus Belgrave, Nathaniel Mayer, John Sinclair and The Blues Scholars, Johnnie Bassett and Bop Culture. W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]