Detroit Jazz Festival showcases Motor City and American music history

ent_Detroit Jazz FestivalJazz is an important part of America’s musical history. Or, as saxophonist Joshua Redman aptly notes, it is “America’s classical music.”

“Jazz music is America’s original art form,” states Jason Tinsley, a board member for the Detroit Jazz Festival (DJF), held annually on Labor Day weekend. The four-day jazz fest, which takes over the city’s downtown riverfront area and annually features such big names on stage as Ramsey Lewis and Wayne Shorter among others, fits nicely in “the time-honored tradition of passing the jazz vocabulary from one generation to the next.”

Fans also get up close to hear and speak to artists in the “Jazz Talk Tent” as well as attend post-event late night jam sessions — all free to the public.

“A lot of hard working individuals have put their money up to make sure we do this

 MSR Staff Writer Charles Hallman with Judge Terrance Keith at the Detroit Jazz Festival All photos by Charles Hallman
MSR Staff Writer Charles Hallman with Judge Terrance Keith at the Detroit Jazz Festival All photos by Charles Hallman

festival free,” adds Tinsley, a DTE Energy executive — his company is among the festival’s key corporate sponsors. “The jazz fest is a unique brand that sometimes comes under the radar compared to pop music. But if you look out here in the audience and the crowd, in an urban blue-collar city like Detroit, there is an appreciation here, and some of the greatest [jazz] legends come from here.”

DJF Artistic Director Christopher Collins calls the festival a celebration of “the symbiotic relationship between jazz and Detroit.” This historic link has been largely hidden: Legendary giants made the city a required stop in their musical tours over the years — some even got their starts there as well.

“The history of jazz in this city goes back a long way,” adds Judge Terrance Keith, a native Detroiter. “Dizzy Gillespie started out here … people don’t realize the scores of jazz musicians that really made huge impact on the jazz scene and the overall music scene in this nation.

“The ‘key secret sauce’ of the Motown Sound is an underlining jazz piece,” Keith continues.

Jason Tinsley, a board member for the Detroit Jazz Festival
Jason Tinsley, a board member for the Detroit Jazz Festival

The festival’s four outdoor stages located within a few blocks of each other provide “walkable entertainment,” notes former Detroit journalist Leland Stein.

“People come and they walk, eat and share, and listen to music. I’ve been out in L.A. [for 20 years] and there’s nothing like this. That’s the beauty of it all,” says Stein, now a General Motors engineer.

Voice of America Commentator Russ Davis calls the DJF “a spiritual gathering” for both artists and fans.

“My husband [Julius] is a jazz connoisseur. We just had to get down here and take in some of it,” admits Dana Williams of the couple, who took in Lewis and John Pizzarelli’s concert tribute to Nat King Cole under the nighttime sky.

“Look at the diversity of the crowd at the Jazz Fest,” says Tinsely, who serves as DJF treasurer. “People come together from all walks of life —rich, poor, White, Black — that’s indicative of the real Detroit we see every day. [Jazz] crosses all cultures, genres and people.”

Plus the festival brings in an estimated million dollars to the area as well — “That’s hotel impact, restaurant impact, merchandising impact,” he explains.

The DJF has been around for 35 years — it provides more than just music: It allows local students the opportunity to perform on stage in front of a large, diverse audience as an annual closing note to summer.

“It’s world-class and it’s free,” Tinsley asserts. “They charge at Newport. They charge in other cities. We want to keep this free.”

The MSR in future editions will feature conversations with several jazz artists who appeared at the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival in an occasional series.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.