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Labor Day weekend at the Detroit Jazz Festival

Ernie Watts and Kurt Elling

Clyde Stringer

In the march of major holidays across the calendar, Christmas gets the capital, the Fourth gets the firepower, and Thanksgiving gets Norm Rockwell. But for many Americans—for reasons that have little to do with decent wages, job security, or the right to strike—the most bittersweet holiday is Labor Day. It’s the weekend (a concept created by organized labor) that unofficially marks the end of a lazy lemonade summer and heralds the start of another season of academic toil or career responsibilities.

For jazz lovers, Labor Day weekend brings the excitement of festivals all over the map, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Aspen, Vail, Mackinac Island, and even central Wisconsin. After Bruce Eaton’s splendid Labor Day weekend jazz festival at Artpark ended in 1998 after a six-year run, WNY jazzers were left with the choice of spending the weekend reading the collected speeches of Walter Reuther or driving to Detroit for the most remarkable Labor Day event of them all: four nights and three days of jazz and jazz-related music on five stages with no admission charge, cover, or minimum.

Held for the past thirty-one years in Hart Plaza on the Detroit River in the heart of the Motor City, the Detroit Jazz Festival features many of the hottest and most revered names in jazz, showcases the great wealth of local talent, and welcomes home native sons and daughters who have settled elsewhere. Louis Hayes, Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef, Ron Carter, James Carter, Charles McPherson, Benny Maupin, Aretha Franklin, and the late Elvin Jones and Tommy Flanagan are just a few of the Detroit natives who have appeared at the DJF in the past decade.

Barry Harris—photo by Clyde Stringer

One of the highlights of the past few years has been the presence of the amazing composer Gerald Wilson leading a driving big band on his birthday weekend. Wilson replaced Sy Oliver on trumpet in the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra in 1939 and is still going strong. Two years ago on his ninety-first birthday, he premiered Detroit, his suite in eight movements, one of which was named for his alma mater, Cass Tech. Wilson sports a dazzling bramble of white hair jammed under a baseball cap and introduces his music with a charming patrician accent that reflects his roots early in the last century. That same year, Detroit area native Hank Jones opened the festival with a splendid set that included a fine performance of his late brother Thad’s beautiful ballad, “A Child is Born.” It would be his last appearance in Detroit before his passing at ninety-one the following spring.

The festival’s 2011 lineup will include another nonagenarian, Dave Brubeck, and his quartet featuring Buffalo’s own Bobby Militello—who is always a huge hit in Detroit and, with the recent passing of James Moody, the leading contender for the title of reigning monarch of jazz flute. Drummer Carmen Intorre, another Buffalo artist, has appeared several times at the DJF with the Dominick Farinacci, Joey DeFrancesco, and Pat Bianchi bands. And a few years ago, Olean tenor master Bill Easley accompanied organist Jimmy Smith in his last appearance at the festival. This year, harmonica maestro Toots Thielemans, Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza, and saxophonist Steve Wilson—all of whom appeared at the Art of Jazz Series at the Albright-Knox over the past several years—and Lizz Wright, who sang at Rockwell Hall, will perform in Detroit.

Dominick Farinacci—photo by Clyde Stringer

Other stars at this year’s festival will include Dianne Reeves, Gary Burton, Paquito D’Rivera, Kevin Eubanks, Dave Holland, Sean Jones, the Sun Ra Arkestra, and Cleveland native Joe Lovano. Drummer Jeff “Tain” Waits is the festival 2011 Artist in Residence and celebrated trombonist Curtis Fuller returns to his hometown for another DJF performance.

Organized in 1980, the DJF was called the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival during its first two decades, thanks to a partnership with the jazz festival in Montreux, Switzerland. (That famous festival debuted in 1967 with a performance by recent Buffalo visitor Charles Lloyd and his celebrated quartet.) Under the sponsorship of the Ford Motor Co., the DJF was known as the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival until 2005 when the carmaker pulled out and Gretchen Valade, heir to the Carhartt clothing company and founder of Mack Avenue Records, became the major sponsor.

Hart Plaza, named for former U.S. senator Philip Hart, is a large, well-designed festival space with three stages surrounding a great fountain and informal wading pool. There are spectacular views of the river and Windsor, Ontario on one side and the dramatically lit skyscrapers of downtown Detroit on the other. Since 2005, the festival has spilled out onto the wide boulevard of Woodward Avenue for four blocks up to another spacious plaza, Campus Martius/Cadillac Square, where two additional stages showcase Latin jazz, rhythm and blues, and an impressive array of student bands throughout the weekend. Within the four blocks connecting the two ends of the festival are restaurants, saloons, and chockablock stalls of vendors with African clothing and jewelry, CDs, posters, jazz memorabilia, cotton candy, falafel, ice cream, and the informative Jazz Talk Tent, where festival performers talk about their music and their lives, and engage in panel discussions on a wide range of jazz topics. Imagine Juneteenth downtown surrounded by jazz.

Because this is a free festival, you’re privileged to see, along with all the top shelf jazz artists, the full spectrum of humankind. Recently we spotted a handsome black gentleman well into his eighties turned out in a beautiful black suit, homburg, and spats. You may see impromptu dancers celebrating the music, colorful giants (on hidden stilts) in dazzling Mardi Gras costumes, or an exuberant fan in a wheelchair near the stage clapping and conducting the band. Last year, Barry Harris and Gary Smulyan performed a tribute to another Detroit legend, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, on the Waterfront Stage—a pretty venue in a shady park-like setting. In the background, the monumental GM Renaissance Center towers stood like round glass ziggurats and the sun sparkled on the river as the band launched into Harold Arlen’s “My Shining Hour.”

Whatever the weather, every moment is brilliant while listening to great jazz at the DJF. For more information on the thirty-second Detroit Jazz Festival, its artist lineups, and tips for lodging, go to www.detroitjazzfest.com.

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