Jazz It Up in Detroit on Labor Day Weekend!

August 31, 2016 | Detroit

Jazz Fest 2016 Blog Pic

While there are competing versions of its nascence, one story of how Labor Day came into being is that Matthew Maguire—a machinist and Secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in New Jersey—proposed the holiday in 1882 and that it was first celebrated at a picnic in 1882.

Almost exactly 100 years later, Robert McCabe founded an International Jazz Festival in Detroit—a city known for both its manufacturing industry and its musical innovation—for the purpose of providing “all segments of the population with world-class entertainment.”

Thus, it seems incredibly apt that not only does it fall on the same weekend, the history and mission of the Detroit Jazz Festival—to “perpetuate Detroit’s significant jazz legacy through educational and collaborative opportunities accessible to all”—is in harmony with the history and purpose of Labor Day—to celebrate the “social and economic achievements of American Workers.” In short, both bring people of all classes together to celebrate collaboration.

Jazz, considered “one of America’s original art forms,” itself emerged by the bringing together of African American and European American musical traditions—essentially the collaboration of both form and performer.

In fact, jazz is the product of collaboration and interaction on many levels: the creator (or composer), the artists (or performers), and the audience. It is an art that is innovative at its core.

And all of this speaks to the site of the International Jazz Festival, Detroit, which is home to creative innovators who look to produce something of value—not just to themselves, but for the community.

Jazz, the music and the performer, seeks to form connections—but, again like the hardworking and driven residents of Detroit, it is also willing to break with tradition to do so. And that—making alterations and improvements to an existing product or way of doing something, thinking outside the box and not being afraid to take a risk that has a reward for the inventor, worker, and consumer—is the very definition of innovation.

It is taking the past into the present with an eye to the future.

Play It Again Sam: The ‘Past’ of Jazz in Detroit

Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, and Count Basie were regular acts in the Paradise Valley clubs during the Jazz Age.  Local musicians who got their start in the ballrooms that lined Woodward and Jefferson Avenues added their talents to and influenced the works of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. They achieved international fame, and put Detroit on the ‘Jazz Map’ right alongside New Orleans, Chicago, and St. Louis. In the 1920’s, jazz musicians from New York relocated to Detroit to be a part of our city’s jazz scene.

One of those local musicians was Milt ‘Bags’ Jackson. The Detroit Institute of Arts hosted the city’s “first official jazz ‘concerts’” in the 1940s, and while playing there, Bags was ‘discovered’ by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and co-author of the book Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960, Lars Bjorn told Found Michigan that “In the 1940s, Detroit and Philly were actually the main feeders of jazz talent in New York,” Lars says. “And players who had established themselves as top players in Detroit could just go join the elite in New York City.”

The Present: ‘Jazzing it Up’ in Detroit Now

361 days of the year (because the other four, you should be at Jazz Fest!), you can capture the past and the present of Detroit and jazz at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. “The World’s Oldest Jazz Club” (a title recognized  by the International Association of Jazz Educators) began featuring pianists in the 1930s from its location on what may possibly be Detroit’s most famous landmark (Eight Mile). The club still draws internationally acclaimed jazz artists who perform at the ‘city border,’ but in recent years, this once infamous boundary line has become not only permeable, but has returned to its original status of being the northern border of ‘the place to be.’

And in the present, it’s not just businesses that are moving back Downtown today, or moving to Downtown today (Moosejaw, Nike, Kit + Ace, John Varvatos). It’s the people who ‘play’ here: at Detroit Lions, Tigers, and Red Wings games; at great new restaurants (Wahlburgers, Calexico, and soon Shake Shack), at concerts (Kenny Chesney, Beyoncé, George Clinton); along the Detroit Riverfront, and—yep, you guessed it—at Jazz Fest.

It’s the people who work here: who want to be able to walk to work, to meet up with friends after work at their favorite ‘Happy Hour’ hangout, and to ‘do brunch’ a block from their house with friends and family. And it’s people like me—who don’t work here, but are willing to make a long commute out of the city in order to be where we want to live—where we are continuously energized by the enthusiasm of the people who visit our neighborhood and work near us. Where we can hear the sounds of the city—from the parades to the music festivals. And where we can surround ourselves with the beauty of an architecturally rich, historically important, and still growing city.

Jazz music has many of the same elements of ‘family.’ Even musicians who don’t perform together regularly are like distant kin, who can jump in and join the ‘conversation’ during a performance.  The ‘present’ of jazz and Jazz Fest is also a family affair. Along with being able to gain an appreciation for incredible music and our city, there are children’s activities for entire families, including the simple fun of playing in the sand at Campus Martius Park. And the Detroit jazz scene itself is home to family histories in jazz music: like Elvin, Hank, and Thad Jones who grew up in Detroit, playing together. Drummer Elvin influenced the sound of the John Coltrane Quartet. Hank, who played the piano, hooked up with Charlie Parker. And Thad joined the Count Basie orchestra as a trumpeter.

The Future: Celebrating Community & Collaboration in the City

What could speak to the future so much as reaching out to and including the youth of today and the stars of tomorrow in the festival? In early August, the Dirty Dog Jazz Café hosted the Detroit Jazz Fest Youth Vocal Competition Finals, where performers under the age of 18 competed to take the stage at this year’s Jazz Fest. The event included special guest Roberta Gambarini. Be sure to catch the winners, rising stars Atiya Whitehead and Jack Williams III, with the Wayne State University Big Band, on Saturday afternoon. They’ll be performing alongside a lineup of Detroit natives, new artists, and legends who are all adding their voice and talent to the legacy—the future—of jazz.

Some of the highlights of the festival include:

Friday night, George Benson takes the stage from 9 until 10:15 p.m.

The Soul Rebels perform on Saturday at 6 p.m.

Sunday at 2 p.m. be sure to catch United States Air Force Airmen of Note.

Created in 1950 “to continue the tradition of Major Glenn Miller’s Army Air Corps dance band, the Airmen of Note honors those who have served, inspires American citizens to heightened patriotism and service, and positively impacts the global community on behalf of the U.S. Air Force and the United States. The excellence demonstrated by these Airmen musicians is a reflection of the excellence displayed by Airmen stationed around the globe. Each member is proud to represent all Airmen, whose selfless service and sacrifices ensure the freedoms we enjoy as citizens of the United States of America.”

Which brings us back to the fact that jazz, like the Jazz Festival, and the Labor Day celebration of the people—those who make innovation possible, those who bring the future into our present—Detroit is inclusive.

Did you know that before she met her legendary second husband, Alice Coltrane was one of many women from Detroit who made a name for herself as a jazz musician—traveling from Detroit to Paris to New York on her musical chops as pianist, composer and jazz harpist?

And the music itself speaks to Detroit’s future success.

But that success isn’t the only reason I call Detroit home.

Jazz relies heavily on improvisation: taking an inspired moment and pursuing it into the great unknown, composing the music as they go and transforming it into something which the other musicians can connect with. Improvisation is made up of the ‘call’ of the inspired initiator and the ‘response’ of the other musicians, and Detroiters are known for finding unique situations and turning them into incredible opportunities—opportunity not just for themselves, but for others…

It is this collaboration, this community, which in jazz has its roots in the New Orleans’ communities it arose from, that inspires me.

Jazz also incorporates syncopation, which the OED defines as “The action of beginning a note on a normally unaccented part of the bar and sustaining it into the normally accented part….” Basically, it means accentuating the offbeat. And Detroit is a city where the conventional route to success is not the only, or even the most common, route—and people who hear a different beat can march onward to success. Detroiters are willing to look at the ‘unaccented’ aspects of life, take unconventional perspectives on them, and then improvise upon them to create something beautiful.

It is the offbeat, the not following of the beaten path but finding new avenues of opportunities just outside my door that I love about my city.

The structure of jazz is complex, more complex than many other forms of music. And so is the structure of our city. In a good way. It is a place where complex signifies ‘taking on deeper meaning,’ having layers of history, and not being easily encapsulated by any single idea. And Detroiters themselves are complex: they are entrepreneurs who are also philanthropists, they are believers who are willing to ask hard questions, they are aware of their history and willing to take risks. They work hard and they play hard (though it isn’t hard to find ways to play in a city where there is always so much going on!).

It is the hardworking people I call my neighbors who inspire me to not ‘just do it, but to do more.

Jazz requires musicians to interact with one another; to play off of and accentuate the difference in what each is playing; to build relationships with one another and the audience. They take a melody, discover the offbeat notes, honor solos, and use their individual talents to build a beautiful harmony.

And at this Labor Day Weekend’s International Jazz Fest in Detroit, you will discover that this—taking the melody of our past, discovering unique opportunities, appreciating one another’s perspectives, and building the future of our city together—is what Detroit is all about.

And by being part of its present, you might discover not only a love of jazz, but a desire to be a part of its history, its present, and its future.

I would be glad and honored to call you my neighbor.

You can find the full Jazz Fest Lineup and Schedule here.

And you will find me, my friends, and my neighbors having a great time in the city where we live, work, and play….

And, of course, thank you the Partners and Sponsors who make Jazz Fest possible!

Quicken Loans

DTE Energy

Mack Avenue Records



Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe


Oakland University

Cliff Bell’s

And many more wonderful supporters!


Photo Credit: The Knight Foundation

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