DETROIT — It’s had different names over the years — including the Detroit International Jazz Festival and the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival — but no matter what it’s been called, it’s an event that has attracted thousands to see jazz legends and emerging talent.
Along the way, the series of free outdoor Labor Day weekend concerts now known simply as the Detroit Jazz Festival has inspired and fostered the talents of more than a few Detroit musicians, and given countless others a chance to shine and work alongside some of their idols.
This year, as the festival celebrates its 40th anniversary with free concerts by Stanley Clarke, Ron Carter, Terence Blanchard and many others from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 in and around Hart Plaza, a few leading local musicians reflect on this annual tradition and what it has meant to them.
He’s now an internationally acclaimed jazz woodwind player, director of jazz studies at Wayne State University and artistic director of the DJF — the largest free jazz festival in the world — but in 1980, Chris Collins was a 15-year-old Lakeview High School student in his school jazz band, co-led then by band director Tom Course and jazz band director Tom Ploeger. Collins, who now lives in Grosse Pointe Shores, was thrilled to be in one of the school bands chosen to grace one of the inaugural festival’s stages.
“The fact that it was free was mind-blowing to me,” Collins said. “Even if there had been a nominal fee, I wouldn’t have been able to attend. To see all of these artists — many of my heroes — was so important to me. … (The high school jazz band gave) a small performance, but it meant the world.”
Collins said many of the initiatives he’s launched since becoming the festival’s artistic director in 2011 — including jam sessions, competitions for young musicians, programs in schools and a jazz festival alumni band — came from his own experiences and what he believed would be meaningful for young musicians.
The saxophonist said that as he was starting out, the festival offered a place to perform and enjoy jazz.
“As a musician coming up in this town, I had several ensembles that were featured at the festival,” he said. “(It was) always a thrilling experience. It’s globally recognized for being outside, with the city as a backdrop. … (And) just to be able to go to the festival and see and hear my heroes and be introduced to musicians I’d heard of (was unforgettable). There’s just so much opportunity, whether you’re a musician or a jazz lover. There’s a surprise around every corner.”
Where the DJF once featured specific student stages, Collins said school bands now compete for performance opportunities along with professional local groups.
“Now those (student) bands play on one of our four (regular) stages,” he said. “They get full sound, lighting (and) technical (support). … I want them to play with all of the accoutrements as a Chick Corea… It should be truly a professional experience for them.”
A protégé of legendary Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and a co-founder of the groundbreaking female jazz group Straight Ahead, bassist Marion Hayden, of Detroit, has been a festival regular since she was starting her musical career circa the early 1980s. She said she and drummer Gerald Cleaver were featured on one of the first DJF compilation CDs with vocalist Kenny “Pancho” Hagood, around the time she had just finished high school.
This year, Hayden’s trio will be performing at 5:45 p.m. Aug. 31 with the jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan, who turns 91 this year.
“She’s the grande dame of bebop vocalists,” Hayden said. “She brings so much history. You don’t want to miss her.”
Hayden has also played with other jazz stars — including late trumpeter Gerald Wilson — because of the DJF.
“The jazz festival has given me a lot of great opportunities,” Hayden said. “I’ve had opportunities to showcase great musical material. I’ve had the opportunity to play with a lot of great musicians when they’ve come in.”
Straight Ahead reunited with original member Regina Carter, a jazz violinist and the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and a 2018 Doris Duke Award, for a special performance at the 2018 festival. When the DJF was affiliated with the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Hayden said, the formerly all-female jazz band also had the opportunity through an exchange program to perform at that festival circa 1993. When a local TV station did a live Friday night broadcast from the festival one year when Straight Ahead was playing, Hayden said, she was tapped to serve as the musical director for that show.
Today, besides being active in Straight Ahead and other ensembles, Hayden is a jazz educator. She’s one of the DJF jazz residents at Bates Academy in Detroit.
“I think it’s very important that the festival is here,” she said. “It’s free, so … if you can get downtown, there’s no barriers to see these artists. (Also), you can be inspired in one way by a recording, but seeing someone live is inspiring in a whole different way.”
Jazz professionals mentor students and emerging artists as well through the festival and its educational components, Hayden said.
“The other thing that’s really important about having the jazz festival (in Detroit) is, it lets other people know there’s a lot of love for jazz in the city,” she said. “It shows you that you have this resident population that is really hungry for this type of music, and we’re hungry for it at other times of the year too.”
Drummer RJ Spangler, of Grosse Pointe Park, remembers attending the first DJF in 1980, when he was just 22. He said the experience “was fantastic” and has remained a memorable part of his life for years.
A former member of the Sun Messengers — the band he co-founded with Rick Steiger — Spangler said it was as a Sun Messenger that he first performed at the festival. Over the years, he said, he’s performed with artists like Johnnie Bassett, Alberta Adams, Odessa Harris and Joe Weaver on DJF stages, and he last played the festival with his band, Planet D Nonet, about 11 years ago.
“I got to open up for my hero, Elvin Jones, one time,” Spangler said of the late, legendary drummer from Pontiac. “He’s my favorite drummer of all time.”
A family function will keep Spangler away this year, but he said he usually never misses the festival.
“It’s a jewel of Detroit jazz,” he said. “It’s incredible what Chris (Collins) has done down there. He’s made a world-class jazz event. I have nothing but praise for Chris Collins and (DJF Foundation Board Chair) Gretchen Valade. They’re definitely in sync with what’s going on in the world of jazz.”
Thanks to nightly jam sessions after the festival, Spangler said student musicians have a chance to not only meet but also share a stage with some of the greatest names in jazz today.
“If you’re a college student at Wayne (State University), you can get up and possibly play with one of your heroes,” Spangler said. “How cool is that?”
For more information about the festival or its popular livestream, which includes livestreams of all festival performances and exclusive content, visit www.detroitjazzfest.org.