[JPL] BLOG: Detroit Jazz Fest Day One

davispro at nyc.rr.com davispro at nyc.rr.com
Sat Sep 5 09:36:35 EDT 2009

Detroit Jazz Fest 2009

Day One:
My first trip to the festival billed as “the world’s largest free jazz festival” couldn’t have begun much better.  Anyone who’s heard stories of how Detroit is a tough and dangerous town would never believe it if they’d ridden into the downtown area with the friendly Detroiters I did.  It was like I was talking to old friends who were warm, friendly, welcoming and direct as was everyone I met it seems all day long. I was told that only about 13% of Detroiters live in town and most live outside and come to work and, in the case of the festival, play, in the downtown area where the festival happens.  It’s a beautiful setting right on the Detroit River with Windsor, Ontario on the other bank.  The weather is great and the vibe and music have just been fabulous. Be aware that this is what I’ve heard a few people call a “Real Jazz Festival,” meaning more traditional in it’s scope, with less “world music” or funk, hip hop, pop or techno.  It’s jazz with a Detroit focus and for the most part straight ahead. There are 5 large stages where the music happens, though there are various other venues for other events from kids activities, jazz art exhibitions and interviews, and each is in walking distance to one another.  The events occur in basically two areas, on Woodward street among the biggest downtown office buildings, with the rest of the stages on Hart Plaza, the park right on the riverfront across Jefferson Street that runs parallel to the river.  The atmosphere is one of a carnival with vendors for arts, crafts and food everywhere.  It’s a real family affair too with basically a very mature audience many of whom bring their kids.

The music for the first day was meant to be the warm up for the rest of the weekend as Friday was still a work day for many so the events didn’t begin until the late afternoon. Detroit native (well, Pontiac actually) Hank Jones took much of the spotlight today and rightfully so as the theme of the festival this year is “Keeping Up With The Joneses,” an homage to the great Jones family of Detroit, Hank, Thad & Elvin, and there’s a special emphasis in the musical lineup this year on families like The Brubeck Brothers and father Dave, Larry & Julian Coryell, The Heath Brothers, John & Bucky Pizzarelli and others. So to kick things off with a 45 minute interview under the “Jazz Talk Tent” with Hank Jones interviewed by Detroit pianist Buddy Budson was totally appropriate.  The aim of the event was to carry on the traditions of jazz by the telling of stories and at 91 years of age and considering all the greats Hank has played with there were many stories to tell.  He does so with great clarity, humor and spirit, just as he plays.  I’m searching for a copy of the recording of this conversation as it’s priceless.

Then it was off to hear some tunes and with a plate of bar-b-q in front of me and a bunch of friendly Detroiters around I took in some local flavor with a big band featuring a reunion of the 1980 Northwestern High School Alumni Band.  Now on the surface this may seem like a less than stellar way to kick off a major international jazz festival, but these cats could play. You could tell they had been tight in years past, loved playing together and had a great director that they all loved to play for. The players were old friends who hadn’t seen one another in some cases for 25 years.  They had three days to work up the set and it was truly a Detroit celebration.  The locals knew the school and the performance of a set of jazz classics was exactly what the crowd wanted.  I sat next to a young kid of maybe 18 with a trumpet in his lap who said he played in his school band as well as with small groups.  The tradition continues in Motown!

Next stop…the main stage for Hank Jones and his trio playing more great standards as well as some Hank and Thad Jones originals.  It was Hank just calling them off and the trio members, including the great bassist George Mraz, each taking solos on every tune.  It was sophisticated and smooth, just like Mr. Jones himself, and a delight to the straight ahead jazz-loving Detroit audience.  One gets the idea that this town really appreciates and reveres its history and it showed in the response and adoration given to one of their own with this performance by Hank Jones. To top off the evening Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White (three of the four  members of Return To Forever who this time last year were barnstorming across the globe with their triumphant reunion tour) took the stage to play an all-acoustic set that thrilled the huge crowd.  Al Di Meola’s acoustic guitar would have most certainly sent this set in a different direction but he’s off doing his own thing these days and it seems there may be a little friction among the four of them right now anyway. More on that as details become available.  This was a crisp set of Corea and Clarke originals with a couple of curveballs thrown in for variety when Chick introduced one song by saying “we’re gonna try out some Monk on you!”  Yep, there was Monk and there was a little Porgy & Bess too along with RTF classics turned into acoustic pieces.  Look for a rough video of the first tune of the night, “500 Miles High,” in the video section of www.mojaradio.com as I’ll be posting that soon. When the trio ended the night with an encore presentation of “Spain,” on which the audience was invited to sing along at the end, everyone left satisfied and day one of 30th edition of The Detroit Jazz Fest was in the books.  It was a great beginning and I can’t wait for more!

Russ Davis
MOJA Radio (www.mojaradio.com)
VOA's "Jazz America"

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