Jazz abounds in Motown
By Herb Boyd
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Balance, diversity, and intergenerational connections — along with a dollop of panache — have always been among the quests for the annual Detroit Jazz Festival, and its 34th annual edition accomplished these goals with acts to spare. Neatly interwoven in the four-day Labor Day event weekend were such notables as Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Ravi Coltrane, Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Lee Konitz, Geri Allen, and the Yellowjackets. Singers Gregory Porter, Cecile McLorin Salvant and Theo Croker were symbolic of a coterie of emerging stars.
These stellar, world-class musicians had their counterparts in a retinue of promising local artists, many of them showing their wares at late night jam sessions at the Marriott Hotel in the Renaissance Center. Of particular note was Kasan Belgrave, the son of Detroit’s renowned trumpet master Marcus Belgrave. Belgrave is a superb alto saxophonist who demonstrated that the fruit never falls that far from the tree.
Two former Detroiters, tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen and multi-reedist James Carter, were alternately powerful in their turns at the jam session and during several appearances at other sites around Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit.
But as expected, it was the headliners who drew the huge throngs and few of these were as impressive as trumpeter Terell Stafford whose fast and furious flights pushed his quintet to absolute brilliance during their tribute to composer Billy Strayhorn, and Stafford and pianist/arranger Bruce Bart were expressively tender on “Daydream.” Similarly beautiful was James Carter’s tribute to Don Byas, played on a tenor saxophone that once belonged to Byas. He tested the horn to the full extent of its mechanical features. He and Theo Croker, the grandson of Doc Cheatham, were dynamically in tune as they reworked Byas’s “Free and Easy.”
Croker, after a thunderous bravura opening from Carter, tamped down the tenor’s roar with an astonishingly sweet rendering of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.”
Vocalist Macy Gray, backed by a David Murray led band, demonstrated the festival’s reach beyond category — the blending of genres becoming more pronounced world wide in concerts and jazz festivals. Their performance stood in stark contrast to the more meditative styling delivered by pianist and Artist-In-Residence Danilo Perez and his ensemble, though they evinced moments of sizzling poignancy.
The tributes were everywhere, including Grammy-nominated Michigan native Joan Belgrave singing Dinah Washington, and other artists performing pieces by Dave Brubeck, John Lennon, and late local luminaries Brad Felt, and Teddy Harris, Jr. The moment for Harris unfolded with all the dignity and sophistication that characterized the versatile musician, and bassist Ralphe Armstrong and guitarist Robert Lowe laid a propulsive foundation of sound for James Carter’s searing soprano sax.
Carter also participated in a Jazz Talk Tent session as a panelist with other former Detroiters, J.D. Allen, Geri Allen, and trombonist George Bohanon. Moderated by writer/journalist Kim Heron, each of them shared memories of coming of age in Detroit, the city’s music educational programs, and how important it was in their development. “Many of us came out of high school thoroughly prepared to begin our professional careers,” said Geri Allen, an alumnus of the city’s illustrious Cass Tech High School. All the other panelists attended Northwestern High School and noted the importance of the now threatened music and arts programs.
Bass players were in abundance and among the more prominent ones were Bob Hurst, Jaribu Shahid, Cecil McBee, Ralphe Armstrong, Reuben Rogers, and Rodney Whitaker (most of them with Motor City roots). Whitaker had many of his charges at the jam sessions and they performed with both precision and exuberance — reflective of their talented mentor.
One of the festival’s most breathtaking duets was between vibist Warren Wolf and pianist Aaron Diehl. They mixed classical motifs with jazz elements, making it hard not to think of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
The crowd for Ahmad Jamalstretched across practically half of the plaza and many were content watching him on the Jumbotron and they came alive when he and his crew launched into “Poinciana.” He was accompanied by the polyrhythmic feet of tap dancer Savion Glover.
As sunset arrived, Geri Allen and Marcus Belgrave shared responsibility for bringing down the curtain, but at separate venues. Belgrave had six trumpets in a session that was rightfully entitled “Trumpet Call.” With Belgrave as the leader, they covered a history of great trumpet players, beginning with a spirited rendition of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s classic “West End Blues.” This was highlighted by the growling commentary between Belgrave and Rayse Biggs. They concluded with Thad Jones’ composition “Executive,” and Dwight Adams was electrifying. Emcee Michael G. Nastos announced that “Trumpet Call” was in reality the last call, celebrating Detroit Jazz Festival living up to what the festival’s artistic director Christopher Collins said was the “symbiotic of the relationship between jazz and Detroit.”
The festival was uplifting — lending a momentary glow of prosperity amid all the gloomy headlines about the city’s collapse and bankruptcy. Detroit may be economically impotent, but its culture — particularly the ongoing legacy of world class musicians — is not in jeopardy.