Gretchen Valade, Carhartt heiress and philanthropist, dies at 97

Susan Whitall and Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit’s “Angel of Jazz,” Gretchen Carhartt Valade, has died. She was 97.

The Carhartt heiress and philanthropist, who saved the Detroit Jazz Festival from almost certain extinction in 2006, was beloved by not only the jazz musicians she paid and treated well, but also jazz fans who benefited from the world-class free jazz festival she saved.

Valade died Dec. 30 surrounded by family at her Grosse Pointe Farms home, Dearborn-based Carhartt said in a news release Tuesday.

Gretchen C. Valade

“It is with great sadness that we mourn the loss of Gretchen C. Valade,” the company wrote in a statement. “As chairman emeritus of Carhartt and granddaughter of Carhartt’s founder, Hamilton Carhartt, she was an innovator, philanthropist, pioneer and visionary. Known by many as the ‘Angel of Jazz,’ she was a staple in Metro Detroit’s business landscape, the jazz community and, of course, at Carhartt. Gretchen will be remembered for positively impacting countless people by establishing a foundation for the arts to keep Detroit's annual jazz festival the largest free festival of its kind in North America. Her legacy will continue to live on through Carhartt, the Detroit Jazz Festival, and her many philanthropic endeavors.”

Valade was born Aug. 27, 1925, and shared a birthday with her grandfather Hamilton Carhartt, who founded workwear brand Carhartt in 1889 in Detroit. The now Dearborn-based company remains family-owned.

Then known as Gretchen Carhartt, Valade first appeared on The Detroit News’ Society page as a tow-headed toddler, photographed attending a party with her parents, Wylie and Gretchen Stearns Carhartt.

The term “socialite” has been expanded to include just about anybody with an Instagram following, but in the first half of the 20th century “society” was defined by old money — at least a few decades old, anyway. Gretchen was the real deal, the granddaughter of Detroit’s “overall king,” Hamilton Carhartt, who founded the Carhartt clothing company, making sturdy work clothes for men.

At the same time, she was proud of her grandfather Hamilton’s modest origins, and the company’s stance on labor. Hamilton Carhartt had started selling overalls for railroad engineers that his wife, Gretchen’s grandmother, ran up on a sewing machine in a shed.

Gretchen was presented to society formally in 1946, but she wasn’t your everyday Grosse Pointe deb. She was a tall, willowy blonde with a keen sense of style and an easy, frank way of talking with musicians from all walks of life. Her love of music was not only a personal joy, but something she was able to share with millions thanks to her inheritance, as well as her personal passion and work ethic.

In 1948, Valade married Grosse Pointe native Robert C. Valade. He would serve as Carhartt’s president for four decades. Valade was an active participant and adviser in the business as the couple raised their three children, Christopher, Gretchen and Mark. After her husband's death in 1998, she took on the role of chair of the board. Mark Valade is Carhartt's chief executive officer and chairman of the board.

In addition to serving as chairman emeritus of Carhartt, Gretchen Valade was known for her love of music and the arts. She played piano and wrote songs from a young age.

"She credited her older sisters, Eugenie and Patricia, with introducing her to the music of Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, and other artists who inspired her affinity for jazz," her family's company said in a statement. "She said her real jazz education resulted from exploring New York’s iconic jazz clubs and hearing the industry’s finest musicians."

Musicians appreciated her as a straight shooter who deplored the conditions they often endured. She was incensed to find out that Black musicians of the highest caliber, headlining the top nightclubs, often had to sleep in their cars when hotels and motels would not admit them.

She quietly helped many players behind the scenes, including the great Detroit R&B guitarist Johnnie Bassett, whom she helped to buy a house.

“I was impressed with her directness.  No bulls---, tells you what she thinks,” jazz writer Jim Gallert said of the woman he called a “devout jazzer.”

“No one has done more for jazz in the last decade-plus in our city,” said Detroit producer and drummer RJ Spangler. “Her love of the music knows no bounds.”

“She was brass-tacks honest,” said Spangler, who with his group Planet D Nonet recorded three albums for Valade’s Detroit Music Factory label. She would tell Spangler bluntly when he needed to lose weight, and then praise him when he did.

With her salty, snappy patter and down to earth glamor, Valade was a magnetic presence herself, rather like a society-bred, film noir heroine.

This jazz angel also had no problem telling a man or woman performing at her Grosse Pointe Farms jazz club to never wear a certain outfit again, as Spangler recalled, laughing. She was probably right. She was used to ensuring that her homes and businesses were just so, with every finish and furnishing painstakingly chosen — why not the musicians as well?

She could have simply lived the life of an artsy, cosseted Grosse Pointe matron — enjoying her money, decorating her various homes (she also had one on Sanibel Island, Florida), and spending time with her children, grandchildren and beloved dogs. But things took a turn or two.

Growing up, she spent summers at the Bryn Afon camp in the Land o’ Lakes area of Wisconsin, and her schooldays at the elite Rogers Hall boarding school in Massachusetts.

It was a time when society reporters filed light-hearted reports on parties given by 14-year-olds, describing one in an ice blue satin gown, with ropes of pearls around her neck and in her hair. That was Gretchen.

She made her debut alongside her friend Susan Duckett at a luncheon at the Country Club given by her mother. Every item of her clothing was reported, from the “street-length frock of sheer gray wool” finished by a white pique collar and cuffs, and a silver belt that she wore to a luncheon, and her dinner ensemble: Black chiffon, with a corsage of white iris and stephanotis.

But she was also a serious pianist, consumed by music. Jazz chose her, she liked to say, describing it as an almost supernatural force. She first heard it thanks to her much-older sisters, her mother’s daughters from a previous marriage. They played jazz records constantly on the family Victrola. “They loved jazz, that’s where I heard it,” Valade said. “They loved Fats Waller, all the jazz players.”

Music wasn’t a passive pursuit; she was interested in the nuts and bolts of how to create it, and started practicing the craft of writing songs.

Her interest in jazz only grew when, as a college student in New York, she took part in the bustling postwar jazz scene in that city, hanging out in the clubs on 52nd Street, dubbed “Swing Street” because of all the music coming from basement and storefront clubs. Saxophonist Sidney Bechet was one of the musicians she would go see, with friends, and chat with between sets — maybe at Jimmy Ryan’s, maybe at some other Swing Street bistro.  

By 1948, she had returned to Detroit and married Robert Valade. By her own account, Valade was a traditional mother to her children in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But she never stopped composing, arranging and creating vocal charts inspired by Nat "King" Cole and Peggy Lee.

In 1984, song lyrics that Valade wrote, titled “Lights of Detroit,” were put to music and recorded by a local group, Tommy Saunders and his Surfside Six. According to The Detroit News’ Earl Dowdy, Saunders and his group gave it a “soul-stirring blues background.”

 J.P. McCarthy played the record on WJR, but it wasn’t quite enough. Searching for an outlet for her musical endeavors, by the late '90s, Valade had founded a record company, Mack Avenue.

From a modest beginning, today Mack Avenue is one of the foremost jazz labels in the country, with offices in Harper Woods and Los Angeles, and a catalog that includes recordings by present and past jazz greats, among them Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Christian McBride, Tower of Power, Joey DeFrancesco, Stanley Clarke, Danilo Perez, and the Yellowjackets. Top Detroit talent such as Dave Bennett, Hot Club of Detroit and Johnnie Bassett were also recorded, and always given the deluxe treatment in the studio.

Saving the struggling Detroit Jazz Festival is perhaps Valade’s greatest gift to the city, and to jazz fans worldwide. Founded in 1980, by 2005 the festival was owned and produced by the Music Hall, and despite the best efforts of staff, was being patched together financially each year on the run. It appeared doomed after Ford Motor Co. withdrew its support as the presenting sponsor, but that only made Valade angry enough to step up and first, sponsor it in 2005, and then take over in 2006.

“Well, I cried,” Valade said, when she heard that the festival was foundering. “Then I said, ‘Come on Gretchen, get into the bank. Do something. So I did.’”

Solidifying the festival’s future, and making sure it remained free was something she felt deeply about. Jazz, she said, was more than just music, it was culture. She didn’t care if jazz’s popularity was fading, it made her all the more determined to bring it to people. “It’s got to be available to everybody,” she said. “Somebody is feeling down — they come and hear that music, even their little kids are exposed to it — they all love it.”

“Gretchen saved our festival, no question,” said Gallert, a jazz writer who runs the festival’s Jazz Talk Tent series with Lars Bjorn. “Before her, we struggled each year with Music Hall.”

At the time, Valade wasn’t well known in Detroit’s music community, even after launching Mack Avenue. Some in the Detroit jazz community wondered who this society lady was, a dilettante dabbling in jazz for fun? A (gasp) smooth jazz fan?

It didn’t take long for nerves to settle down, as soon as Valade and her able right-hand man, Tom Robinson, took over.

“I spoke with Tom a couple of times and had a good feeling about their intentions,” Gallert said. “They weren’t going to change much of anything.” After years of scraping by, at the mercy of the ebb and flow of a yearly budget made up of supporter donations, the endowment meant a stable stream of money. “Suddenly there was money for the music,” Gallert said. “Money to pay musicians and employees. Gretchen and Tom wanted a professional organization, one that would function smoothly, not stumble from one fire to the next. Their money made that possible.”

That first year, the festival was expanded to six stages, and Woodward Avenue was closed off between Jefferson and Campus Martius so fans could stroll from one stage to another.

"Due to her singular commitment to jazz, Gretchen was dubbed the ‘Angel of Jazz’ by the global jazz community,” Wayne State University Professor Chris Collins, the inaugural Gretchen Valade Endowed Chair in Jazz and artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival, said in a statement Tuesday. “Her passion, commitment and vision were a legacy in itself.”

In a statement, the Detroit Jazz Festival called Valade "Our Angel of Jazz."

"We join the world in mourning her death, and celebrate her lifelong contributions to the Detroit community, specifically her unwavering commitment to the propagation of Detroit’s jazz legacy and the preservation of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation and the Detroit Jazz Festival, the world’s largest admission-free jazz festival," the statement read. "We will continue to honor Gretchen’s vision and legacy through our mission of jazz for everyone in Detroit and around the world."

But musicians need gigs year-round, not just over Labor Day weekend. For a town with a music heritage built on jazz, by the 2000s only a handful of Detroit area clubs featured live jazz and actually paid the musicians.

In 2008 Valade opened the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in a defunct florist shop in Grosse Pointe Farms, gutted and refurbished to her exacting standards. That included the musicians’ green room, usually a dank, cheerless space in the best of clubs. At the Dirty Dog, even a sofa in the green room where battered guitar cases were piled up casually probably cost in the thousands of dollars.

Her musicians got the same chef-prepared food from the Dirty Dog’s kitchen, on the house, that her well-heeled patrons were buying.

Valade was a familiar presence at the Dirty Dog, sitting at the bar in the back, and more than likely, picking up the dinner tab of any musician she knew who was sitting nearby.

“Originally she came into the club on Wednesdays and Saturdays,” said Spangler. “But then, she’d see people around town and ask, why didn’t she see them at her club? They’d give excuses like the weather. So then she decided to come every night to her club, to set an example.

“Every musician that performs regularly at her club, loves her. These are the top jazz musicians in town like Ralphe Armstrong, Marian Hayden, Thornetta Davis, Rayse Biggs.”

Another of her enduring gifts to the city is the Gretchen Valade Jazz Center, formerly the Hilberry Theatre. Valade donated $7.5 million to Wayne State University to create the center, with an additional $2 million kicked in soon after to renovate the basement Studio Theater into a Jazz Underground club space. The venue is set to open later this year.

"We are all so very grateful to Gretchen Valade for her enormous generosity,” Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson said in a statement Tuesday. “Gretchen’s gifts expanded Wayne State’s commitment to excellence in the arts and humanities. She will be greatly missed, but her commitment to jazz lives on at Wayne State through the Gretchen C. Valade Jazz Center."

Along with her work as a “jazz angel,” Valade was a generous donor to Ascension St. John's Hospital, where her husband Robert received care before his 1998 death. And when she read about a homeless woman living with her five children in Hart Plaza, she became involved with COTS (Coalition on Temporary Shelter), which provides housing for homeless families. Then there was her work with various charities that benefit animals and nature, including the Humane Society of Huron County and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

Among her honors were the Max M. Fisher award for outstanding philanthropist in 2007; she was one of The Detroit News’ 2008 Michiganians of the Year; and in 2016 Crain’s named Valade one of Detroit’s 100 Most Influential Women. That same year, Wayne State University conferred an honorary doctorate upon her. “And they said nothing good happens after 90,” she quipped.

She had opinions on the uses of money, about how fun it is, at first, to buy antiques and run around Europe. “But there are so many people who don’t have anything, and you have to do something.”

Valade was always a woman of business; owning several stores in Grosse Pointe, including Morning Glory Coffee and Pastries and Capricious, a clothing boutique. She also owned Sweet Melissa's Café in Sanibel Island, Florida. A board member for Carhartt since the 1960s, she saw the family business grow from a specialty company making the most prosaic work clothes into a worldwide fashion brand revered by young people for its tough, all-American jeans, jackets and shirts.

Valade’s survivors include son Mark Valade, (a second son, Christopher C. Valade, predeceased her), a daughter, Gretchen Garth of Seattle, six grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

Private services will be held.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to COTS Detroit at or the Humane Society of Huron Valley at