Musicians bring passion to Detroit Jazz Festival

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

Most jazz musicians see themselves as performers, recording artists –or, increasingly these days, as teachers. But jazz violinist Regina Carter believes her fellow musicians should think in broader terms, about their role in the community and society at large.

She is passionate about her work, but what gives her the most joy is bringing music to those who most need it -- the elderly in nursing homes and hospice — as well as mentoring young people.

Carter, who was the Detroit Jazz Festival’s first artist-in-residence in 2007, returns to her hometown to perform at 3:45 p.m. Sunday with Xavier Davis and Rise Up Detroit at the festival’s Absopure Water Front Stage.

Regina Carter performs Sunday at the Detroit Jazz Festival.

“I’m trying to find a way to balance my time so I can afford to be home more, because that work is so enriching to me and it’s so needed,” Carter said by phone from her New Jersey home. “I especially like working with the elderly population because a lot of times, they don’t have anyone to be with them.

"Music is a very healing tool, and more doctors in the west are starting to incorporate it as part of their plan. When you play for someone in hospice or a nursing home, it gives a whole new meaning, it’s emotional-- for me anyway. This is why I do this.”

Carter is warmed by the reception she gets from elderly residents who may have dementia or other issues, but can often sing all the words to the sort of standards jazz musicians play.

She incorporates such appearances into the jazz camp for young women that she took over after another native Detroiter, pianist Geri Allen, died-- the NJPAC All-Female Jazz Residency.

“With this camp I’m trying to get that aspect into it, to at least have the young ladies go to a nursing home, if not a hospice,” Carter said. “A lot of times as a musician, you think you’re going to either be a professional performer or a teacher, but there are so many other options out there as far as what music can do.”

Carter learned firsthand about serving the community from her own mentor, Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave.

“I was a part of his camp at his house, a thousand years ago, and as part of that he would do a lot of concerts at nursing homes,” she said. “I saw how people would light up when we played. Marcus would talk about the importance of community. And spending time with my mom at the hospital when she was making her transition, it hurt my heart to see the older people who had no one visiting them. When I was a kid, I wanted to adopt every stray dog and have an orphanage. I wanted to save the world!”

Carter’s last album was "Ella: Accentuate the Positive" in 2017. To record a selection of songs associated with one of her mother’s favorite singers helped her grieve her parent’s death, and as the title implied, she hoped it would be healing for fans as well, considering the fraught American political climate.

 A new album is in the planning stages, but she’ll only say that it will reflect “what this country and what the world is dealing with now, what we need to do.”

Another social issue Carter has strong opinions about in the post-#MeToo world is the difficulties women face as jazz musicians. It’s a male-dominated world, and many male icons are renowned for their style and strut, as much as their music.

“It’s that swag, I call it,” Carter said. “You have those older cats like Miles, or whoever that the (younger musicians) look to, and they have that way of dressing.”

Is there a feminine equivalent, for someone who isn’t a vocalist? Carter always thought she had to dress and act “like the guys,” until a friend urged her to celebrate her beauty as a woman.  

A bigger issue for young women is how to assert themselves musically, especially when improvising. “When you’re working with men they’ll say ‘Oh, let’s do this’ or ‘Let’s do that,’ and you might say ‘Well, let’s try this,’ and then they don’t hear you,” Carter said. “You have to say ‘Look!’ Or with soloing, you just have to step in there, you have to go for it. It comes down to teaching them to not be so shy about it, or waiting on someone to give them permission. A lot of times, as women, we wait for someone to give us permission.”

Young men need to be part of the conversation, to learn about how to treat women and include them, “and be big brothers to them, watch out for them,” Carter said. “Unfortunately a lot of their behavior comes from the teachers, they see how they disrespect some of the young ladies in their classes.”

As a bandleader, Carter also is trying to not to do the easy thing and go with the players she knows best.

“For myself, I always think of my crew and they tend to be men, although I do have a female percussionist who is a very good friend, and if I needed percussion I would definitely call her,” Carter said. “There’s a great new bassist who will be graduating from Michigan State this year, Liany Mateo. She sat in with us when we played a gig back there, and she’s just got such a pocket and such a groove. I want to be mindful and hire her for a gig, not just because she’s a woman, but because she can play.”

As for the jazz festival, Carter is excited about playing with her longtime bandmate and fellow Michiganian Xavier Davis and Rise Up Detroit at 3:45 p.m. Sunday at the Absopure Water Front Stage.  Davis has been playing with her since 2004 (as well as in other bands), and returned to Michigan in 2014 to be an associate professor in Michigan State’s jazz program.

Rise Up Detroit is a sweeping project that touches on the history of Detroit as it affected blacks, including the Underground Railroad, the Great Migration and the promise of middle class jobs in the auto factories. It was released as an album last year on Detroit Music Factory, a subsidiary of Mack Avenue Records.

“I can’t rave enough about his project ‘Rise Up Detroit,’ it’s a beautiful, passionate tribute to Detroit,” Carter said. “He’s got a rhythm section with Rodney Whitaker on bass, his brother Quincy Davis on drums, Xavier is on piano and there’s a string quartet with Leslie DeShazor on viola, Nancy Chaklos on cello, and Brad Phillips and myself on violin. It’s a great project and I’m so happy he has the opportunity to perform it this year at the festival.”

Musicians appreciate 'true jazz festival'

Musicians appearing at the Detroit Jazz Festival often express gratitude and even surprise that there still is a jazz festival that literally presents… jazz.

“It’s such a great festival, it’s a free festival and they haven’t had to bring in pop groups to keep it going,” said Regina Carter. “So many jazz festivals, unfortunately you might have one or two straight ahead jazz acts.”

“We are committed to being a true jazz festival,” Detroit Jazz Festival artistic director Chris Collins affirmed. “It’s not something easily described, but the reality is, jazz has a definitive history, a definitive language and craft. On top of that, the endless amount of directions cultural and stylistic, it’s a music that truly reflects the now. It’s about the moment--you won’t hear that set again in quite that way.”

That ability to stress artistry first, over commercialism, is thanks of course to the festival’s “jazz angel,” Carhartt heiress Gretchen Valade, who donated enough money to fund and stabilize the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation.

Collins is proud of the reputation the Detroit Jazz Festival has for artists to branch out or bring new projects to an audience. “Whether it’s Stanley Clarke’s ‘Boyz N the Hood’ or Danilo Perez’s Global Big Band on opening night (7 p.m. Friday on the JP Morgan Chase main stage, featuring the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra, Luciana Souza, Miguel Zenón, Layth Sidiq, Tareq Rantisi and Oscar Cruz), for artists to take the time and energy to create something like that--it’s out there that Detroit is the venue where you can work on some pretty complex things,” Collins said.

This year, as the 40th anniversary, is one that calls for reflection. “Whenever you get to an important anniversary you want to think about what your vision is, as well as where the festival’s been,” Collins said. “Forty years is a long time, keeping it free and all the things that make it so special.”

As a player himself (woodwinds), Collins remembers what it feels like to be an eager teenager learning the craft. “As a young person you’re surrounded by music of the day, but the history of this music demands that you pay homage, and study and internalize the works of the artists who came before. And on the (DJF) bandstand, seasoned artists are mixed in with up-and-comers –that’s a part of the jazz world. Once you understand the language, how do you build on that? What do you bring to it? That’s a very useful thing.”

Here are some highlights of the 2019 Detroit Jazz Festival, Aug. 30-Sept. 2, the world’s largest free jazz festival taking place on four stages from the Detroit River to Campus Martius Park.

Stanley Clarke -- rainmaker or bass legend? How about both? Sure, two previous Clarke jazzfest appearances were cut short because of rain, but this time the 68-year-old bassist is 2019 Artist in Residence, and the third time has to be the charm, right?

“Jokes abound, but we’re hopeful for the best,” said DJF artistic director Collins. “It’s the price everyone pays for these beautiful outdoor concerts.” Clarke will have three chances to dodge thunderstorms this year: On Friday Aug. 30 he’ll perform a set at 9 p.m. at the JP Morgan Chase Main Stage centering around his fourth solo album, “Back to ‘School Days,’” with an appearance by his Return to Forever bandmate, drummer Lenny White.

 At 6 p.m. Sunday Sept. 1, Clarke performs as the Stanley Clarke Band at the JP Morgan Chase Main Stage. And at 7 p.m. Monday Sept. 2, accompanied by an orchestra, Clarke will close out the festival with a performance at the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage devoted to his score to the 1991 John Singleton film “Boyz N the Hood,” as scenes from the movie are shown on the overhead screens.

Pat Metheny, and Ron Carter, and … As one of the artists-in-residence returning for the 40th anniversary of the festival, Metheny will perform again with Detroit bass legend Ron Carter, this time in an acoustic setting. In 2015 Metheny wanted to play all over the festival, for some smaller stages as well as the main stage, so he performed with Carter at the festival’s most intimate venue, the steep, quirky Pyramid Stage. “A lot of people didn’t get to see the set, or didn’t get as close as they wanted,” Collins said. “So, we’re recreating and revisiting it on the amphitheater stage.”  Metheny also will perform with some younger musicians he’s mentored as Pat Metheny Side-Eye, with James Francies and Marcus Gilmore, 3 p.m. Monday at the JP Morgan Chase Main Stage.

New Orleans jazz and swing. If you relish the sounds of early, hot jazz, get to the Wayne State University Pyramid Stage at 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31, to see Kellso’s Hot Five. Detroit native Jon-Erik Kellso plays trumpet, along with John Allred on trombone, Rossano Sportiello on piano, Shannon Wade on bass, and Marion Felder on drums.  Kellso is a member of New York-based Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks, known for its expertise in 1920’s and ‘30s music, when he isn’t playing with his own hot jazz groups.

Another taste of New Orleans will come from that city’s Shannon Powell, who’s toured and recorded with artists including Harry Connick Jr., and will kick off the festival leading Dr. Valade’s Brass Band (named for festival philanthropist Gretchen Valade) in a second line that formally opens the Detroit Jazz Festival. In his own Saturday set, Powell will offer a diverse repertoire from his native city including both traditional jazz and funky, newer sounds. Powell, known as the “King of Treme,” performs with his New Orleans Jazz Masters at 7:45 p.m. Saturday at the Absopure Water Front Stage.

Homecomings. Every year Collins celebrates the return of homegrown Detroit jazz greats, but a 40th anniversary homecoming is a special thing, so this year “homecoming” refers to past artists-in-residence, as well as Detroit jazzers who went off into the world. The six artists-in-residence returning to play over this Labor Day weekend are Regina Carter, Pat Metheny, Ron Carter, Joshua Redman, Danilo Perez and Terence Blanchard.

Among the expatriate Detroiters is singer Sheila Jordan, who was one of the generation of bebop-obsessed Detroiters who migrated to New York in the early ‘50s. You can catch her at 5:45 p.m. Saturday on the Wayne State University Pyramid Stage, singing with fellow native Detroiter Marion Hayden’s trio.

 The festival is claiming Dee Dee Bridgewater as a local, although she grew up in Flint, and why not? Bridgewater paid homage to New Orleans on "Dee Dee’s Feathers," her 2015 album with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, featuring classic and modern sounds from the Crescent City to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. She brings that homage to jazzfest with a set she’ll perform with the NOJO at 8:15 p.m. Sunday on the JP Morgan Chase Main Stage.

Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey, who is still in his hometown, will perform a selection from his new contemporary jazz album “Down by the River,” (Detroit Music Factory/Mack Avenue) at 2 p.m. Saturday on the Absopure Water Front Stage, immediately followed by Detroit R&B legend Freda Payne (“Band of Gold”) who will present a jazz set with Ralphe Armstrong at 3:45 p.m.

Jazz Talk Tent. Panel discussions and one-on-one interviews with authors and musicians offer a deeper connection for fans. This year, some of the highlights include on Saturday, a 1:30 p.m. panel on “Learning Jazz the Detroit Way” featuring Marion Hayden; Maxine Jordan discussing her biography of Dexter Gordon at 2:30 p.m., and Mark Stryker talking about his book “Jazz from Detroit” at 4:45 p.m. On Sunday at 1 p.m. “Jazz Generations: 3 Stars” is a panel discussion with Dee Dee Bridgewater, Veronica Swift and Sheila Jordan; and on Monday at 2:15 p.m. “Black Detroit” author Herb Boyd gives an overview of Detroit jazz in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Nightly Jam Sessions. Free jam sessions will start at 11 p.m. at the Detroit Marriott Ambassador Ballroom on the fourth floor of the Marriott hotel. Friday night’s jam will include many Detroit luminaries in an all-star lineup to pay tribute to Johnny Trudell, whose trumpet can be heard on many Motown hits. Saturday’s 11 p.m. jam will feature the Detroit All-Star House Band, including Dwight Adams, Gary Schunk, Marion Hayden and Dave Taylor, and on Monday the jam session will be a Tribute to Jack Pierson with Schunk, Rick Margitza, Walter White, Rodney Whitaker and Michael Reed.

If you want to keep the music going and don’t mind a cover charge, head over to Cliff Bell’s, where there will be late night jazz Friday-Sunday from 11 p.m.-2 a.m. featuring several young players; saxophonist De’Sean Jones, drummer Mike Mitchel, aka Blaque Dynamite, and The Gabriel Brass Band. Cliff Bell’s is located at 2010 Park Ave.

Detroit Jazz Festival Live! Whether you’re stuck at home, or racing around from stage to stage trying to catch two sets that overlap, you can relax and see every note of music you missed on all four stages for four days via the Detroit Jazz Festival Live! app. ($20 for a year’s subscription, available at Google Play or Apple).  With the apps, you can input keywords and find out what stage an act is on, or what time. “It will even suggest shows for you,” Collins said. “Everyone should have it on their phone—I even suggest it for the media folks. It’s so much better than a (schedule on a) piece of paper.”

For more information and a complete schedule, go to