Detroit Jazz Festival a real-time virtual event

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

This Labor Day weekend, jazz fans will put aside memories of twilight sets of music amid river breezes, and instead, tune in via electronic and broadcast devices to the 42nd annual Detroit Jazz Festival as the festival is presented virtually, Friday through Monday.

“The miracle at the Marriott” is the way Detroit Jazzfest host John Penney described last year’s event, in that wobbly first summer of the pandemic. It was a miracle that they managed to fly in musicians from all over the world to produce a high-definition, world class broadcast that a million jazz lovers in 32 countries watched, while keeping sponsors happy. Oh, and while keeping every musician and staffer in a COVID-safe, “jazz bubble.”

Jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater

Now of course, another miracle is in the works, as festival organizers decided to change gears in mid-August and go all-virtual again. The festival will be streamed and broadcasted live to audiences safe at home, with the same high broadcast/streaming standards and COVID-safe practices as last year. Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit also will host a free outdoor viewing party all weekend, streaming the festival on its big screen for those who want to bring a chair and watch it outside.

Most importantly to jazz festival organizers, viewers can watch the festival for free, and it will all happening as you see it — nothing is pre-recorded. For the tech-challenged, old-school radio and TV broadcasts will serve you.

“The (Jazzfest) app ($20 a year) is the premium experience — high definition — but we didn’t want people to have to pay to see the festival,” said Chris Collins, Detroit Jazzfest Foundation president and artistic director.

“We are going to be streaming free to the public on various online sites, including our YouTube channel — and in real time, not archived,” Collins said. “There is also the city’s performing arts channel (Channel 22), and some public radio simulcasts. We want it to be available to everyone, so if they don’t have great WiFi, they can still watch or listen.”

Several factors played into the decision to go all-virtual again, Collins said. With the Delta variant gaining ground, they realized that the new concert “gold standard” being adopted by promoters such as AEG and LiveNation — vaccination or test requirements for concertgoers — wouldn’t be possible at an unfenced, free festival.

On top of that, Hart Plaza is still under construction, so the festival’s footprint, which normally sprawls from the Detroit River up to Campus Martius, was drastically limited.

There are some advantages to going indoors, to the air-conditioned Detroit Marriott soundstage. Fans won’t have to choose between acts on different stages, with overlapping times. With the virtual festival, you’ll see every act perform on the livestream — no running in the heat from the riverfront up to Campus Martius to catch somebody with seconds to spare.

Along with the livestream online, there also be at least one Detroit park that will have a large screen streaming the festival, Collins said, with details to be announced.

This year’s artist-in-residence, Dee Dee Bridgewater, is fine with the festival going all-virtual.

Herbie Hancock

“I think it as a wise decision in light of the new variant,” said Bridgewater, 71. And while live performance is the life blood of jazz, she sees an advantage: “It takes the stress off, you don’t have the public in front of your face, you’re doing a performance and you can do your thing and there’s nobody there to give you weird looks.”

Bridgewater, who grew up in Flint and attended Michigan State University, puts a lot of time and energy toward mentoring younger musicians. In that tradition, she’s curating but won’t perform in the opening night performance of her proteges, the Ladies’ Woodshed Network (6:30 p.m. Friday).

On Saturday at 6:55 p.m., she will take part in Kurt Elling’s “The Big Blind,” a noir radio-style drama co-written by Elling and Phil Galdston.

Elling discussed what festival viewers will see in a Zoom conversation earlier this month.

“I grew up listening to CBS Mystery Theater and repeats of 'The Shadow,' he said. Instead of just singing on his own, he’d been wanting “to get a plot happening, and involve some other singers in a bigger situation.”

“The Big Blind” is set in 1957, a time “when one could do swinging music and still have the hope of being a major star,” Elling said. Front and center is his character, a singer working out of the venerable Green Mill jazz club in Chicago (Elling’s own home club). His character is managed by a glamorous older woman — played by Bridgewater — who’s been around. She tries to make him go to France, while Elling’s character wants to ply his trade in “real jazz cities” like New York and Detroit.

“I’ll be playing a man 20 to 30 years my junior, but I’ll be faking it,” the 53-year-old Elling said good-naturedly.

That the plot involves mobsters and is set at the Green Mill has historic resonance. The club was co-owned by Al Capone in the '20s, and is where comedian Joe E. Lewis was maimed by gangsters in 1927 and left unable to speak, because he wouldn’t renew his contract. (The Frank Sinatra film “The Joker is Wild” was based on Lewis’ story).

In the “Big Blind,” “Blood is spilled, eyeballs are gouged and we have to decide whether this young fella is going to live or die, whether he has a career in show business. It’s a noir fantasy,” said Elling.

This isn’t the first time he and Bridgewater have done the play. “We’ve done it at Jazz at Lincoln Center, then we did it in London at Queen Elizabeth Hall, so this will be our third time,” said Bridgewater. “I had been trying to convince Kurt to get into acting, I always thought he would be a good actor.”

Just like a broadcast during the golden age of radio drama, there will even be a sound guy doing sound effects.

Bridgewater will also take part in a Monday set (6:20 p.m.) with an all-female big band she hand-picked. The musicians were looking forward to playing in front of a live audience, she said, “so there probably will be some disappointment, but I would rather us be safe.”

Several miles up Woodward from the festival, the downstairs jazz club at the new Gretchen Valade Jazz Center at Wayne State University (formerly the Hillberry Theatre) will be called “Dee Dee Bridgewater’s.”

“Isn’t that awesome?” Bridgewater said. “Gretchen Valade had the idea, she’s responsible for it coming into existence. I’m really honored.”

Valade, the Carhartt heiress who saved the jazz festival in 2005 with a generous endowment, has done the same with the former Hillberry Theatre, funding its renovation into a jazz studies center. (It’s good news, too, that Valade, 95, is feeling well and can often be seen seated at the bar, dispensing witticisms and catching a set at her jazz club in Grosse Pointe, the Dirty Dog.)

While Bridgewater has visited the space, she isn’t involved — yet. “When they get closer to it being finished, then I’ll start having conversations with Gretchen and whoever else will be running the center, because I’d like to be involved in something that’s going to carry my name, how it’s going to be programmed.”

Who knows, Bridgewater, currently residing in New Orleans, may even become a part-time Detroiter. “At one point, when I was co-director of the Carr Center in Detroit, I had looked into renting an apartment in Detroit. But rents are crazy! We’ll see.”

For his part, the festival’s Collins regrets that the $30 million of economic activity that Detroit usually sees won’t be there, but he looks forward to 2022 for their “big, in person revival,” and is grateful for the support of fans.

“VIP ticketholders got refunds, but I’ve had people who bought VIP tickets say ‘keep my money as a donation,’” Collins said. “These are the kind of patrons who understand, there’s a reason this festival is free. They’re stepping up and making these incredible gestures.”

Other Jazzfest highlights:

*Herbie Hancock’s 9:10 p.m. headlining gig closing out Friday night — as Chris Collins points out, you won’t know what Herbie Hancock will do, until you see him.

*The Summit: Manhattan Transfer Meets Take 6 takes place at 10:10 p.m. Saturday. The two groups have a similar history in their language in vocalese, but very different approaches.

*Dave Brubeck’s sons Dan and Chris bring their Brubeck Brothers Quartet to the Jazzfest soundstage Sunday at 5:10 p.m. for a celebration: the 100th Anniversary of Dave Brubeck featuring Jerry Bergonzi. Their tribute to their father will include an array of historic and family videos featuring Dave Brubeck — some of the videos have never seen before — woven into their performance.

* Aziza, who take the soundstage at 10 p.m. Sunday. It’s a quartet of top guns: Dave Holland (bass) Chris Potter (saxophone), Lionel Loueke (guitar), and Eric Harland (drums). Holland was 22, playing at Ronnie Scott’s in London in the late '60s when Miles Davis offered him the bass job in his group on the spot. Holland appeared on the albums “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew.” A native of Benin, West Africa, guitarist Loueke has played with Herbie Hancock and adds a unique sound to the group, while saxophonist Potter has been on the radar of jazz fans since his days as a child prodigy.

*Detroit breeds one of a kind bass players, and Brandon Rose is one to watch — he’ll perform at 11:30 a.m. Monday with Soul Therapy

*Pianist Monty Alexander, who performs at 8:45 p.m. Monday, is doing something a little different — a set of more straight ahead jazz than he usually does, as a tribute to “Bags” — bebop vibraphonist Milt Jackson.

Be sure to check the complete, updated Detroit Jazzfest schedule at detroitjazzfest.org, as many performance times changed when the festival shifted to virtual.

Susan Whitall is a longtime entertainment writer for the Detroit News Contact her at susanwhitall.com.

2021 Detroit Jazz Festival

Watch and listen live: Here are some ways to see and hear the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival:

Free livestreams:

Facebook Live: Detroit Jazz Festival page

Instagram: @DetroitJazzFest

Youtube: Detroit Jazz Festival channel

Website: DetroitJazzFest.org

Also livestream and broadcast on: Detroit A&E Channel 22, WDET 101.9 FM, WEMU 89.1 FM, and WRCJ 90.9 FM.

Detroit JazzFest LIVE! App (requires a $20 yearly subscription fee)