Detroit Jazz Festival shooting for diversity, inclusion

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

At a time when downtown Detroit has a bumper crop of young people living downtown, the Detroit Jazz Festival is hoping to lure some of them to its annual Labor Day weekend gathering. The 38th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival is free and takes place Sept. 1-4 on four stages from the Detroit River to Campus Martius.

Kamasi Washington

This younger audience will be intrigued by jazz drummer/producer Karriem Riggins and Common, as well as by young West Coast jazz hotshots Miles Mosley and Kamasi Washington, who are all set to perform over the weekend.

With increased downtown foot traffic from new and older residents of all ages, there has also been an increased focus on signage, so people walking and driving by realize — hey, there’s a free jazz festival going on here!

“I don’t want them to say later, ‘Oh man, Kamasi Washington, how did we miss that? Stanley Clarke!” said jazz fest artistic director Chris Collins.

Reaching out to Detroit’s bustling Latino community has meant that Jazz Fest brochures and fliers have been translated into Spanish.

“The catchphrase is diversity and inclusion,” Collins said.

Violinist and Detroit native Regina Carter

While the young turks of the jazz world will draw a buzz, Collins stresses that he needs to satisfy the festival’s core audience — jazz lovers from all over the world — and there are many longtime favorites set to play, including Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter (this year’s Artist in Residence), Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clark, along with tributes to legends, such as Regina Carter’s nod to Ella Fitzgerald, “Simply Ella,” and a show honoring Pontiac’s Elvin Jones, both on Monday.

“We are appealing to the broadest demographic,” said Collins. “There are specific sets that may appeal to one generation or another, and there are sets that cross over.”

Along with performances that bring together veteran and newbie jazz players, Collins wants the audiences to be diverse in terms of age, as well.

“We want to offer opportunities for generations to come together, to share their energy and philosophy in the audience, evolving as a world of jazz beings,” Collins said.

One notable jazz being, saxophonist and composer Shorter, has been involved with younger musicians all year long, as the 2017 Artist in Residence. The 83-year-old saxophonist and composer is certainly young at heart, and after 50 plus years on the scene, a potent musical force.

He is also a lively, playful conversationalist, whether talking to students or a reporter, his sentences sometimes forming into zen koans (parables), appropriately, from his long study of Nichiren Buddhism.

Shorter also brings impeccable jazz credentials to his teaching. And after playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis, and co-founding Weather Report (not to mention acting as one of Joni Mitchell’s jazz muses), Shorter could rest on his laurels and delight fans with his greatest hits.

But he continues to explore and question. His students, Shorter says, teach him more about himself, than he teaches them.

“The challenge is always within myself, not so much with them,” Shorter said in a phone interview from an airport motel. “I’m trying to choose what to communicate that has a value. At some point, I’ll have to say that this encounter that we’re having is not about music at all. Without getting all philosophical and all, it is about life, and you can ask yourself the question, ‘What is all this for?’ Well, what is anything for? Not just music, but baseball, the professions — what is it for?

“Then it comes down to (he sings:) ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Then you have to have fun with it. You’ve got to have fun, because I think that’s a sneaky way of getting to where eternity is.”

Shorter has always been known for his love of movies, science fiction, and fun, boyhood enthusiasms that have never faded.

Wayne Shorter

“I talk to the kids about movies, books,” he said, of his students. “ I don’t talk at them, I talk with them. I see what kind of a yo-yo we can get together. You take one part of the yo-yo string, and I take the other part and we just yo-yo, like when we were kids. When we were kids, we used to play all day, especially in the summertime.”

As a practicing Buddhist, he is intent upon distinguishing between what is real now, and what is eternal — or “constant.”

“ ‘Oh, I lost my child,’ or ‘I’m a widow’ — no, that’s temporary, not constant,” Shorter said.

“The pursuit of happiness, to me, means the pursuit of constant. You take a chance on that, instead of relying on what has already happened. I jokingly say, what has happened has been hijacked, from the cradle. When we get into all this stuff, the challenge is to play back, as Miles would say. When I’d talk with Miles, we’d have a little conversation about something, a little philosophical something, and he’d say (Shorter assumes a gravely Miles voice), ‘Why don’t you play it?’

Is it easier, as a musician, to play what you’re feeling than to speak it?

“It’s hard, but it’s a challenge both ways,” Shorter replied. “Just like the actors who don’t worry about getting awards, they say it’s the work, the process. If you think you’ve arrived, you’re finished.”

Jazzfest will close Monday with Shorter’s quartet (including pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade) and the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra performing the North American premiere of Shorter’s composition, a sci-fi, multi-universe work called “Emanon.”

“Emanon” will be his first new album in five years, out soon on Blue Note. If you flip it backwards, “Emanon” is “no name.” Why?

“Names are what get people in trouble,” Shorter said. “There’s a book called ‘The Sixth Extinction,’ by Elizabeth Kolbert ... Her first sentence is, ‘People like to name things.’ And then the name takes precedence over the meaning, and you have a false precedence, which people like to live by. And the meaning of the name is lost through manipulation. They’ll say, ‘You’re black, you’re white, you’re this — no I’m brown! You’re ugly, you’re a Republican, you’re a Democrat.”

A sad note to this year’s festival was the death of jazz pianist and Detroit native Geri Allen in June. The festival will make note of Allen’s passing in some way, Collins said, although he had no specifics yet.

Allen was supposed to perform with Shorter’s quintet at 9:15 p.m. Sunday at the Carhartt Amphiteater Stage (Hart Plaza), the other players being Leo Genovese, Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington.

“It’s so special, such a unique configuration for Wayne, and it included Geri on behalf of Detroit,” Collins said. “I left it up to Wayne to decide if there will be a reconfiguration of that band, or no replacement.”

Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to the Detroit News. Contact her at

Detroit Jazz Festival

6:30 p.m.-1:30 p.m. Fri., noon-1:30 p.m.Sat., Sun., 1 p.m.-7:45 p.m. Mon.

Hart Plaza and Campus Martius Park, Detroit

Jam sessions will happen nightly at the Renaissance Ballroom, after the stages close down.


Opening night, Friday will be a stunner. A New Orleans-style line of musicians will be led by “Dr. Valade’s Brass Band,” named for the jazz festival’s board chair and “angel,” Gretchen Valade at 6:30 p.m., Wayne Shorter goes on at 7 p.m., Miles Mosley at 8:30 p.m. and Herbie Hancock at 9 p.m. at the JP Morgan Chase stage. At 11 p.m., there will be a hometown jam session/tribute to Detroit legend George “Sax” Benson, “Dreamers,” in the Renaissance Ballroom at the Marriott. Benson will be there, according to Collins.

The McKinFolk set at 2 p.m. Saturday at the JP Morgan Chase stage honors the legacy of Detroit’s musical McKinney family. Their ancestor, William McKinney, led one of the nation’s notable earliest recorded jazz bands, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, out of the Graystone Ballroom on Woodward. Featured will be Gayelynn McKinney, Vincent Chandler, Dwight Adams, Marcus Elliot, Glenn Tucker, Marion Hayden and Michelle McKinney. “I’m old enough to have played with (Gayelynn’s) father and uncle,” said festival artistic director Chris Collins. “These people were part of the foundational structure of this music in Detroit. She’s pulled together a Detroit-oriented band and some special guests to celebrate the music of her family.”

Karriem Riggins, who’s produced Slum Village, Kanye West and Common, will join the latter at 4 p.m. Sunday at the JP Morgan Chase stage, in a program titled “Music with a Purpose.” The set will include music from Common’s repertoire with heavy elements of freestyle. Bassist Mosley performs with The West Coast Get Down at 8:30 p.m. Friday and returns for another performance at 8 p.m. Saturday on the same stage. Saxophonist Kamasi Washington plays at 8 p.m. Sunday on the JPMorgan Chase Main Stage.

Benny Golson performs with his Quintet at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Wayne State University Pyramid Stage, and at 1 p.m. Monday as part of the world premiere of “Hank’s Symphony: The Music of Hank Mobley” at the JPMorgan Chase stage.

Stanley Clarke’s 2014 Detroit Jazzfest set was shut down before it could begin by a torrential rainstorm, so the bassist returns to play at 5 p.m. Monday on the JPMorgan Chase stage.

The Detroit Jazz Fest Live! app for mobile devices, tablets and desktop computers is back and “amped up,” said Collins. “(The livestream) has become a central part of the delivery system of the festival. We’re doing it in such a way that people who are not feeling well, or have a physical situation that keeps them at home, now have access to this amazing festival. A subscription is $10, and the app is free.” It’s available in the Google Play store or at

For the complete Detroit Jazz Festival lineup or to purchase a VIP package, visit