Michigan Jazz Fest serves up cool beats this weekend
If you’re looking for an all-day marathon of free, live jazz, there’s no need to wait until a certain large, international jazz festival arrives downtown over Labor Day weekend.
The 24th Annual Michigan Jazz Festival, which will be Sunday at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, has been humming along for several decades. The festival offers world-class music — this is southeastern Michigan after all — most of it in air-conditioned comfort inside, with the exception of a large tented stage outside.
The college’s fabled culinary program may be sampled inside at Henry’s Cafe, where diners can enjoy continuous live music from up and coming jazz musicians, including MSU Spartan Youth and Indigo Jazz Quartet, as they eat.
What makes this festival different?
Craig Strain, vice president of the festival board of directors and majordomo of the Craig Strain Orchestra (for whom he also plays trumpet) summed it up: “Thirty groups, seven stages, all free, all Michigan jazz musicians. It’s all ages — we have some groups that have been around for decades, and some younger groups.
"It’s very fluid, people are moving around from one room to another all the time," Strain said. "There’s a huge room with big bands and video monitors on the wall, many other rooms featuring music, as well as an outside stage under a huge tent. Thousands and thousands of people come each year.”
Strain will lead his 18-piece CSO, featuring vocalist Emma Aboukasm, in a performance on the Salden Big Band Stage at 5:30 p.m.
“I have the best musicians,” Strain said. “Our tagline is ‘Not your grandma’s big band,’ because we take a more modern approach. We cross over and do some R&B, although most of it is straight-ahead jazz. I wrote a special arrangement on ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ for Emma to sing, and an original piece, ‘Sally Loves the Blues,’ for Sally Bolle, the president of the Greater Detroit Jazz Society.“
The veteran acts include vocalist Ursula Walker and the Buddy Budson Quintet, who will play a set at 6:30 p.m. on the Bill Bolle Presentation Stage; the Johnny Trudell Orchestra (Trudell played trumpet in the Motown band) and Dr. Teddy Harris’ New Breed BeBop Band, directed by Al McKenzie. The late Harris, who was also a Motown musician, as well as arranger, backed up Aretha Franklin in the mid-‘60s. The Harris band plays at 2 p.m. on the Salden Big Band Stage.
Clarinetist Dave Bennett, who plays three times at this year’s festival (“You won’t be able to get away from me”), enjoys catching up with musician friends at the festival.
“It’s just constant music all day, and the camaraderie is fantastic,” Bennett said. “With it just being people from this area, you’re constantly seeing people all at once that you don’t usually see. It’s really cool to be where all your friends are playing, and seeing how many good musicians are around, it’s unreal.”
Bennett will be playing in three scenarios Sunday: soloing with Dave Tatrow’s Dixieland All-Stars at noon outside at the Leven Open Air Stage; performing with his quartet at the same stage at 4:30 p.m.; and soloing with the Johnny Trudell Orchestra at 7:15 p.m. inside the Salden Big Band stage.
Bennett came to local fame first, in his early 20s, playing swing classics on his clarinet, and was such a virtuoso playing in that style that he reminded many Greatest Generation fans of favorites such as Benny Goodman.
At Peabody’s in Birmingham, his home away from home, it was standing — or dancing — room only as his group played such swing classics as “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “Begin the Beguine,” as well as moodier numbers such as “St. James Infirmary.” Bennett misses Peabody’s — the restaurant was sold and torn down last year — and said he hopes that Detroit’s revival includes some venues for live music amidst all the trendy restaurants.
“It seems like audiences are really hungry for live music. And it’s always refreshing to play for people who want to hear it,” Bennett said.
While the clarinetist hasn’t abandoned traditional jazz, he’s branched out from the ‘40s and plays guitar and piano in a Jerry Lee Lewis/Johnny Cash/Roy Orbison-tinged rockabilly set in some venues, as well as a “Swing to Rock” show with symphony pop orchestras.
As far as jazz, he’s playing in a more contemporary jazz style lately, especially on his most recent album, “Blood Moon.” The October release on Mack Avenue Records features mostly original songs.
“It went to No. 24 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz chart,” Bennett noted. “I don’t know why it went on that chart, because it’s the least traditional record I’ve ever done. But it made it on there, so that’s great.
“With our live show, the style is changing, I’m finding more of myself, and doing more of my own music. Things are going in the right direction.”
Playing as the Dave Bennett Quartet, he’ll be doing a number of songs from “Blood Moon” at 4:30 outside in the Leven Open Air Stage. As a veteran of many outdoor concerts — inside or out, he performs four times a week, 52 weeks a year — Bennett is ready for anything Mother Nature sends his way.
At a recent gig in a Clarkston park, Bennett managed to keep his clarinet in tune in the 95 degree heat,but then an insect attacked. “We were playing the Bonnie Raitt tune, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and a mosquito or gnat flew into my ear. It wouldn’t go, just kept buzzing around. In between notes, I kind of whooshed my ear, but it didn’t help.” He laughed. “At least it didn’t fly out the other ear.”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to the Detroit News. You can reach her at susanwhitall.com
Michigan Jazz Festival
Noon-9 p.m. Sunday
Seven stages presenting live jazz, concurrently. For the complete lineup, and times, go to Michiganjazzfestival.org.
8600 Haggerty, Livonia
Food available for sale at Henry’s Café, run by Schoolcraft’s culinary program
Featuring: Johnny Trudell Orchestra with guest clarinetist Dave Bennett and vocalists Sandra Bomar and Ramona Collins, Aguanko featuring Dr. Alberto Nacif, guitarist Randy Napoleon, Ursula Walker and Buddy Budson, the Hughes/Smith ensemble, a tribute to the late Teddy Harris Jr. and his New Breed Be Bop Society Big Band led by Al McKenzie; James Dapogny leading Phil Oglivie's Rhythm King (P.O.R.K.,); drummer Sean Dobbins & His Modern Jazz Messengers; Charlie Miller; the Dave Bennett Quartet, pianists Bob Seeley, Cliff Monear, Ellen Rowe, Rick Roe, Terry Lower, Kerry Price, Jeff Kressler, Tad Weed, Jerry “The Wolverine” Perrine, Demetrius Nabors, Dr. Harvey Reed and Bill Meyer, Jerry McKenzie's Just Jazz; the Glendale Groove; Ron Kischuck's Masters Of Music Big Band; Craig Strain's Orchestra featuring vocalist Emma Aboukasm; the Jazz Cycle; Lori LeFevre with Sixth Edition; trumpeter Dave Tatrow's Dixieland Jazz Band featuring Dave Bennett; members of the Schoolcraft College and Michigan State University jazz programs.