Chris Collins has an interesting philosophy about jazz, more specifically about Detroit jazz. It’s like loving cars.
"I always loved the fusion of art and function that comes out of an automobile. Well, jazz music has that same connection to our city. I always encourage people that if you are not into jazz and you live in this area, then you definitely want to explore it," says Collins.
Just like automobiles are the heart and soul of the Motor City, so is jazz and as the new artistic director for the Detroit Jazz Festival -- which begins Friday, Aug. 31 and runs through Monday, Sept. 3 -- Collins is determined to continue nurturing the rich tradition of the musical genre that was shaped by the city and its unique culture.
Detroit jazz is something that runs through Collins blood. Growing up on Detroit’s East Side and in St. Clair Shores, Collins was reared on the sounds of legendary jazz musicians from the city and beyond via his dad’s huge record collection.
After hearing Coleman Hawkins on saxophone, Collins decided to take up tenor sax. His professional career as a woodwind player has taken him all over the world and he has released multiple commercial recording as well as performed with world renowned musicians.
In 2006, Collins became the Director of Jazz Studies at Wayne State University and through his academic role in jazz, he mentors many aspiring musicians and has created programs that have helped students advance in the musical genre.
Through a partnership with DJF, Collins helped initiate Jazz Week at Wayne in 2007, which is a free, one-week workshop for high school students focused on jazz ensemble performance and improvisation. At the end of the workshop, the students get the opportunity to perform at the festival.
Collins is big on making sure that DJF supports the younger generation of musicians and gives them a chance to highlight their skills. The saxophonist and educator got his first taste of professional experience playing at the festival as a student in 1981.
"I always think about the impact the jazz fest had on my life. That is why I work so hard to remove barriers for our regional artists and inspire everybody to think about the bigger projects and interesting things they can do with the festival," Collins says. "These educational opportunities and competitions are really a search for upcoming important artists."
There are a few new competitions and workshops being initiated this year leading up to the festival. They include the DJF Youth Jazz Vocalist competition for high school females, a national saxophonist competition for musicians ages 32 and younger, as well as an arranging contest. The winners of the saxophone and arranging competition each get a chance to perform at the festival and will receive a cash prize.
Along with the new talent from the workshops and competitions, there will be a plethora of jazz legends present at the festival this year. Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny and Chick Corea will be the headliners.
The theme this year is "Detroit Jazz and You," so that means there will be plenty of Motor City musical representatives performing, including trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, whom the festival will pay homage to. Joining Belgrave in the tribute will be his Homecoming band and Detroit natives, trombonist Curtis Fuller, bassist Marion Hayden, drummer Louis Hayes, vocalist Harvey Johnson, pianist Ian Finkelstein, and saxophonist Vincent Bowens.
"There is a real Detroit-ness about the festival that has been amplified this year and will continue in future years," Collins says.
As the first musician to lead the festival, Collins wants to continue to incorporate the national artistic prominence of the festival that was upheld by former artistic director Terri Pontremoli. However, he says his goal is to also bring his unique perspective as a Detroit jazz musician to the festival and ultimately provide an engaging experience for the listener.
As the largest, free jazz festival in the world, thousands of people flock to the city every year to attend the event. But, Collins especially encourages Detroiters to come downtown this Labor Day weekend to get a taste of a unique American art form that has roots in the city.
"When you talk about the history of Detroit, they will realize it was the culture and the environment that produced artists like Joe Henderson, Tommy Flanagan and Marcus Belgrave," Collins says. "It’s going to take us decades to exhaust all of the amazing things that have come from the city and will come from the city."
The Detroit Jazz Festival begins Friday, Aug. 31. Go here to plan your weekend.