When Gretchen Valade heard that Detroit’s jazz festival might be cancelled for 2005, she knew she had to do something.
"I felt bad when I heard it may not go this year, and I thought that Detroit does not need another kick in the shins," says Valade.
Ford Motor Co. pulled its support of the 26-year-old event in February, citing concerns over how the festival would be marketed and run. The festival had broken even last year, but in previous years it has bled money, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But Valade, CEO of the Grosse Pointe-based independent jazz label Mack Avenue Records, wasn’t ready to pull the plug. Her company took over where Ford left off and offered its support as the lead sponsor of the 26th annual Detroit International Jazz Festival.
Their $250,000 contribution covers, among other things, all of the acts on the main stage at the Hart Plaza amphitheatre, a national broadcast of the festival and a sampler CD and performances by five of the label’s artists.
Festival Director Frank Malfitano, who also produces the Syracuse Jazz Fest and who has been with the Detroit Festival for five years, says the record label kept the festival alive.
“They saved the festival,” says Malfitano. “I’m not exaggerating, and I’m not being overly dramatic or using romantic terminology. I mean they clearly saved the festival. They really were avenging angels, and they really did come in and save the festival at the eleventh hour.”
The festival is the largest free jazz festival in North America and always boasts a world-class lineup. It has long been one of the city’s biggest cultural attractions, a staple in its long and celebrated jazz heritage, bringing more than half a million people to Hart Plaza -- and now up Woodard and to Campus Martius, as well -- to hear legendary players and up-and-comers alike. This year, festivalgoers will be treated to the likes of Dr. John, the Blind Boys of Alabama, McCoy Tyner and Randy Weston.
"This is the premiere music festival in the city that I consider to be the music mecca of the world,” Malfitano says. “I don’t think there is a greater music mecca on the planet than Detroit. Only New Orleans comes close to providing similar breadth and scope of musical styles and disciplines.
“There’s nothing like Detroit, it’s incomparable. It’s the world’s greatest music city – period. It deserves a signature cultural event and a music festival that really showcases the music of the city.”
Although he admits the move is a big step up from last year, when Mack Avenue sponsored the smaller Pyramid stage, label president Tom Robinson downplays the heroic nature of the decision.
"We haven't made a big splash out of our contribution,” says Robinson, “although it's gotten a big splash in and of itself, it was not our main objective.”
Free to Do Their Thing
Valade’s and Robinson’s main objective has been to good music.
During the ’90s, the lifelong Detroiters were an aspiring songwriting team. Valade got an idea that she thought could propel their careers.
"I just thought it would be a good way to get the music around, if you had you're own record label, because nobody was asking us for our songs," says Valade, who is also chairwoman of Carhartt Inc., the Dearborn-based work clothing manufacturer her grandfather founded 1889.
Valade and Robinson started Mack Avenue Records in 1997, with the partnership of former Jazz Crusaders founder, drummer Stix Hooper.
Along the way, business took center stage and the duo’s songwriting fell to the wayside. Now Mack Avenue has developed into a nationally recognized label with artist representatives in New York, Seattle and Los Angeles and an international roster of artists both legendary and up-and-coming.
Among them are such acclaimed musicians as West Coast bandleader Gerald Wilson, innovative vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, virtuoso guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, Parisian vocalist Ilona Knopfler, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra trumpeter Sean Jones and Caribbean-born saxophonist Ron Blake.
“Ideally, when you're in business, you want to make money, and maybe someday that'll become a reality,” says Robinson. “But right now we're all pretty much committed to focusing on the careers of the artists and making sure that everybody sees how great they are.”
Saxophonist Blake, who grew up listening to a wide variety of music, including jazz, steel drum bands, reggae and soul, has performed with such greats as drummer Roy Haynes and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. He was a member of Hargrove’s band, along with Detroit-native bassist Rodney Whitaker. Blake says he appreciates Mack Avenue’s music-first management style, which gives artists the freedom to see their vision to completion. This freedom is evident on Blake’s most recent release. Produced by bassist/vocalist Me'Shell NdegéOcello, "Sonic Tonic" is a forwarding-thinking album that touches on post-bop jazz, Latin and Caribbean rhythms and funk.
He lauds the label for their desire to support artists and produce good music.
“They’re offering me a chance to really just do my own thing,” Blake says. “They have a lot of faith in what I’m presenting to them as far as direction, so I’m not trying to fit in to any particular mold per se. I’m just trying to make great Ron Blake records and Mack Avenue is behind me doing that. As far as a label goes, that’s pretty friggin’ good.”
Blake says that Mack Avenue’s support of their artists’ visions is one of the main reasons for their involvement with the jazz festival.
“Jazz as a tradition has always been able to succeed as an art form because along the way, along the history of the music, as it develops, there’s always people who tend to, from time to time, find their own voice in the music and bring that to life through their writing and through their playing,” says Blake. “As long as that tradition continues, a festival like Detroit can support that. It’s a great platform for the music and for the music to grow.”
Malfitano is also pleased with the amount of creative latitude Mack Avenue has given him in producing the festival. Although the festival has been expanded this year to include gospel, R&B, blues and Motown -- in an attempt to fully represent the deep musical heritage of the city -- there was no pressure to fill the stages with anything but great music.
“Having a jazz record label for your title sponsorship is a dream come true,” he says. “I mean, they’re jazz people. They understand the music. They understand what this festival should be all about, and they make that possible, and that’s a wonderful position to be in as an artistic director.”
Valade says the label’s decision to sponsor the jazz festival is simple: "We're a jazz label. That's mostly what we produce. So this is a great opportunity for us, and it's a major cultural event and that should be kept alive."
The Mack Avenue execs say they’ve been overwhelmed with thanks from Detroiters, whose responses prove that the festival and its legacy of showcasing great music downtown are dear to them.
"People have come up to us in the street,” says Robinson. “We have received phone calls. People actually cut out articles from the newspaper that featured us and mailed them to us and wrote 'thank you' on the articles. People we talk to regularly continue to thank us. It's like we've solved the problem of world hunger by rescuing the festival."
Valade adds, "You don't realize how much it means to people in Detroit 'til you do something like this."
Matt Collar is a writer and musician living in Livonia. A trumpet player and vocalist, he studied jazz at Michigan State University.
The 26th Annual Detroit International Jazz Festival runs September 2-5 at Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit. For schedules and more information, go to www.detroitjazzfest.com.
Mack Avenue Records:
Experience Jazz in Detroit
Want to see and hear jazz musicians in Detroit after the big festival? Here are some of the hotspots around the city:
Baker's Keyboard Lounge
20510 Livernois, Detroit
Billed as the “longest running jazz club anywhere in the world”, Baker’s opened in 1934 and is known worldwide as the premiere destination for jazz fans in Michigan.
Bert's Jazz Marketplace
2731 Russell, Detroit
Located in the vibrant Eastern Market, Bert’s Thursday open mic night is legendary. Anybody who’s anybody in the jazz scene can show up here, and they often do.
2957 Woodward Ave., Detroit
Intimate atmosphere and period charm give the SereNgeti the feel of a ’40s jazz club. Call to find out who’s in town.
200 Renaissance Center, Detroit
This stylish jazz supper club offers jazz piano, guitar duos and other small group performers in a contemporary atmosphere overlooking the river.
Detroit Jazz Greats:
Detroit’s jazz legacy is vast. Here are just a few of the players who’ve hailed from the Motor City:
Tommy Flanagan: The gentleman pianist, Flanagan is the epitome of mainstream jazz élan.
Donald Byrd: A great hard bop trumpeter, Byrd is perhaps best known for his innovative funk jazz albums of the ’70s.
Kenny Burrell: Tasteful and urbane, this Detroit native’s cool guitar sound will never go out of style.
Barry Harris: One of the best pianists of his generation, Harris incorporated the styles of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk into his own sophisticated sound.
Pepper Adams: Often overshadowed by bigger names, Adams is one of the great baritone saxophonists in jazz history.
Yusef Lateef: An ever searching saxophonist and flautist, Lateef moved from bop to cool to modal to free and beyond without ever looking back.
Curtis Fuller: A solid and fluid trombonist of the hard bop generation.
Milt Jackson: One of the most popular and innovative of the jazz vibraphonists.
Slim Gaillard: The inventor of his own jive dialect called “vout,” vocalist/guitarist Gaillard’s comedic-hipster persona often overshadowed his adept musical abilities.
For more on any of these artists, go to www.allmusic.com.
For a look at on Detroit’s jazz heritage produced for the Metro Times for the jazz festival’s 20th anniversary, go to http://www.metrotimes.com/19/48/Features/Montreux.htm.
All Photos Copyright Dave Krieger