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The 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival: A Commitment to the Music, Day 1

The 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival: A Commitment to the Music, Day 1

Courtesy Jeff Dunn


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Even though I’m a mentor, they are teaching me to see other ways to play music.
—Shirazette Tinnin
Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

This is the first of four pieces covering the 2021 Detroit International Jazz Festival. Two weeks before the festival, a decision was made to go to a virtual format due to the surge provided by the Delta variant of Covid-19. Three outdoor stages became three soundstages in the ballrooms of the Renaissance Marriott hotel. All sets were run back to back, with no overlap. This made roaming the grounds and catching at least a piece of everything, impossible. While the broadcast of Facebook and YouTube formats offered every note of the festival, we as media members were allowed into the soundstages to witness the music live. The broadcast crew and writers were the only members permitted in the broadcast area. In order to find time to write, have a bite to eat, or take care of any professional and personal matters, you literally had to pick and choose which sets to miss from the continual flow of performances from noon to midnite. Writing a set by set description encapsulating each performance became impossible. While in the soundstage, you could not tap into the broadcast for context, set lists and other helpful items. We were virtually in the dark, pun intended. The real stories began to emerge—the quick change to virtual, the amazing quality of the broadcast, the vibe of the music minus a live audience and exceptional deeds in terms of mentorship and impacting the future of jazz. Our times, the worldwide pandemic, was indeed a huge part of the story. And so you will find highlights of many sets, plus storylines that helped make the 2021, 42nd annual Detroit Jazz Festival a unique success. Thanks to festival photographer Jeff Dunn, wonderful images of the four days are included.

Day One: Herbie and Dee Dee

Grateful for the opportunity. That is the emotion that an independent journalist experiences when assigned the task of covering the largest free jazz festival in the world. The journey from Seattle, or any American city to the 2021 Detroit Jazz Festival is a welcome sign of a return to normalcy. The welcoming thoughts of an open air crowd in Hart Plaza after a year and a half of Covid isolation feels like some sort of distant paradise about to reveal itself in a dream. Big names and personal favorites fill out the impressive four day schedule of events—Dee Dee Bridgewater, Herbie Hancock, Sean Jones, Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Jerry Bergonzi, Anat Cohen, Kenny Garrett among others conjure images of great sets, a world class hang at the Renaissance Marriott and at last, an opportunity to experience live jazz outside of tedious streaming platforms, with a plaza full of real, live, breathing (with masks) jazz fans. My oh my, how one's dreams and imagination can run free with the possibility of them becoming reality.

Those visions of jazz paradiso were quickly vanquished upon receiving a phone call from DL Media that the festival had decided to go one hundred percent virtual. Because of construction in Hart Plaza this year, and the advance of the Delta variant, festival organizers could not envision a scenario where proper social distancing could be practiced. As a free festival without a vaccination checkpoint at a traditional entrance, the safety of the attendees could not be ascertained. Anyone attending the festival, whether a patron, journalist or otherwise, felt the disappointment drop like a lead weight. It had seemed we had already paid the price that Covid had demanded, and yet, because of circumstances out of the realm of control, and the hesitance of some to be vaccinated, "a return to normal" began to feel an awful lot like the "new normal."

Then, a bright light cut through the darkness of this dreadful news—the festival would still occupy the Renaissance Marriott, turning ballrooms into soundstages and bringing the scheduled musicians to Detroit to stream live from those digs along the Detroit River. The festival asked if journalists and media still had interest in flying in from points around the country to cover the event. Of course, for most the answer would be yes. After all, the music is the story isn't it? You may make a case that the emotion that is created by interaction between artists and the vibrant Detroit crowd would be missing in isolation. For writers, it sounded like the ultimate hang, with an opportunity to experience community and fellowship, to come away with insight into the musicians that might not have otherwise been discovered under "normal" circumstances. Witnessing and writing about the incredible hard work and concerted effort to transition from live to virtual would be a story in itself. This festival, which has stood out as a true example of presenting jazz music to the people in a free and just manner, would for the second year in a row, have to find new ways to put things together. In 2021, they would do so with a year of prior experience. It was time to pack the bags, scan the schedule, and nail down a plan of attack. The 6 AM flight from Seattle would be well worth it, arriving in plenty of time to see Herbie Hancock's opening night set.

The Detroit Jazz Festival is the largest free jazz festival in the world. Founded in 1980 by Robert McCabe, the festival takes place every Labor Day weekend. A group of Detroit jazz enthusiasts came up with the idea in 1979 to create a North American affiliate for the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The idea was brought to the attention of McCabe, then the president of the non-profit coalition, the Detroit Renaissance Foundation. He led the movement to create the festival with support from former Detroit mayor Coleman A. Young. The festival has since featured top tier jazz talent from top to bottom. With the dawn of the Covid-19 shutdown in 2020-21, the festival has presented the festival virtually the past two years, enabling the tradition to move forward. In 2021, the intention was to bring the live audience back, but the Delta variant saw fit to put an end to that notion. Showing remarkable commitment to the music, the festival still brought the musicians and media to Detroit, housed them in the Renaissance Marriott hotel, and presented the music on three soundstages located in the hotel's ballrooms. Now more experienced in the nuances of staging the festival digitally, the music was presented on night one with great precision, resulting in a superior product both visually and audibly.

Arriving in the Motor City, one immediately notices that public businesses, most notably restaurants and bars, are largely shuttered, with a few scant exceptions. The vaccination rate is not what local health officials would like it to be, certainly not in the eighty to ninety percent one might expect in west coast cities like Seattle and Portland. It was not surprising then, that the media was alerted that Herbie Hancock's set would not be available to media members live in the soundstage area. Mr. Hancock would not be available for interviews or comments. His extensive touring schedule over the course of the summer and fall would require that he, at the age of eighty one, would need to be isolated as much as possible to protect him from the virulent Delta variant. While the first reaction may be to raise the question of how a journalist would cover a major jazz festival without having access to the performance of its biggest star, it quickly became apparent that Hancock's reality, and that of festival artist-in-residence Bridgewater, was the story in itself. The most important factor was that the music would continue to be performed for the people, for free, and that treasures like Hancock and Bridgewater would be able to perform in the safest way possible.

And so the Friday evening performances began with Bridgewater's Woodshed Network, a collection of women artists and mentors, performing brilliantly on the Carhartt Soundstage. Created as a program for Women In Jazz to provide educational and professional support with the aim of accelerating careers through mentorship, and community interaction, The Woodshed Network seeks to create an environment in the music that shifts the culture to one of inclusion, that embraces, celebrates and supports women who have, and will continue to contribute to this unique art form. The program is actively committed to real and equitable change and the expression of diversity and inclusion.

Bridgewater served as mentor and host for the set, continuing the great jazz tradition of introducing the music from generation to generation through the oral tradition. Witnessing a stage full of strong, young women playing jazz should not seem remarkable, yet within an art form that has proceeded from the beginning with societal misogyny leading the way to gender inequity in the genre, the gathering is a celebration in itself, with Bridgewater and mentors in the program doing the work that is necessary for jazz music to truly find its whole self. Jazz can never reach its full potential as America's quintessential art form until a quintet of women onstage is no more remarkable or unusual than a bandstand occupied by all male musicians. The music itself cannot ascend to its creative zenith while largely excluding half the population from participating.

The set was underpinned by the fine playing of drummer Shirazette Tinnin, one of Bridgewater's chosen mentors. A North Carolina native now living in New York, Tinin has worked with Tia Fuller, Mimi Jones, Nicole Mitchell and a host of others, and leads a multi-faceted fusion band, Sonic Wallpaper. She is an advocate for health and wellness within her craft, and has authored articles for Modern Drummer and Tom Tom magazines on the subject. Her drive, ardent positivity and superb chops were the light of this performance, a light of hope for the future of women in jazz, and righteous justice and humanity in jazz.

"A couple of years before Dee Dee created the Woodshed Network, I met Dee Dee randomly in the airport when I was working with Allan Harris. She told me she loved my playing and asked me to be part of the program. I first did it at Shapeshifter Lab, presenting a health portion for the musicians. I played in the band to support the young people with the music as well. Even though I'm a mentor, they are teaching me to see other ways to play music," says Tinnin. "The Woodshed Network is a really dope concept, I'm glad she created it with Tulani, her daughter."

Alto saxophonist Sarah Hanahan, a straight ahead player with modernist leanings, made a huge impression as well, with the band jumping right into her composition, "We Bop." Erinn Alexis, a young, dedicated baritone saxophonist, complemented Hanahan beautifully on the front line. Pianist Sequoia Snyder offered her composition "Red Blues," and conjured images of Orrin Evans with her thoughtful and fearless playing.

Through the veil of disappointment accompanying the decision to go all virtual, and the situation surrounding Hancock's performance, Bridgewater's Woodshed Network performance turned out not only to be the musical highlight of opening day at the festival, it stood out as the most important in terms of the health and vitality of jazz music moving forward.

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