Detroit Jazz Festival 2020

This Labour Day weekend, the 2020 Detroit Jazz Festival delivered 42 hours of programming over 4 days to an audience that spanned the globe. Rather than becoming another pandemic cancelation, Detroit delivered their festival via internet, television, and radio. An excellent experience! Gold star to the board, sponsors, and the hundreds of technicians and crew members who flawlessly delivered on their promise of a rich sound, high definition video experience. DJF 2020 represents a demarcation line in festival production. This morning, jazz festival producers everywhere are considering how to respond to this idea that live jazz “works” on-line – DJF has thrown down the gauntlet.

A second gold star to all the performers for rising above the obvious challenge of performing without an audience. Many sets had a rough opening tune due to the lack of warmth and energy from a live audience. This affected the less-experienced performers more, but without exception, every set ended stronger than it started.

DJF 2020 happened during a pandemic, an acrimonious national election campaign, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Jazz musicians have never shied away from social commentary through music and words. Tension buzzed below the surface throughout the festival, until it was not below the surface anymore.

The festival’s opening piece – a four-movement work commissioned for DJF 2020 called “Justice!”  – was tame on the social justice front until the fourth movement when Robert Hurst’s group addressed Black Lives Matter by chanting the names of those who have been killed recently.

On Saturday, Gayelynn McKinney created one of the festival highlights when talking about her guitar player missing the festival because he had been beaten by police while acting as a volunteer paramedic at a BLM rally. His replacement – a white guy – wrote words to Charles Mingus’ “Good-Bye Pork Pie Hat” that were raw and direct and fit the maudlin tone of this classic tune perfectly. He sang in a voice reminiscent of Chet Baker – such a vulnerable sound, and probably the only voicing that could have worked with a white guy singing these words in a black band in Detroit at this moment.

Robert Hurst took the stage again Sunday night, but I would still characterize his set as polite. Then on Monday evening, the wheels came off the bus.

Al Ayoub, leader of the group “Call Al”, ended his set by playing the Start Spangled Banner. What was he thinking? It was either massively tone deaf or intended to inflame; either way, it got a reaction. The three final sets of the festival directly addressed Black Lives Matter, each in their own way. I cannot say if this was part of the plan or if it emerged “in the moment”, but even the festival director, Chris Collins, who had been doing a masterful job of steering his live broadcast ship through these difficult waters, used his time between the final sets to interview young, black musicians about what these times mean for them. I cannot help thinking that Mr. Ayoub will not be invited back to DJF.

Drummer, Henry Conerway III was blunt about how America must change now, and his trio’s set was furious. Mr. Conerway, Ian Finkelstein (piano) and Noah Jackson (bass) were all on fire – my favourite set of the festival.

Even Rene Marie, who is a crooner and a gentle soul, pulled an old anti-apartheid number out of her catalogue.

Then the festival closed with Robert Glasper – an artist more familiar in hip hop circles than in jazz – whose set was dissonant, raw, and punctuated by sampling of Martin Luther King, a child speaking about being proud to be brown, and other BLM themes. The music was powerful and difficult (at least for me, knowing nothing about hip hop musical norms, conventions, and language); but that is a good reason to go to jazz festivals – to be intellectually challenged.

Seventeen-year-old phenom Joey Alexander lived up to expectations in his set. His rendition of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was a surprising song choice but was magical. However, he is old enough now that the internet-driven WOW-factor that surrounds this prodigy should be put in the past. He needs a few years for life experience to catch up to his technical ability before he really belongs on the big stage. (In contrast, 30-year-old Ian Finkelstein, as part of the Henry Conerway trio, laid down a set that was masterful – I knew within his opening 4 bars that Mr. Finkelstein owned the piano award at this festival.)

I was disappointed in Pharoah Sanders. Yes, he is an icon – he turns 80 this year. Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic, but he just looked old and he is not delivering anything new in his music. He had a strong trio with him, but even there, he is not bringing along anyone young and exciting – these are well-established musicians. It would have been better (and more accurate) to bill this act as the Benito Gonzalez trio, featuring very special guest, Pharoah Sanders.

The other name familiar to me was Steve Turre, and he did not disappoint. A strong set, especially when he invited local sax player James Carter to join his sextet for a couple of numbers. Speaking of the Turre sextet, he had two young players (sax and trumpet) whose names I missed. They both seemed talented and bored – when the effervescent Mr. Carter took the stage to solo beside Turre’s young sax player, I thought the young gun was going to die of fright, given Carter’s habit of moving with the music and showing emotion while playing and intently listening to others. A teaching opportunity for Mr. Turre: they seemed sullen, and that might have worked for Miles, but “they aint no Miles”. A learning opportunity for Mr. Turre: give your young guys more props on stage – at least say their names more than once in passing.

One of the reasons I love jazz festivals is to hear new, unfamiliar musicians. Most cities have a small and close-knit jazz community; Detroit’s excelled this weekend. The established players were wonderful, many of them appearing in multiple settings. Marion Hayden, a bass player, is worth mentioning; she appeared in several bands and kept each group cooking. New faces to me that I will check out in more depth include Lulu Fall, and a group called Beartrap. Detroit also highlighted that there are many women making a mark in their jazz community – I hope this trend continues everywhere.

Of the festival’s 42 hours, I saw or heard 38, but I admit my attention span dwindled occasionally. I might have missed a few gems along the way, but that is how I saw DJF 2020. A very enjoyable weekend of music and a landmark of technical wizardry.