36th annual Detroit Jazz Festival a part of Detroit's magic

Marcus Belgrave
There is a reason why the Detroit Jazz Festival is so special, and why it is perhaps the greatest free jazz festival in the country – if not the entire world.
Detroit is that reason.
Now that Detroit is becoming cool all over again, this is perhaps as good a time as any to remind those who may not be aware that this city has given birth to many of the greatest names in jazz. It is also the birthplace for who-knows-how-many leading musicians from many other genres, which is why Detroit is arguably the music capital of the world. But that’s another discussion for another time. For now, let’s just focus on the jazz, because Detroit jazz is more than enough to ponder and reflect upon. And to celebrate.
For this year’s 36th annual Detroit Jazz Festival weekend, taking place downtown on Labor Day weekend over four stages stretching from the riverfront to Campus Martius, the strength of Detroit’s musical inheritance will once again be felt throughout the event. This time, however, there will be an additional amount of reverence paid in honor of one of Detroit’s finest and most beloved jazz greats, Marcus Belgrave, who died this year on May 27. A supremely talented musician, Belgrave would have easily received notice just on his musical accomplishments alone. But it was his willingness, indeed eagerness, to share his gifts through mentoring and education with the younger generation of musicians who came along behind him that truly set him apart.
Marcus Belgrave represented the best of Detroit, the best of the Detroit jazz tradition, and the best of Detroit music.
“Marcus is such an overwhelming presence, and his contributions as a mentor and a guide set the standard in Detroit for the Detroit jazz community,” said saxophonist Chris Collins, who has served as artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival since 2011 and who also serves as director of jazz studies at Wayne State University.
Collins said there will be a special jam session to celebrate Belgrave’s legacy on Friday evening in the Mackinac Ballroom at Cobo Hall from 11 pm until 1 a.m., which will include a midnight toast to Belgrave. Jazz luminaries expected to be on site will include Gary Bartz, James Carter, Rayse Biggs, Dwight Adams, Wendell Harrison, Buddy Budson, and Kasan Belgrave, Marcus Belgrave’s son, just to name a few.
“It’s a celebration of Marcus, it’s a celebration of Detroit, it’s a celebration of what Marcus brought to us. What Marcus has left for us. I remember sometimes looking out in the audience and seeing that Marcus came out. I can’t tell you how much that meant, man.”
Drummer Gayelynn McKinney, a longtime friend of Belgrave’s who practically grew up with the man, echoed Collins’ sentiments on a more personal level.
“I’ve known Marcus personally since I was about 6 or 7 years old. After my father passed, he was like my second dad. He used to watch out for me, and I’m not the only one he did this for. He did this for many, many musicians,” said McKinney.
“He was the essence of Detroit. My dad (pianist Harold McKinney) started him on that. My dad started doing that mentoring in the ‘70s, so Marcus kept that going up until his passing really. It’s important to honor the man who helped produce so many wonderful artists. He kept the legacy of jazz alive through us, and then though us we’ll pass it along to the generations under us.”
But the tribute to Belgrave will hardly be the only nod to the greatness of Detroit’s contribution to the jazz world, said Collins.
“Very few cities can boast the symbiotic connection to jazz music that Detroit can. And the fact that we have a jazz festival here is a very natural thing. It’s part of the DNA of growing up in this town. And it’s woven throughout the festival. We have marvelous musicians from our own community playing with their own groups like Wendell Harrison and Steve Carrier, and of course the Marcus Belgrave tribute jam session on Friday. In addition to that there are the large ensemble pieces. Pat Metheny, our artist in residence, will be concluding the festival with a piece called ‘Homage’ for string orchestra, for big band. All the large ensembles are made up of our own Detroit musicians including musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and throughout the jazz community. Featured on their own and combined with national artists because we are lucky to have not only this great history but a city that continues to churn out great instrumental and vocal jazz artists that make our city and our festival so very special.”
One Detroit-focused piece in particular that promises to be particularly inspiring is a jazz rendition of a well-known classical masterpiece.
“And then we have pieces like ‘Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for Detroit’ where we take Vivaldi’s Four Season classical piece, added these intensive jazz elements to it, and improvisation, mixed it with …you know, Vivaldi wrote sonnets to go with the Four Seasons.”
Collins said the piece, which will be complemented by a full orchestra and soloists on Sunday evening at 7 pm at the Amphitheater Stage, will have narrative elements added, each of them specifically related to the “challenges and the renaissance of the City of Detroit.” The two narrators selected to fulfill the task will be Pultizer Prize-winning Detroit Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson, and internationally-renowned vocalist Shahida Nurullah.
“So the whole piece takes what was a classical piece of music, and turned it into a jazz classical crossover with specific relationships to the City of Detroit.”
The 36th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival runs throughout Labor Day weekend, beginning Friday evening and continuing through Monday, September 7. To view a full list of event schedules and events online, go to www.detroitjazzfest.com

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