Jazz fest stars (and ‘forgetting’ Sonny Rollins)



We went to the kick-off press conference for the Detroit International Jazz Festival on Wednesday for the news, but we also got a laugh from artist-in-residence John Clayton. We’ll get to the salient details of upcoming Labor Day weekend fest, a 30th anniversary blowout, but not just yet.

John, the bassist in the Clayton Brothers Band, was there to talk up his involvement with the fest and lavish praise on the Detroit jazz legacy. He’ll be playing multiple gigs at the fest with professional and student groups, and he’ll be visiting the city often to work with the latter between now and festival. He played the tune "FSR" along with his son, Gerald, on piano, as a taste of what’s to come. And he told the story behind the tune.

Seems that the great bassist Ray Brown — one of Clayton’s inspirations — was in a pinch with a looming recording session and in need of a tune. So he sat down and took the chords of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" as his starting point, much as Sonny Rollins had when he penned the jazz classic "Doxy." And to acknowledge that Sonny had been there before him, so to speak, Brown titled his own tune with the initials for "Forget Sonny Rollins."

Which had the press conference crowd chuckling as Clayton opened the tune with unaccompanied bass, each note dancing in memory of the late Ray. But we were scratching our head about that story and wanted to hear more from Clayton. But first, the news.

The big news is that the festival returns in a big way this summer, when at least some others are retrenching (Concert of Colors) or sitting the year out (Detroit Festival of the Arts).

The festival theme this year is "Keepin’ Up with the Jones" — as in Thad, Frank and Hank Jones, the Pontiac brothers who provide one of the best examples of a family that swung together. Hank, 91, the survivor of the trio of Joneses, plays the fest this year, as do the aforementioned Clayton Brothers (and son), Dave Brubeck and sons, John and Bucky Pizzarelli, Larry and Julian Coryell, the Heath Brothers, Pete and Juan Escovedo, and Brian Augur and his family. Not to mention T.S. (son of Thelonious) Monk and Cuchito (son and grandson of Chucho and Bebo) Valdes.

Away from the family theme, the festival headlines former and current Detroiters Sheila Jordan, Louis Hayes, Charles McPherson, Benny Maupin, Geri Allen, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gerald Wilson, Rodney Whitaker, Marcus Belgrave (with an all-star band of protégés such as Allen and Bob Hurst) and Karriem Riggins.

That’s not to mention big names such as Sean Jones, Chick Corea (with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White), Wayne Shorter (with Danilo Perez, Brian Blade and John Patitucci), and Christian McBride with his new group, Inside Straight. And we don’t have time right now to give you the backstory on why you might want to check out up-and-comers like vocalists Gretchen Parlato and Jose James, and pianist Alfredo Rodriguez.

The fest is (so far, at least) lighter than last year on non-jazz stars, but there’ll be New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas, Detroit gospel royalty the Clark Sisters and the Contours featuring Sylvester Potts. The aforementioned drummer Karriem Riggins — probably the only guy to gig regularly with a jazz star like Oscar Peterson and a hip-hop star like Common — is mixing up the genres with something called Karriem Riggins’ Virtuoso Experience with pianist Mulgrew Miller and DJ Madlib.

And in addition to names, we heard about the greening of the festival (with recycling stations, compostable greenware — an addition to our vocabulary), the first festival fund-raising cruise (Aug. 26) and more.

After which we sought out Clayton to ask about that story. Had Ray Brown really said, "Forget Sonny Rollins"? Clayton smiled and conceded that he’d cleaned up the anecdote by just one word for the audience.

Which is fitting. This is, after all, a family-themed fest. —W. Kim Heron

Sonny Rollins: "Forget" him...


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