Over the course of just two short years, local bassist and concert promoter Joel Peterson has transformed his Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music into a not-to-be-missed annual event. The two-day music festival takes place at the Bohemian National Home, a community center for immigrants from Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) established in early 1900s that Peterson has turned into a haven for avant-garde jazz, rock and experimental music over the last three years. Everyone in the know already knows how much Peterson has added to Detroit's already diverse music culture via this fest and his other notable musical ventures.
Unlike other music festivals during which bands and artists perform at the same time on different stages (and audience members have to pick and chose who they want to see), there's no need to worry about that at the Improvised Music Fest. On the contrary, Peterson designed the event so audiences can experience every single performance.
The concerts are staggered between the Bohemian Home's downstairs library and the upstairs ballroom. The library offers an intimate environment; there are books loaded on shelves, comfy (if worn) sofas and club chairs, artwork hanging on the walls and colored lights strung across the room. The seats are arranged so that the audience is close enough to smell the performers' sweat — it's like having your favorite musicians play a live set in your own living room. Upstairs, the audience gets to experience the grandeur of a spacious ballroom that carries a big sound. It's a huge room complete with 26-feet-high ceilings, a stage and a balcony.
"I feel that if you look at any major genre of music — be it jazz, soul, electronic and even rock 'n' roll — Detroit has always been crucial to the development of those genres, whether or not we get the same reputations that other cities do," says the 35-year-old Peterson, lounging on a vintage sofa in his apartment, which used to be the caretaker's apartment at the Bohemian. He enthusiastically talks about making the festival one of the very best of its kind in the country.
"I felt like there had to be a place in town that really booked all kinds of stuff, and not be limited solely to local bands and musicians," he continues. "I guess that has been my main guiding purpose in all this."
Peterson grew up in nearby Grosse Pointe, where he began taking piano lessons as a child. It wasn't long afterward that he got hooked on avant-garde music. "My introduction to that music was when I was 8 or 9 and I went to the Detroit Montreux Jazz Festival with my parents," he recalls. "I saw Griot Galaxy with the outfits and the makeup, and it made this really deep impression on me."
At age 14, he started teaching guitar at Fiddler's Music on the east side and took up double bass. Peterson was soon playing the instrument in the symphonic orchestra at Grosse Pointe South High School and studying with Destroit Symphony bassist Bob Gladstone. In 1992, he enrolled at Wayne State University. While still a student, he co-founded a local band called the Immigrant Suns. He quit college to tour with the Suns.
"We started having a lot of gigs out of town," he remembers. "I had to decide, 'Do I want to play in New York or do I want to go to class on Monday morning?' Working in New York won out."
In 1997, Peterson started promoting concerts. He booked shows at such local venues as Zoot's Coffee House and Alvin's in the Cass Corridor before officially opening the Bohemian National Home in 2005.
"I already had a pretty good idea of how things work on the music side of the business," he recalls. "This was a period in Detroit where it seemed like everybody's overhead was escalating. So being on the receiving end of all that turmoil, I thought that I need to find somewhere to start presenting shows myself."
Legendary free-jazz saxophonist Sam Rivers — whose pioneering albums Contours and Fuchsia Swing Song are classics — was the first big-name artist that Peterson brought in. While organizing that concert, Peterson says he suddenly had a brainstorm.
"I felt that Sam Rivers was a living legend who deserved to have more people see him than just a handful of local fans," Peterson recalls. "I figured I may as well turn something like this into a festival."
It started out as a single day. Reviews in the media and word-of-mouth were positive, so he added a second day the following year. It costs roughly $20,000 to produce the festival, he claims, and he relies on fundraising and sponsors.
Volunteers also contribute to the event and he's grateful for the support. "They call me up and say, 'Hey, you know who is available in June?' [Local radio personality] Pat Frisco is always throwing people my way. The festival has grown unbelievably as a result. I barely have to seek out the artists anymore. I get inundated with requests from musicians wanting to perform."
Frisco, the host of Spirits Rejoice, an avant-garde radio program on WHFR-FM 89.3, believes that without Peterson's dedication, an entire piece of the creative musical world would be missing from the Detroit scene.
"Joel continually goes out on a limb to provide a venue for new and established artists in the vanguard of jazz and other forms of music," he says. "And he's definitely outdone himself for his upcoming festival. Many artists who devote their lives to the creation of vanguard jazz and improvised music simply depend on independent producers like Joel all across the world for their exposure and survival these days."
This year's festival, like the first two, features veterans who pioneered the jazz avant-garde as far back as the 1960s (when saxophonist Fred Anderson was one of the founders of Chicago's legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) alongside players from every decade since, including relatively new names (such as trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum, who studied under another AACM founder, Anthony Braxton, at Wesleyan University). The artists range from Detroit-area stalwarts like Faruq Z. Bey (who inspired young Peterson as a face-painted member of Griot Galaxy) to national-scene names like the dazzling pianist Matthew Shipp.
It's taken for granted that there's not a lot of money to be made producing an avant-garde festival like this one. So what keeps Peterson motivated? "Those unexpected magical moments" is his simple reply. Last year, for example, the Sun Ra Arkestra headlined the opening day of the festival but was scheduled to perform only one set. The group ended up surprising the huge crowd by doing a bonus performance.
Peterson's also been privy to some memorable backstage moments.
"Last year, without actually realizing it, I ended up reuniting all these musicians who used to play together but hadn't seen each other in years. Bassist Hakim Jami was on the bill and he used to play in the Sun Ra Arkestra. So some of the guys didn't know where Hakim was these days. A few of them even thought he was dead. They walked backstage and Hakim was sitting on a couch. To see those guys reunite and talk about the old days — yeah, that was pretty special."
And that's the kind of energy that makes the Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music truly magical.
The Third Annual Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music takes place Friday and Saturday, May 30–31 at Bohemian National Home, 3009 Tillman, Detroit; 313-737-6606. Tickets are $30 for advanced reserved seats; general admission is $25 Friday, $28 Saturday; two-day general admission pass is $45. Food provided by Slows BBQ and Avalon International Breads, with a CD mart by Stormy Records. Specific times for shows are listed at myspace.com/bohemiannationalhome.Charles L. Latimer is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org