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Jazz hangover

Oh, Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival, where have you strayed? Let’s just count the ways.

Despite the success of another Labor Day weekend extravaganza, presenting renowned jazz artists to throngs of fans in Detroit (and communities around the country via daily radio broadcast), there’s definitely a bland aftertaste left over for those who remember 20 years of moments in Hart Plaza past, those who like their jazz hot-blooded and authentic. For starters, none of 2000’s three headliners (Dr. John, Abbey Lincoln and Nancy Wilson) is a significant instrumentalist in the tradition à la Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Tito Puente, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell et al. In fact, Dr. John, who hardly qualifies as a jazz player, fronted a rock band for his set and was making his second (or third?) appearance in town this year — not quite the special event the festival is famous for. (Whoever scheduled the good doctor in the first place should be reminded that “broadening” the festival’s appeal in this way is a totally wrongheaded waste of time and resources — and that your idea for next year’s Allman Brothers or Grateful Dead reunion should go back into the circular file.)

The presence of Lincoln and Wilson at the forefront signaled an unusually heavy emphasis on vocalists this year (no doubt due to interim program director Ed Love’s well-known preferences), though next to nothing was made of this fact in festival publicity. If we were to have a “Year of the Vocalist,” then what about doing it up right?

To give props where they’re due, once you got past the top three, there was plenty of instrumental talent to go around, what with Barry Harris, Steve Turre, Marcus Belgrave, Donald Walden, Terence Blanchard and many others keeping the horn culture burning. But the problem here was one of variety. It was obvious going in where the un-bebop moments would come from: e.g. vibist Stefon Harris’ quartet, the Mingus Big Band or the Jazz Times Superband. And Donald Harrison Jr.’s multifaceted set was a lovely surprise.

It’s not talent that was in short supply, just conceptual difference. With this year’s shortsighted cancellation of Detroit guitarist Spencer Barefield’s Discovery Day portion of the festival (which in years past brought the excitement and passion of the avant-garde to Hart Plaza), a real blow was delivered to the true jazz spirit, the inventiveness and chance-taking that have been an essential part of the music since the days of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. And if festival organizers are concerned about “audience appeal,” we need only recall the way the (avant-garde) World Saxophone Quartet “crossed over” with a mind-blowing, crowd-stirring revelation on the main stage a few years ago.

Not to understand that a large festival is actually a number of minifestivals bringing all sorts of jazz approaches together means to begin, in the year 2000, a process of homogenization (and watering down) of the idea(s) of jazz — means to begin the fading of the festival as a significant event in this city’s music history.

Over in Chicago each Labor Day weekend there’s a jazz festival of some importance. It draws hundreds of thousands of listeners and takes place outdoors, just like here at home. But this year an important difference with the Detroit event was to be found in the programming. Participants in the Windy City included the Andrew Hill Sextet with Von Freeman, the David Murray Octet, Herbie Hancock, Roscoe Mitchell and the Note Factory, the Charles Lloyd Quintet, the Dave Holland Quintet, Liquid Soul, the Lester Bowie Tribute Band and Big Band Monk (with Phil Woods and Steve Lacy), among many others. The point isn’t about which festival has more money to spend, nor about the way Chicago jazz clubs join in with simultaneous bookings (among them the Lee Konitz Trio and the Matthew Shipp Trio). The lesson for Detroit has to do with embracing as much improvisational diversity as possible, without compromising the integrity of our traditions.

One irony certainly wasn’t lost in the contrast: Spencer Barefield, expatriate from Detroit that weekend, was playing in Roscoe Mitchell’s band (!), along with Craig Taborn, Jaribu Shahid, Tani Tabbal and Gerald Cleaver, all homie avant-gardists. Hey, if we kick them out, they’re going to play somewhere, but (damnit) why be so dumb in the first place?

The future for our festival, on the other hand, seems at least hopeful. New program director Frank Malfitano comes with a terrific rep and credentials, the signs of a true jazz thinker and, from all reports, a total enthusiasm about music in the Motor City. Let’s make him feel at home and give him the means to kick out the jams. All right. The Hot & the Bothered was written by George Tysh. E-mail him at

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