Detroit Jazz Festival returns Labor Day weekend

What’s the best way to hear the nuances and spontaneity of jazz? Live and in person, says Chris Collins, director of the beloved Detroit Jazz Festival, the world’s largest free jazz festival.

And two years after COVID kicked off, that will finally be an option this year as the popular festival returns to its usual Labor Day weekend format with four stages across the city for audiences to spread out and enjoy dozens of acts. Three stages are at Hart Plaza and one at Campus Martius.

There’s nothing quite like being “there for that spontaneous moment that comes and goes through the air,” Collins said.

Still, Collins and the rest of his team aren’t letting go of what they’ve learned about presenting the festival virtually over the past two years, either. Last year alone, they attracted nearly 2.5 million viewers from 32 countries.

That’s why they’ll have the festival in person, but they’ll also be streaming all four stages live on its website.

“We do it for free and anyone from anywhere in the world can be a part of it,” Collins said. “Between online, live and in person, everyone will be part of one of the largest jazz listening audiences for a single event. It’s going to be pretty huge. We’re very excited about it.”

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The popular free festival, presented by Rocket Mortgage, kicks off Friday in downtown Detroit and runs through Monday with more than three dozen performers, including some of jazz’s biggest names. Grammy-winning Cecile McLorin Salvant is set to perform with the Soul Rebels, Detroit native Dianne Reeves, guitarist Julian Lage and the Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band.

This year’s artist-in-residence, Chucho Valdés, Cuba’s famed Grammy-winning pianist, bandleader and composer, will also perform throughout the weekend. Collins calls Valdés the “godfather” of Cuban jazz music. He should open the festival with a great ensemble piece entitled “Creation”. It will also be part of a series of duo performances on Sunday.

Valdés is “one of a kind,” Collins said.

This year’s youngest performer is rising jazz singer Anissa Lea, 17, from Livonia. Lea, who will perform at 4.30pm on Saturday on the Absopure Waterfront stage, said it is an honor to be able to perform among such talented musicians.

“I’ve worked hard in my quest to be a jazz artist, and being part of the Detroit Jazz Festival almost leaves me speechless,” she said. “When I look at the list of performers and my name is there with such talented musicians, there are no words to describe the emotion and excitement. Sometimes I think I need to pinch myself .”

Lea said she never wanted to be a jazz singer, but it drew her in with its tone, style and showmanship of talented musicians.

“I believe music should speak to you in a form that touches your soul and draws you in,” she said. “In my quest to sing different genres of music, jazz was so powerful to me – that’s where my love for music began.”

Collins says Lea “has a real gift” and thinks customers will be blown away by her sound.

“She has the voice, sensitivity and wisdom of someone three times her age,” he said.

Other star performers this year come from all over the world, including Nubya Garcia, an English musician, and drummer Antonio Sanchez.

This year’s festival lineup “is a real combination of new releases from well-known artists, some of the great legacy and legendary artists, and those new perspectives from around the world who really are the future of this music”, Collin said. “We really wanted to embrace it all and give people of all ages, entire families, something to enjoy, talk about and share with each other.”

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Detroit Jazz Festival

Friday through Monday on four legs through Detroit; also streamed live on www.detroitjazzfest.org.

Willie J. Johnson