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The Detroit Jazz Festival Finds a Way

It took place over Labor Day weekend as usual, but that was the only thing usual about it

A masked Rodney Whitaker at the 2020 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo courtesy of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation)

Back in April, shortly after the shutdown of just about every damn thing had begun across the nation, the Detroit Jazz Festival announced its 2020 lineup for Labor Day weekend. Chris Collins, president and artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation, soon received pointed queries and criticism from journalists and bloggers, along the lines of “How could you make an announcement like that when every other event is canceling or postponing?” In an interview with JazzTimes earlier this month, Collins said he had an immediate gut reaction: “Hope! Because we all saw what was coming and if this thing keeps going, we’re in a real mess.”

Of course, “this thing”—the pandemic—did keep going and remains a mess. Undaunted, Collins and his team pivoted to produce a festival that fully deserves the now-overused term “unprecedented,” at least within the jazz world. For four days, the Detroit Jazz Festival set up in the “bubble” of the Renaissance Center Marriott in downtown Detroit, where a series of live performances were broadcast with no audience, much like the NBA, MLB, and NHL have done in recent months. Featuring a mix of national and regional performers, the retooled festival presented more than 40 hours of live music in what can best be described as a telethon format, albeit without a fundraising thermometer or Jerry Lewis loosening the tie on his tux.

The broadcast reached not only the Detroit area through ties to local television and radio stations, but also the world through the magic of livestreaming. A festival that normally attracts about 300,000 fans per day was watched in 32 countries. That viewing audience saw performances by Pharoah Sanders, Robert Glasper, Joey Alexander, Steve Turre, James Carter, René Marie, and many others, most of whom were playing a gig for the first time in more than six months. But enjoyable as those performances were, the inside story of how the festival transitioned from a free outdoor event to a global livestream show is even more fascinating.

Pharoah Sanders at the 2020 Detroit Jazz Festival
Pharoah Sanders at the 2020 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo courtesy of Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation)

Collins said that various formats for the festival were discussed during the summer, with health and safety the paramount considerations: “I got a team together, a task force for the festival, and the first thing we needed to do was establish relationships with epidemiologists in Detroit—the CDC folks, the health department—so that we would know who to talk to, who to track, and what we should be looking at.” But he and the team also couldn’t help but be aware of the festival’s enormous economic impact on the local community.


At first, because of the organizers’ desire to keep the festival a live in-person event, they actually considered holding the festival in a sports stadium. “We were struggling with: How do we maintain and respect the craft and the art of the musicians and not just do it to do it?” Collins explained. “That sort of planning went on for a while. Then there was a moment when, as everything dropped off the map, even here, I started to see where we could potentially be the first live large event left in Detroit.”

When Collins appeared on a local talk-radio station, a listener called in and put him on the spot. “She said, ‘So you’re going to do the jazz festival like has happened every year?’” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, but yes, we’re moving forward with some sort of festival.’ She said, ‘I just hope you’re not going to be using the Detroit community as guinea pigs.’ It was right to the gut. But I took that to heart and it was really meaningful, because how do you enforce everything without causing consternation?”

Collins came back to his team with a big presentation, explaining the data and the need to protect patrons first. “We realized, ‘We’re at a point where we are going to change the format and it appears that a broadcast environment may be possible, with some caveats,’” he said. “Those caveats for me were health and safety—which is a top priority for any festival—and it has to be live and in real time. They [audience and performers] need to feel that they’re at a performance. Finally, we would have to go to great lengths to make sure that, being a free festival, we’re delivering it in enough places that people at all different income levels will have access.” The mantra for the event planning became safe, live, and free.


Regarding that last criterion, the major reason that the Detroit Jazz Festival has been a free festival is the support of sponsors, as well as the city. The challenge of retaining sponsors like Carhartt and Absopure Water wasn’t just due to the change in format; more significantly, those companies had new issues to address in the Detroit area. “They were in the process of reallocating their community funds to other needs like the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement,” Collins explained. “I was incredibly impressed with our corporate sponsors, most of whom understood immediately that this was the year to show their commitment, because we all knew that this was a transitional format and we needed to get through it. If we’re not together, then things are going to fold. I made the pitch that if you want to help people, let’s get some art, culture, and music in their lives again. Let’s get the artists and the crew back to work for a minute. There’s real income there.”

With sponsor support in hand, the festival then had to determine how it could work, from staging to sound and lighting, and from production to streaming and broadcast. They decided to use four separate soundstages, with performances broken up by interstitial announcements and interviews, so the stream could run continuously 12 hours a day for four days. “We had this robust connectivity with broadcast partners because of the Detroit Jazz Fest Live app [introduced in the mid-2010s],” Collins said. “That infrastructure was already there. We’re one of the few who could potentially pull this off on a level that’s more than Zoom videos from people’s living rooms.”

But of course sound and lighting for broadcast is quite different than that for a live audience. “There’s a quality issue with audio, because audio that’s designed for a live venue isn’t going to work with people listening on their computers or TVs,” Collins noted. “It’s a whole different thing with full monitoring and a full-room sound system. [And] we needed staging, backline, and lights at a TV-level production, not internet-level.” Indeed, the production for the streamed performances was excellent. I would even go so far as to say that it was better than what my former employer Black Entertainment Television did back in the ’90s when it hosted a jazz channel, with concerts and shows 24/7. 


The lack of a live audience did make for some awkward moments. Several artists said, “Thank you, thank you” or “Give it up for our bassist” to no response. Not even the crew or staff made a peep, in part due to signs at each soundstage that said “Complete Silence. No Applause.” I shared a photo of one sign with some artists and managers as if to say, “Look what this has come to.” Instead, the response I got from a few was that “It’s about time that the audience was reminded to be quiet when we play.” One manager of a famous artist even said that she was tired of the jazz habit of clapping after each solo and would like to see that sign posted at all jazz venues.

The performers included a mix of international headliners and regional artists (many of whom have a national reputation). Although the event didn’t come close to matching the sprawling breadth of the outdoor festivals of the past, the performances were solid, made more intense by the artists’ sheer joy in being onstage. Sure, they missed the audience, the hang, the festival energy that we all know so well. But just to play together was rewarding after sitting or shedding in isolation for six months. 

Sign at 2020 Detroit Jazz Festival soundstage
A sign at one of the 2020 Detroit Jazz Festival soundstages (photo: Lee Mergner)

One surprising benefit of the rejiggered format was that Detroit-based musicians who normally would have been competing with high-profile national artists such as Christian McBride, Pat Metheny, or Dee Dee Bridgewater had the audience all to themselves. This enabled me (as one of the handful of on-site spectators), along with thousands of remote viewers, to experience in real time the gifts of Detroit like GayeLynn McKinney, Marion Hayden, Sean Dobbins, and Michael Jellick, all respected and accomplished but not household names. People who would never have traveled to Detroit on Labor Day weekend got to hear their music and learn about the city’s rich jazz legacy.


The timing of the fest’s reboot also enabled Collins to ask for more recent projects with especially timely themes. “I rebuilt an open submission encouraging any special Detroit or regional projects,” he explained. “I [gave] a whole other month for people to apply. It was great because a lot of really relevant projects, including some that just recently evolved, came to the fore.” For example, the opening day featured a “Justice Suite” pulled together by noted bassist Robert Hurst in response to the events exploding all around the country. Would this have happened if the festival had proceeded as usual? Perhaps, but more likely not, given that its programming is usually set in the spring.

A few artists were reluctant to travel, but not all. Pharoah Sanders—whose concerts celebrating his 80th birthday had all been canceled—told Collins that he really wanted to make the trip, and his fiery opening-night performance set the tone for the weekend. “We shared what the airlines are doing to protect people,” Collins said about his discussions with the artists. “We laid out the onstage protocol based on what we’d been studying with folks. The artists’ responses really ran the gamut. We were prepared to present the entire lineup of who we had originally scheduled. We were not going to change or dumb down the program by one iota. We kept the heart and soul of what we originally had in place.”

I hear you saying, “All that sounds great, but was it safe for the artists, staff, and crew?” It’s the same question we ask ourselves when watching an NBA playoff game. Posed that hard question, Collins spoke with conviction and passion about health and safety. He said that, as part of the state protocols they followed, the festival had COVID officers on-site. They developed anonymous reporting, in case someone wasn’t wearing a mask. “We wanted to make sure that we were well within the recommendations,” he said. “We had to translate the Berlin study, the Vienna study, and the stuff now that’s coming out that has changed the decisions of some of those as to what we do on stage. The new vapor studies showed that the projection was not that bad out of a trombone, but it’s bad out of mouths. The worst is flute players because they go three meters out. Vocalists should be five feet away.”


The onstage positioning of artists became a very serious matter. As Collins and crew learned, when a group of musicians performs, vapors accumulate and rise into the air; when that group leaves and the next one comes in, those vapors settle right over them like a blanket. Hence the rotation of stages, with two hours between each set on any given stage so that everything can be disinfected: “[When] the next bubble of musicians comes in, they don’t cross paths with the other one, and [when] they take the stage there has been every conceivable precaution taken.”

Marion Hayden
Marion Hayden at the 2020 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo courtesy of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation)

Festival staff also kept track of who was where and when, in the event that contact tracing was necessary. Artists and crew stayed in the bubble of the hotel, with temperature screenings for anyone coming from outside or even entering a venue. According to the festival office, as of September 24, more than two weeks after the final set ended, there has not been a single reported case of COVID-19 among the approximately 400 artists, staff, and crew who worked at the RenCenter over Labor Day weekend.

For my part, I found that Detroit went the extra mile or two or three, as far as precautions and screening went. I was even tossed out of a venue because the stage manager felt I’d been there listening too long—a first for me, in a year of firsts. (A few colleagues who run festivals assure me that they’ll be more than happy to kick me out of any of their venues when their festivals are back in business, so I have that going for me.) I can report that even though I interacted with a dozen or more individuals on-site, I felt safe and was not infected.

Is this the immediate future for festivals? Given the cost of audio and video production, it’s more likely to be one choice of many. Already we’ve seen festivals like Monterey and DC program a mix of live performances with no audience and archival footage. Many clubs are using the model of a show streamed from a bubble, with a minimal ticket price for consumers. The Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May and venues with outdoor facilities are putting on shows with audiences in spacious outdoor settings, with the requisite social distancing built in. We’ve even seen live “drive-in” shows. But the numbers present an economic challenge for nearly every presenter right now, as any artist is sure to tell you.


One thing we can learn from all these attempts is that people really want to see live music, and sooner rather than later. “Look, nothing is ever going to replace live jazz,” Collins said to me in early September. “No one is saying that this format is a replacement for live music. But, as we’ve gone through this, I’ve been watching and learning. [E]ven though we may [have] alter[ed] things, it produced all these spin-offs for an ambassadorship program for Detroit with the world. We found an appropriate way to send a message about this city.”

The way they found was great not only for Detroit artists, but also for jazz in general. “I realized that there is a dimension to the expansion that we all recognize in the digital realm,” he added. “I don’t know what it is yet, but some digital expansion in order to provide our mission, which is free for everybody, available to a broader audience.”

Ultimately it all begins and ends with the music, and that rests firmly in the hands of the musicians, who’ve been forced to put those hands out for support from their fan base. Collins is inspired by artists like Emmet Cohen and Cyrille Aimée, who’ve adapted to the pandemic and come up with unusual performing opportunities that draw support from various sources. “Some artists have turned their creative eye towards this challenge. You have to learn how to take all your energies, your resources, and your creativity and direct that toward the challenges that stand in your way. You can shut down, and many do, or you can look for an opportunity to evolve yourself, or maybe even come up with something that is new for you and beneficial.”