Jazz Festival in Detroit to Salute the “Flamekeepers”

With theme of mentors in place, Detroit International Jazz Festival will feature Mulgrew Miller as artist-in-residence.

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Mulgrew Miller

The folks who organize the Detroit International Jazz Festival love themes. According to Terri Pontremoli, executive director of the festival, it started back in 2007, when she decided to have the festival pay tribute to the local jazz legends. “I like to take that thematic canvas,” explained Pontremoli. “The media approaches us differently. The musicians love it. And audiences love it.” In subsequent years, the festival’s themes were: Detroit vs. Chicago (besides whatever intra-city rivalry there may be, the two fests take place the same weekend): The Detroit-Philadelphia connection and, most recently, “Keeping Up With the Joneses-and Other Jazz Family Dynasties.” (JT’s Mike Shanley reviewed last year’s festival for jazztimes.com.)

The theme of this year’s festival taking place September 3-6 in downtown Detroit is “The Flamekeepers,” saluting the legacy of Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Betty Carter, Lester Bowie and Gil Evans. Pontremoli said that she wanted to bring attention to a different kind of schooling that used to happen more regularly with jazz musicians, who would learn on the job and on the road with notable touring artists.

In keeping with that theme, the festival has also announced that its artist-in-residence will be Mulgrew Miller, who apprenticed with perhaps two of the most formidable on-the-bandstand educators in the history of jazz: Art Blakey and Betty Carter. “I’m always looking for someone who is a good communicator, who is a good teacher and who gets excited about the possibilities. He’s all of that. When I contacted him about it, he immediately came back with all sorts of great ideas for programming including some that surprised me. And I see him as a flamekeeper himself. He’s a guy who’s played with just about everyone and is very versatile. I feel that he is important.”

The role of artist-in-residence as evolved over the years, but Pontremoli sees its purpose as a two-way street. “Not only does the community get to know the artist, but the artist really gets to know the community. Last year, John [Clayton] must have come in at least seven times for events and shows. We have them do student programs, special commissions, collaborations. People see these artists in a whole new light.”

The festival takes pride in its close relationship with the local community. “It’s important that the festival be not just an event, but an entity, a cultural entity. We don’t want to be like the circus putting up our tents for the weekend. That’s why we developed partnerships with local community organizations.” In addition to its large-scale outdoor events, the festival includes all sorts of programming at local schools and community centers.

That sense of community is just one of the unique attributes of the festival, according to Pontremoli, who sees Detroit as a special place for a festival. “I see the jazz community here as like an eco-system, with the schools, clubs and local arts groups working together. Even the Detroit Symphony Orchestra here supports jazz. And jazz being taught in the schools has always been a big part of why so many great musicians came from here.”

Unlike some festivals where the jazz seems like just background noise, the Detroit International Jazz Festival attracts a knowledgeable and passionate audience. “It’s very cool and it’s the right atmosphere for jazz. People are there to listen.You would think they were paying for it!”

Indeed, inspired in part by the passion of its fans, the festival has launched a new fundraising initiative in the hopes that some of its 750,000 attendees will pay for it. “From extensive surveying of the audience, we found that 23% came from out of town. And we find that they tend to support us more. So we have a new initiative where if they give a minimum donation, they’ll get reserved seating and access to VIP tent and other perks. And the donation is tax-deductible. Even with that we’ve seen that our festival is one of the bigger bargains out there. And we know that we’re on the map nationally of festivals that people travel to. They’re not there to see Detroit, but the music. It’s a great hang.”

Because of a matching grant offer from philanthropist Gretchen C. Valade, any donation made by individuals will have a larger impact. Valade will match all 2010 gifts by 50%, up to $250,000, so that through “Gretchen’s Challenge,” a gift of, say, $1000 becomes a gift of $1500.

The complete talent lineup and schedule won’t be announced officially until April, but Pontremoli shared a few of the headliners already booked for the Labor Day weekend event, including Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Maria Schneider, each of whom were nurtured by prominent flamekeepers of the past. And one of the artists who is maintaining that mentoring tradition across several generations and on into the 21st century-Roy Haynes-will be performing with his Fountain of Youth, bringing things neatly full circle.

For more information about the festival, you can visit the festival’s web site.