At a time when life feels increasingly unfair for ordinary working folks, the Detroit Jazz Festival is sublime succor, an annual karmic gift of spiritual rejuvenation. A four-day event over Labor Day Weekend in the heart of the old blue-collar Mecca of downtown Detroit, the festival serves up bountiful jazz from world-famous artists totally free of charge.
This year, festival-goers can catch the likes of Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter (and that’s the tip of the iceberg) on four different stages easily traversed in a three-block area. Three of them are along Hart Plaza, where you can see Canada across the Detroit River as water-skiers cavort, and where the lights from the towering GM headquarters provide a majestic backdrop less than a block away. The other stage, slightly north, is in the urban oasis of Campus Martius square, with its spellbinding water sculptures.
The vibe couldn’t be friendlier or safer — I’ve attended four previous festivals and have yet to witness a single violent incident. On the contrary, the prevailing goodwill, undeniably fostered by the music and lack of expense, leaves you giddy at the end of each day.
Here are 15 especially noteworthy acts. But check out the full schedule and give a listen to the special radio channel we’ve put together for a more comprehensive survey of the cornucopia of musical delights available.
Who He Is: Not only the greatest living jazz saxophonist but, I would dare argue, the greatest of all time. What separates jazz from other music is the fundamental element of spontaneous improvisation, and on that score, Rollins on tenor has no peer.
Why He Matters: Because even at 82, he is still capable of levitating you into a near-religious experience in concert – think Springsteen, or Phish, or your favorite live act. With his deep tone and boundless imagination and technique, Rollins live is not to be missed.
Wynton Marsalis Quintet
Who He Is: Marsalis is a latter-day Louis Armstrong, in that he is currently the world's most recognized jazz ambassador. The longtime programmer of Jazz at Lincoln Center is also a lightning rod for his conservative view of what constitutes quality jazz. Oh, and he's a pretty fair trumpet player.
Why He Matters: His diligent work ethic produces gigs of remarkably high quality control. His current quintet is aces, especially pianist Dan Nimmer, who looks like a nerdy math teacher, but plays earthy New Orleans licks like a shaman.
Bernard Purdie, Reuben Wilson and Grant Green Jr.
Who They Are: "Pretty" Purdie is a session drummer extraordinaire. Wilson is an organist whose Blue Note riffs have been used in iconic hip-hop tracks by DJ Premier. Grant Green Jr. is a guitarist very similar to Grant Green Sr. Together they are variously known as the Godfathers of Groove or the Masters of Groove.
Why They Matter: Because nothing goes with Labor Day Weekend like some soulful organ jazz played outdoors – with the special bonus of saxophonist Donald Harrison sitting in.
Charles McPherson Quintet featuring Tom Harrell
Who They Are: Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson is one of the great foot soldiers of jazz, a "player's player" who started out as a Charlie Parker disciple, then took care to let his wisdom mellow, so that his conception is impeccable at any tempo.
Why They Matter: Adding star trumpeter Harrell to his band for this high-profile gig should really illuminate McPherson's compositional prowess. And we know from his long tenure with Phil Woods how well Harrell meshes with an ace altoist.
Chick Corea and Gary Burton with the Harlem String Quartet
Who They Are: Every year since 1972, pianist Corea and vibraphonist Burton set aside some time for concert duets, and it has been one of the more fruitful marriages in jazz history.
Why They Matter: Corea is best known for the fusion band Return To Forever, but this is something else – compelling quietude (their first record was entitled Crystal Silence) that remains alert and engaging. The addition of a string quartet is an intriguing bonus.
Gerald Cleaver and Uncle June
Who They Are: Cleaver is a native Detroit drummer who was mentored by Victor Lewis and schooled in bands led by the likes of Roscoe Mitchell and Matthew Shipp. His band Uncle June fulfills the enormous potential of that sterling pedigree.
Why They Matter: The group pays homage to the 20th-century migration north from the Delta, and to the flowering of spirits like the AACM Collective and Sun Ra once they arrived in the cities. Size ranges from trio to sextet, with top-shelf talents like Craig Taborn, Drew Gress and Tony Malaby as members.
David Binney Quartet
Who He Is: An imaginative alto saxophonist, composer and sampler who scrupulously avoids clichÃ©s while remaining firmly on the cusp of the post-bop mainstream, Binney combines delightful energy and conceptually thoughtful tunes onstage and on record.
Why They Matter: Drummer Dan Weiss has become Binney's alter ego, and is masterful at the tempo and mood shifts that are a staple of Binney's compositions. Bassist Eivind Opsvik and pianist Jacob Sacks are likewise reliably strong and well-versed.
Pat Metheny Unity Band
Who He Is: Metheny was the first, and arguably the most influential, of the three stars (John Scofield and Bill Frisell are the others) who ushered in our current golden age of jazz guitarists beginning in the 1970s.
Why They Matter: Chris Potter, the first saxophonist in a band fronted by Metheny since Ornette Coleman, is a dynamo on tenor. Drummer Antonio Sanchez has been Metheny's drummer of choice through a decade of different ensembles, and young'un Ben Williams is a propulsive force on bass.
Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas “Sound Prints” Quintet
Who They Are: A pair of masterful conceptualists who blend an intrepid sense of adventure with an appreciation of the bop tradition, saxophonist Lovano and trumpeter Douglas came together in the SFJazz Collective the year (2008) its rotating personnel were honoring Wayne Shorter.
Why They Matter: Sound Prints plays tunes composed by and inspired by Shorter. Along with the top-shelf co-leaders, the ensemble boasts the inventive drummer Joey Baron and two bright, burgeoning performers in pianist Lawrence Fields and bassist Linda Oh.
Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band
Who He Is: The great conguero mines music from his roots in the stylistically borderless cultural territory of west Texas, southern California and northern Mexico – call it gently salsa-fied Latin bop with a side plate of rhythm & blues.
Why They Matter: Poncho and the band will reprise songs from last year's glorious Chano y Dizzy! tribute disc, with that album guest star, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, again taking on the Dizzy Gillespie role to Poncho's Chano Pozo.
Wayne Shorter Quartet
Who He Is: The 79-year-old composer-saxophonist Wayne Shorter is respected to the point of reverence for his vital and pivotal contributions to Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis's classic quintet of the 1960s, as well as his own influential Blue Note label discs and his co-founding of the fusion group Weather Report.
Why They Matter: Formed 12 years ago, Shorter's sterling quartet – with drummer Brian Blade, pianist Danilo Perez and bassist John Patitucci – is the perfect capstone to his phenomenal career and an ideal vehicle for his beguiling, cerebral tunes.
Donny McCaslin Group
Who They Are: McCaslin is a tenor saxophonist who is at his best when he's being torridly propulsive and insouciantly lyrical at the same time. His new electric ensemble expertly channels him in that direction.
Why They Matter: It's always a treat to catch a band playing tunes from an album – in this case Casting For Gravity – that's recorded but hasn't yet been released (it drops September 25). With inventive, versatile keyboardist Jason Lindner also on the front line of this quartet, this is well-primed, potent music.
The Sacred Music of Duke Ellington
Who They Are: An extravagant array of musicians known as the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra, abetted by a rich gospel choir, will perform selections from the three sacred concerts composed by Ellington in the last decade of his life.
Why They Matter: Despite winning a Grammy and causing enormous controversy on their initial release, Ellington's ambitious and exotic sacred works are rarely showcased. Conducted by renowned Ellington scholar and transcriber David Berger, this should be a memorable event.
Jerry Gonzalez y El Comando de la Clave
Who He Is: Trumpeter and conguero Gonzalez is a Latin jazz titan who played with Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente before co-founding Conjunto Libre and, most famously, the Fort Apache Band.
Why They Matter: After moving to Spain, Gonzalez stumbled upon the stupendous Cuban ex-pats that help comprise the El Comando quartet. In classic Gonzalez fashion, they mash Miles and 'Trane with clave rhythms and sensibility for a spicy stew that is by turns danceable and pensive.
A Night In Treme
Who They Are: I can't imagine a much better contemporary lineup for this Crescent City celebration, which includes The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Christian Scott, James "Twelve" Andrews and Donald Harrison Jr.
Why They Matter: Scott's new double-disc is a resplendent revelry that both expands and enriches the borders of the New Orleans tradition; the PHJB is enjoying a bold and marvelous resurgence and trumpeter Andrews and saxophonist Harrison take a back seat to nobody in this context.