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In the film Quest For Fire, prehistoric man searches for and steals fire from nature, then must engage in an epic journey to return it to the people before the flame might extinguish. Modern man (and woman) has discovered the fire of jazz, a life enhancing and soul enriching element that has now survived nearly a century. This Labor Day weekend the Detroit Jazz Festival celebrates those that have devoted their lives and careers in keeping this flame burning. The party is held at Hart Plaza and at the Chase Main Stage, just a few blocks up Woodward from where the other stages will be heating up.
Festival Director, Terri Pontremoli, envisioned this year’s theme while writing a grant for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA): “I really got totally attracted to the notion of ‘Flame Keepers’ this year. When you work in jazz you realize how interconnected they are. When it comes to the modern jazz movement, the people that went through the various ‘schools’ of Art Blakey and Horace Silver and Betty Carter and Gil Evans and Miles Davis, to have the people that touched them, they are one generation away from (them); what they got from those experiences of playing with those guys, and being able to develop into the musicians that they are, and to also go on and nurture other musicians.”
Jazz drummer Art Blakey was one of the progenitors of hard bop, the founder of the epic Jazz Messengers which became a virtual university of modern jazz. Although he’s been gone for two decades, this year’s festival features at least a half dozen of his ‘Messengers’, including headliners Branford Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard, Bobby Watson, Randy Brecker and this year’s opener and artist in residence, pianist Mulgrew Miller.
“I really wanted Mulgrew Miller” says Pontremoli. “I think Mulgrew is such a phenomenal musician. He’s been on over five hundred recordings.” Miller’s presence at the festival will be ubiquitous; not only does he start the fire on Friday night with the vocal group Take 6, performing music from Miles Davis’ classic Kind of Blue recording, he’ll play throughout the weekend with his own band (Wingspan), in a trio format (with Robert Hurst and Karriem Riggins), and in a duet with fellow pianist Kenny Barron.
Art Blakey’s contribution to jazz is only a single motif this year’s burning tapestry of the music: a Detroit Tribute to Betty Carter will feature a number of local vocalists, while “Hot Pepper” will pay homage to Motown’s great baritone player Pepper Adams via the musicality of Gary Smulyan and the venerable Barry Harris. Kirk Whalum will perform a tribute to Donny Hathaway featuring special guest Lalah Hathaway. And these are just three of the offerings on Saturday, a day that features over two dozen acts!
Also featured during the weekend is the award winning Maria Schneider Orchestra in a rare mid-west appearance and one of the original boppers, octogenerian drummer Roy Haynes. Crowd pleasers such as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Yellowjackets and Manhattan Transfer also dot the festival.
If you can’t make it to Detroit, you can follow the events on Jazz, a virtual station that will cover events live as they happen.

For ongoing updates from the festival from myself, Meegan Holland and photos by C. Blumer, check out m-Live throughout the weekend.

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