CMA Awards 2018

Detroit Jazz Festival Day 1 Highlights: Chris Potter, Randy Weston, Jimmy Heath & More

Tony Graves
Roy Hargrove photographed at the Detroit Jazz Festival 2016. 

Think “jazz festival” and a number of clichés come to mind, most centering around old people and even older music. Elephant ears and dancing in the street, on the other hand, are less likely candidates for any celebration of “America’s classical music” -- but in Detroit, home of the world’s largest free jazz festival, that’s what you’ll find.

To be clear, “free” in this case means dollars in your pocket, not required Ornette Coleman (though chances are, he stopped through at least once). This weekend, the 37th annual Detroit Jazz Festival took over the city’s downtown with four stages and four days of programming, most centering on the riverfront Hart Plaza.

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Though the festival kicked off officially on Friday night with an opening concert from the festival’s artist-in-residence Ron Carter and Breezin’ hitmaker George Benson, things really started swinging on Saturday, as everyone from veterans such as Randy Weston and Jimmy Heath to local high school students got in on the action.

Here's a rundown of the day's highlights:

1:15 p.m. A live rendition of DownBeat magazine’s long-running Blindfold Test -- in which musicians are played a series of songs, and asked to speak about them sans liner notes -- had veteran guitarist John Abercrombie slightly stumped. “...Muddy Waters?” he said hesitantly when played classic sounding blues, which turned out to be by John Lee Hooker, who fittingly enough got his start in the Motor City playing clubs when he wasn’t working at the Ford factory.

1:40 p.m. “I went to the army and we thought when we came back, things would be different for African Americans,” said pianist Randy Weston of his three years in the Korean War. “But everything was the same.” Weston was joined by fellow recent nonagenarian Jimmy Heath for a talk in the Mack Avenue Records tent, where the pair shared memories from their storied careers for the microphones of Voice of America. Of his former sideman John Coltrane, Heath said, “He was on the saxophone 26 hours a day. One day I said, ‘Willie Mays hit three home runs!’ and he said, ‘Who’s Willie Mays?’ “

2:45 p.m. A tribute to Detroit native Kenny Cox -- who played piano with Etta James during her 60s heyday, among others -- featured a performance by his former bassist Ron Brooks, who led a classics-oriented quintet. “Here’s one of Kenny’s favorite tunes,” said Ralph “Buzzy” Jones before a sweet rendition of the standard “Alone, Together.” 

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3:10 p.m. Within seconds of starting Tony Bennett favorite “My Foolish Heart,” Jack WIlliams III, 17 years old and one winner of the festival’s Youth Jazz Vocal Competition, earned whoops and whistles and laughs of surprise -- his polished baritone made the swooning rendition (backed by the Wayne State University big band) sound straight out of a Technicolor movie. 

4:15 p.m. Randy Weston and Jimmy Heath reunited onstage for a performance of the former’s most famous composition, “Hi-Fly.” Somehow, after performing the tune for literally half a century, both appeared completely jubilant at the opportunity to play it for the rapt crowd, turning out solos that still showed up just about everyone else at the festival.

4:55 p.m. Alfredo Rodriguez’s virtuosic trio turned up the heat with their ever-escalating compositions, pushing their tunes’ Afro-Cuban rhythms to tempos that would make Rio's best samba band envious. After a day filled with easy swing, the catharsis (see Henry Cole’s jaw-dropping drum solo) was a perfect counterpoint.

6:43 p.m. New Orleans natives The Soul Rebels proved the party was just getting started with their covers-filled set, moving from “Human Nature” to “I Wish” to a number of inimitably-groovy originals and keeping things funky enough that even the security guards couldn’t stay still. 

7:55 p.m. Chris Potter and his Underground Orchestra proved the crowd was as into the stuff that was a little bit further out as they would be for Roy Hargrove’s romantic run of standards that followed, as the saxophone stalwart and his band moved through mellow string arrangements to Potter interpolating “God Bless the Child” to an incredible vibraphone and marimba solo from Steve Nelson.