The Women of Detroit Music, Living and Gone, Take Spotlight at Detroit Jazz Festival

Esperanza Spalding
Noam Galai/Getty Images

Esperanza Spalding performs on April 16, 2018.

Aretha Franklin’s eight-hour funeral at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple ended just minutes before the official opening of the city’s 39th annual jazz festival; Friday night’s concert (Aug. 31) was introduced by an emcee who had just come from the service. “Most of us think of Aretha for her pop hits, but she was trained in jazz,” he explained, elaborating on now-apocryphal tales of when musicians like Dinah Washington and Art Tatum would gather at the Franklin family’s Detroit home during Aretha’s youth. “The influence on jazz is a part of her legacy as well,” he concluded, before leading a moment of silence.

That opening proved to be a fitting preview of the weekend’s music. The Detroit Jazz Festival has long had a local focus, pairing national acts with both elders and up-and-comers in the Motor City’s underappreciated jazz scene -- but this year’s event had an even more specific common thread, one that was never articulated explicitly but shaped most of the festival sets: women in Detroit music.

Franklin’s impact on her hometown was, as one might expect, an inescapable topic for performers and attendees alike. Vendors hawked a wide array of memorial t-shirts and buttons; musicians performed tributes both with the Queen of Soul’s music, and their own. On that opening night, when all the downtown buildings were still illuminated in pink -- many with “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” written on their LED screens -- legendary pianist Chick Corea played Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” with his trio. The lights on the stage turned pink as he dove into the song, initially drawing out some tremulous dissonances before going into a florid, gentle version of the classic ballad. “Such a great artist, and a freedom fighter too,” said Corea before raising his hands skyward.

Not all the tributes were melancholy: trailblazing all-woman Detroit jazz group Straight Ahead, which features violinist Regina Carter, reunited at the festival, and during their set drummer Gayelynn McKinney shared that she had been in Aretha’s last band. The group played an evocative version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” with Carter taking the melodic lead, so reverently executing riffs that Franklin made canon that the audience started softly singing along. “Do ‘em Gina, do ‘em!” one man shouted as Carter began improvising. Seeing four female musicians from Detroit performing the iconic song made for one of the most memorable performances of the entire weekend—they were greeted with a standing ovation.

Ravi Coltrane had already planned to dedicate his set to one pioneering Detroit musician: his mother, Alice Coltrane. But circumstances had changed: “We’re gonna dedicate this performance to three Detroit women,” he explained. “Geri Allen, Aretha Franklin, and Alice Coltrane.” The set was exclusively made up of compositions by Alice, performed by an inimitable ensemble: Coltrane was joined by harpist Brandee Younger and pianist David Virelles, among others, for a slew of improvisations that managed to be both grounded and mind-bending at once. The impossibly easy grooves from drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts and Roman Diaz eventually exploded into seven-minute duet—the best dance music possible in a city known for the genre.

Living Detroit women got their due as well: during drummer and producer Karriem Riggins’ jazz and hip-hop set, his band of local upstarts was joined by M.C. Mahogany Jones and singer Monica Blaire, as well as Slum Village alum Elzhi. The result was an organic, original take on the blending of two genres whose marriage too often sounds forced.

The festival’s most extensive dedications, though, came for late local pianist Geri Allen, whose sudden passing last year just after her 60th birthday left the jazz world in shock. Two of her frequent collaborators, Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington, led three tributes over the course of the four day festival; students from the University of Michigan, including a young woman pianist named Alexis Lombre, performed another, where they were joined by Regina Carter and Straight Ahead bassist Marion Haden.

Spalding and Carrington came closest to the music they’d performed with Allen during the first night’s tribute, where they were joined by pianist Kris Davis; the result was dynamic, rich interpretations of many of Allen’s most beloved compositions. Ravi Coltrane and flutist David McMurray, another Detroiter, joined, but as accompanists—the focus was on the women, and mostly on Geri, as they turned beautiful chaos into danceable grooves. A tap dancer joined for the concluding songs.

With their tribute on Sunday, Spalding and Carrington added an entire orchestra to a jazz ensemble that included Nicholas Payton, Camille Thurman, and Craig Taborn, among others. Their arrangements of Allen’s music for large ensemble never felt unnatural, though—instead they gave the music the kind of heft that’s usually not afforded women’s work, giving it a welcome theatricality while drawing out the subtleties that might normally be lost. “It’s a momentous weekend in Detroit,” said Edmar Colón Gierbolini during the performance. “But those people did not leave us, right? They’re right here now. That’s what happens when you give everything to your craft—you live forever.”

Festivals 2018