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The 2020 Detroit Jazz Festival will not be held at its usual Hart Plaza location due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and state restrictions on public gatherings. Instead, this year’s festival will be presented in an all-virtual format this Labor Day Weekend (Friday, Sept. 4 through Monday, Sept 7), complete with a star-studded line-up of artists.

The performances will be filmed in high-definition audio and video and broadcast in real-time on the Detroit Jazz festival’s social media (including Facebook Live and Instagram), Detroit Public Television, WRCJ 90.9 FM, WEMU 89.1, WDET 101.9 FM, and the Detroit Jazz Fest app.

Let’s Detroit spoke with Chris Collins, artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival and president of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation, about the work to quickly re-organize this year’s festival, and how jazz artists plan to capture this historic year in their music. Collins also shares great advice for current generations hoping to earn success and make a difference in Detroit. Continue reading…

Let’s Detroit: Detroit Jazz Festival is entering into its 41st year. What has been the key to the festival’s success and significance in Detroit?

Collins: The jazz has been very much a part of the city’s culture for two decades. And the festival has been entirely free – no admission or tickets ever since it started, and we continue that tradition. The Jazz Festival has become the largest free jazz festival in the United States. The mission of the festival has been to ensure that this music continues, not only in our city, but around the world. And through the festival everyone has an opportunity to hear and experience this great music.
So, by keeping it free, we’ve taken down one of the more significant barriers that would keep people from attending such a large jazz festival that allows everyone to be a part of it. And then we have artists from all around the world of different generations, cultures, and genres of jazz that we present as well.

Let’s Detroit: What has changed about the festival this year to make sure it can still be enjoyed and well-attended?

Collins: Earlier this year, we started considering contingency plans for the festival. Because we tracked physically over 300,000 people from all over the world and of course thousands of artists attend the festival. We saw a need to protect our patrons and artists.
So we moved to a format that is no in-person audiences. All of this year’s performances will be streamed and broadcast live in real-time from Detroit. These are all live performances coming from three custom-built soundstages in the Marriott inside the Renaissance Center. We’re going to give the audience a true, immersive experience.

Let’s Detroit: Will artists tribute or acknowledge the different issues that have emerged in our society, such as the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and the fight against racial injustice?

Collins: Our opening night movement is themed on justice. Jazz artists, like every artist, draw on the history and the moments – what’s going on in their lives, and in the existence of global culture. All of these things effect artists very seriously. This is often where artists draw their inspiration and look to reflect those things in their art.

This year has been a very interesting year, because there has been a lot of things going on simultaneously. And with jazz, it’s rather important that an artist can create a composition that is influenced by the culture and what’s happening. But, the performance itself, because of improvisation and the communication that’s unique in jazz, is rather spontaneous and captures the very feelings of the very moments in which the performance occurs. And you’re never going to hear the performance in that way ever again.

As you listen to the Detroit Jazz Festival, you will be sure to hear how artists have been affected by the COVID pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and the different amplification of issues that have come up in our society and culture.
The beautiful thing about music is it tends to turn issues into feelings and emotions as oppose to talking about it. It’s really about the base feelings and the gut emotions that come from these moments and is reflected in the music.

Let’s Detroit: Tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved with the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation?

Collins: Sure. I am a Detroit native. I’ve been a musician my entire life since I was very young. I came from a musical family and being a jazz musician was all I ever wanted to be. I played all over the world and have a number of recordings. I’ve also been a professor and director of the Jazz Studios program at Wayne State University for 26 years now. So, I really wrap myself into the creation, the foundation of this music.
It was around 2011, the board of directors with the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation asked me to serve as the artistic director. It was an opportunity for an active artist like myself to be in the role of a major jazz festival. In 2015, they asked if I would take over as president.

Let’s Detroit: As a Detroit native, who’ve clearly followed their passion and is passionate about the city, do you have any advice for young professions in Detroit today who want to be successful and make a difference?

Collins: Yes. My general advice to everyone, I don’t care if you’re a dancer, an architect, a welder, or a musician – one of the best things you can keep in mind is to be problem solver. Be a problem solver for yourself and for those around you. This year was a great example. We all had to solve a lot of problems to continue following our passions. It took a lot of creativity. And I will tell you that coming up in Detroit – the city, while it has its challenges, there are incredible mentoring opportunities in our city. There were people willing to mentor me in the arts and business. That family atmosphere and mentoring commitment to me is very strong in our city. And when we get to positions of power in the city, it’s important to return that favor and mentor the next generation.

Written by Let’s Detroit Alicia McClendon 

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