Every year on Labor Day weekend around 300,000 jazz fans descend on downtown Detroit for the Detroit Jazz Festival, enjoying more than 60 live performances, as well as showcases, talks, and famous late-night jam sessions. With the world’s largest free jazz festival approaching its 40th anniversary, we look at how it began and how it has flourished in the face of adversity.
Though Detroit’s history with jazz dates back to the 1920s, the first jazz festival took place in 1980 as the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival. Organized by Robert McCabe and the Detroit Renaissance, a group working to revitalize the city’s economy which evolved into the Business Leaders for Michigan, it was so named because it was held in partnership with the Montreux Switzerland Jazz Festival. The event, which shares artists with its more established European partner, prospered throughout the 1980s, and in 1991, it merged with the Music Hall Center for Performing Arts, its home for the next 14 years.
The future of the festival was in jeopardy in 2005 when Ford removed its title sponsorship of what was by then called the Detroit International Jazz Festival, but business leader, philanthropist, and Detroit native Gretchen Valade stepped in and gave the struggling festival new and much-needed resources. The following year she founded a non-profit organization, the Detroit International Jazz Festival Foundation, to manage and produce the festival moving forward. With her support, the festival expanded to include multiple stages between Hart Plaza and Campus Martius, all while staying free for the public.
Through the generosity of patron Valade, who also owns a jazz record label and jazz club in Grosse Pointe, the Foundation also launched jazz performances throughout the year and year-round educational programs for Detroit children. In 2011, jazz musician Chris Collins was appointed as its artistic director, tasked with keeping the festival modern and exciting.
As well as attracting the world’s biggest jazz acts, such as Dave Brubeck, Ron Carter, and Herbie Hancock, innovations have included competitions for young Detroit performers and the Detroit Jazz Fest LIVE! App, which gives users access to live streams of every performance at the festival.
Through the hard work of the Foundation, the festival has continued to flourish, contributing around $50 million to the city’s economy each year as one of Detroit’s top annual events. Its renewed success has also seen more donors and corporate sponsors, with the most recent festivals sponsored by Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans. However, it’s thanks to the passion of people like Robert McCabe and Gretchen Valade that Detroit is and will remain home to the world’s largest free jazz festival.
The 39th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival will take place over Labor Day Weekend, August 31–September 3, 2018.