Saturday, September 12, 2009

Detroit International Jazz Festival- Day One

It's been eight days since my adventure at the Detroit International Jazz Festival began, but it's taken that long for all the thoughts in my brain to settle, so that I can tell you what happened. (Actually I didn't have time to start blogging until my write-up for JazzTimes was finished, but the first thing sounded better.)

JazzTimes picked me to be the writer who would cover the festival for the magazine. Marking its 30th year, it was a pretty collasal event, with music going almost non-stop.

As I sat in the Pittsburgh airport with two hours to kill before my plane left (who'd'a thunk I'd get through security that quickly?), I realized that this would only be my fourth trip on a plane. I'm more of a train kind of guy, but that takes a long time and the cost of my flight was taken care of for me.

When I finally touched down in Detroit, I wasn't exactly sure where to go because there was supposed to be a driver ready to pick me up. But no one working in the airport knew where the Jazz Festival shuttle was. It was at that point that I got a call from one of the media guys saying that "they're looking for you at the airport." Me?! They know who I am? Oh yeah, I am a published writer and I know something about the music so that amounts to something. The guy in the call directed me to Passenger Pickup, where I could find the shuttle, and when the other person who was getting a ride showed up, we were whisked off to the hotel.

The swell festival volunteer directed me to where I was to check in with the hotel and with the festival itself, and I found out I had a VIP badge and a press badge so I could go upfront at all the shows. I also met my new friend Jordy who would be my running buddy for most of the weekend.

After hanging out in my room for a bit, looking at Caesar's Palace across the Detroit River in Windsor, trying to catch a bit of a nap (not possible after all the coffee I had that morning), I headed to the Pepsi Jazz Talk Tent where Hank Jones was appearing. Now the theme of the festival was "Keepin' Up with the Joneses," meaning Hank and his brothers Elvin and Thad. So his lineage and his age (91) made Hank a worthy honoree. With all that he's done, you'd hope that the person interviewing him would ask some good leading questions. Maybe "What was Charlie Parker really like at that Verve session" might not sound good, but I bet the answers would be. Instead, a lot of the queries were pretty general and phrased like yes-or-no questions.

Later I went to a VIP event where I met a writer who grew up about three blocks from me in Pittsburgh. That could only happen to someone from my town too. Gary Graff is about 7 years older than me (I know because he graduated from high school the same year as my brother Pete) and a good egg. He knows a lot about music but he's not high and mighty about it. No more sarcastic than I am, which I like. He took me and Jordy to the Dirty Dog, a restaurant that had a tent set up near the Chase Main Stage where Hank Jones was playing that night. We waiting forever for our server to take our orders and then waiting forever and a day for the food to come.

While all this was going on, the festival was starting and Hank Jones was getting a proclamation from the mayor of Detroit. Gretchen Valade, the grand dame or fairy godmother of the festival (and I mean that in a good way, in case you're reading this Gretchen; you're the tops) told Hank, "You're playing is so elegant and spiritual, it makes me cry. And I think everyone agrees." When Hank started playing it became clear that Gretchen was right on. His touch was so precise, with the right amount of subtlety and thunder, it was astounding. One of the tunes he played with Wes Montgomery's "Twisted Blues," which has a pretty complex melody. And Hank chewed up it. A couple people thought Hank was being held back because his regular drummer, Willie Jones III wasn't with him, replaced by Carl Allen. But I thought they all swung like hell, with bassist George Mraz in between them.

I kind of lost track of Jordy and Gary in a quest for coffee and a bathroom (not necessarily in that order). Chick Corea was up next, with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White joining him. I guess you could call them Return to Almost Forever, since all that was missing from the RTF equation was Al Di Meola. And electric instruments. Chick stuck to acoustic piano and Stanley played upright bass.

Someone in the audience yelled out "500 Miles High" and that RTF tune kicked off the set, coincidentally. The soundperson was getting a lot of feedback from one of the instruments and I was afraid Chick was going to rip their head off. He did walk over and talk to the person working sound, but he seemed cool about it. In fact he and Stanley were doing a lot of smiling while they played. Stanley seemed to pick up on the vibe of "I Mean You," doing his own kind of Monk-like solo. Of course it wasn't long before he started doing that double-time slapping thing he likes to do. Chick also got some Monk-isms going in a later tune that sounded like it could've been "Evidence" or "Straight No Chaser." They were definitely tight and swinging, but overall I couldn't get completely into them. Maybe it was the lack of sleep that was catching up with me.

As I walked through the blocked off streets by the stage, it astounded me that so many people had come out for the show. It was the equivalent of Pittsburghers coming to Point State Park for Fourth of July fireworks. For the ones who couldn't see the stage, there was a huge jumbotron held high over the stage for everyone else to see.

I went back to the hotel after they were over, and the jam session was in full effect. I didn't see anyone I knew (musician or writer or publicist), so rather than getting a drink and falling asleep in it, I decided it was time to hit the hay. After all, I had to get up early for the tour of the Motown Museum. More on that next time.

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