Memories of the Detroit Jazz Festival

The first time I went to the Detroit Jazz Festival it was called Detroit Montreaux, and that was more than 30 years ago when I was a (younger) reporter working my first newspaper job at the Ann Arbor News. My friend Calvin, and his wife Beverly, ventured down to Detroit – me for my very first time coming to the city – to check out an event that Calvin told me I just had to see.

I don’t remember too many of the musicians who were featured – although I do remember Wynton Marsalis and John Faddis (were they there the same year? I don’t remember). What I remember most from that event – we came down each day and stayed from beginning to end – was the crowd and the overall feeling. I remember thinking that this was something beautiful, unlike anything I had ever experienced before in any of the other cities I had lived or visited. To be able to see this many phenomenal talents, all for free, over the course of several days was…

I mean, well, damn.

So Calvin, Beverly and I came down at least one more time, as I recall, before I headed down to Fort Lauderdale and Calvin and Beverly headed east. One of those times I’m pretty sure I remember we dropped in at Bert’s when it was still on East Jefferson downtown. Robert Penn was holding court, playing a solo guitar set that had me convinced there was an entire band hidden in there somewhere. Meanwhile a young cat – or at least he appeared to be young – was sitting over towards the side with a friend, observing everything. He had just dropped in from outside, and Penn seemed to be keeping an eye on him, not sure of the intent. Later the young guy asked if he could play a few numbers, and Penn let him sit in. He introduced himself as James Glass and proceeded to blow what little hair I had all the way back. It wasn’t until some years later when I moved to Detroit and had resumed my life as a professional musician (while also working full-time on the Free Press editorial board during the day) that I learned who that James Glass guy was. I would run into him occasionally at other gigs, and I was always amazed.

Fast forward to Detroit Jazz Festival 2010, and I was now actually one of those musicians playing the DJF for my very first time. What made it even more special was that I was playing the festival with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Detroit native Salim Washington, with his band the Harlem Arts Ensemble. His son, Malik Washington, was on drums. His wife (at the time) Melanie Dyer was on violin. We played the Pyramid Stage, and to me it was almost like a dream, as I recalled our high school days when we practiced together in the band room, imagining the day when we would play together on the Big Stage. And now here we were.

This festival will always be more than special to me.

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