On a perfect late summer evening, the newly expanded Detroit International
Jazz Fest made its first tentative excursion up Woodward Avenue, kicking
off this year's four day extravaganza with a pair of concerts at Campus
Martius Park. A crowd that spilled from the park in every direction
left no doubt that festival director Frank Malfitano had made the right
As the stage rocked with old Motown hits revisited by the Funk Brothers
and plumes of water shot up from an illuminated fountain, the happy
throng was literally dancing in the street. Jazz - put on brilliant
display earlier by a group fronted by saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman
and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave - had converged with hitsville in heady,
"If this was my last night in the music business, I'd be going out
completely satisfied," declared Malfitano as jazz gave way to that energetic
Motown show on Campus Martius' intimate stage. "This is what I've been
talking about. This was an experiment, and it's a total success on the
very first night."
In every way, the jazz festival's twofold expansion - spreading beyond
its traditional setting on Hart Plaza and embracing Detroit "roots"
music ranging from Motown and gospel to blues and funk - had made a
ringing debut. Festivalgoers filled the closed-off, northbound lanes
of Woodward from Jefferson Avenue to Campus Martius, browsing through
souvenir shops or buying a supper that could be enjoyed at one of the
large white tables scattered along the grassy median.
And the Campus Martius stage proved to be a splendid showcase for a
series of classy acts. Besides a first-rate sound system, the stage
also benefits from the sound-focusing effect of the high, concave glass
entrance to the CompuWare building directly behind it. What's more,
hundreds of fans who could find neither seats nor standing room in front
of the stage were able to see the artists on a giant screen and still
savor the fine sound.
Fittingly, the band that actually christened the festival's Campus
Martius venture was from the ravaged cradle of jazz, the Regal Brass
Band of New Orleans. Actually, just three of its usual six members made
it to Detroit; the others had been variously affected by Hurricane Katrina.
But stand-in musicians brought the band to full strength for a lively
set that drew warm response.
What followed was a jazz exhibition that set the crowd whooping: "Fathead"
Newman, Belgrave and stellar supporting group in a tribute to Ray Charles.
Familiar hits like "Unchain My Heart" and "Georgia on My Mind" saw Newman's
broad, swooping, wistful statements of the tune answered by biting,
glittering rhapsodies fashioned by Belgrave from harmonic outlines.
And when the band swung into "Hit the Road, Jack," an appreciative audience
instantly took up the ultra-familiar chorus.
Jazz fan Sridhar Lakshmanan of Belleville, a veteran of the last 12
Detroit festivals, came to this first venture at Campus Martius with
his wife and 4-year-old daughter because he wanted to hear Newman and
Belgrave together. "I've been to jazz clubs festivals all over the world,"
he said, "and I'm still amazed by this one. Even after coming here for
12 years, I still can't believe it's free."
Belgrave, a festival regular, lavished praise on the Campus Martius
stage, the sound and the setting altogether. "This is beautiful," he
said. "I almost prefer this to the main stage at Hart Plaza. The sound
is great and you feel the closeness of the audience."
The audience couldn't get much closer, but it did seem to grow larger
when the Funk Brothers came on. These were the guys, first-class jazz
musicians, who played recording sessions for all those Motown hits 40
years ago. Only three of them remain with the group: guitarist Eddie
Willis, drummer Uriel Jones and bassist Bob Babbitt. But with some horns
- and a stylish vocal contingent - added, the old gang lit a fire under
a crowd ready to cook.
Songs like "Heat Wave," "Dancing in the Street" and "My Girl" had the
whole throng throbbing in one happy groove. That's the kind of night
it was. And the festival doesn't even officially begin until Saturday.
If that Friday vibe flows back to Hart Plaza, this year's event could
set a record for pure joy.
You can reach Lawrence B. Johnson at (313) 222-2394 or firstname.lastname@example.org.