June 18, 2024 7:31 am

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Michigan's Soulful Symphony: A Deep Dive into the Michigan Jazz Festival

The Michigan Jazz Festival has firmly established itself as a cornerstone of Michigan's vibrant jazz scene since its inception in 1995. This free annual event, held every third Sunday of July in Livonia, Michigan, is a day-long celebration promoting jazz, nurturing young talent, and fostering a love for jazz in the community.
The logo for the Michigan Jazz Festival

Born out of a love for jazz and a vision to foster local talent, the Michigan Jazz Festival has firmly established itself as a cornerstone of Michigan’s vibrant jazz scene since its inception in 1995. This free annual event, held every third Sunday of July at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan, is a day-long celebration that has played an instrumental role in uniting jazz enthusiasts, promoting the genre, nurturing young talent, and fostering a love for jazz in the community.

Sustaining Michigan’s Jazz Scene Through The Years

The Festival’s origins date back to 1995 when the City of Detroit decided to discontinue its support for the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival. In response to this, a dedicated group of jazz lovers, unwilling to let this cherished tradition fade, founded the Michigan Jazz Festival as a replacement. This marked the beginning of a new era for jazz in Michigan.

Tuning into Tradition and Celebrating Local Sounds

Originally held at Freedom Hill, the Michigan Jazz Festival was the brainchild of big band leaders, John Trudell and Emil Moro. They believed in celebrating local talents, often overshadowed in favor of nationally-celebrated artists. Despite sparse attendance at its debut, their dreams for a locally-focused jazz festival lived on.

The late Detroit drummer J.C. Heard once said, “Local? What does that mean? Everybody has to live somewhere.” This sentiment perfectly encapsulates the essence of the Michigan Jazz Festival – its commitment to elevating local musicians to a platform where they can shine and be recognized for their talents.

From 1996 to 1998, the Festival was held at the historic Botsford Inn, growing as an annual event under the organizational skills of jazz promoter Midge Ellis and Eileene Standley. However, when the Inn was sold to Botsford Hospital, Schoolcraft College was approached to co-sponsor the Festival and became its new home. Since 1999, the Festival has continued to enjoy increasing success and acclaim at its present site.

Organized by the non-profit group, Friends of Jazz, in partnership with Schoolcraft College, the Michigan Jazz Festival has grown steadily over the years. It operates on donations and sponsorships, keeping the event free for public attendance. This aligns with the festival’s mission to make jazz accessible to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, while educating the public about the genre’s cultural significance.

In its bid to keep the event fresh and exciting, the Festival has introduced various stages dedicated to specific types of jazz performances. Notable among these is the Future of Jazz stage, designed to highlight young and upcoming artists, and the Solo Piano Room, a haven for solo piano players.

Today, the Michigan Jazz Festival is a significant annual event that often draws an audience exceeding 10,000 people. As a celebration of jazz and a testament to the enduring power of local talent, the Michigan Jazz Festival truly embodies the rich legacy of jazz in Michigan. Its commitment to educating the public, nurturing budding talents, and ensuring jazz remains accessible and alive is a resonating testament to the power of community and the timeless allure of jazz.

The 2023 Michigan Jazz Festival

Location and Facilities

The festival is held on Haggerty Rd. between Six and Seven Mile Roads, on the campus of Schoolcraft College. The venue includes six indoor stages housed in the air-conditioned VisTaTech Center, ensuring that attendees can enjoy the performances in comfort. An additional seventh stage is located in a large tent adjacent to VisTaTech. The Michigan Jazz Festival offers free admission to all attendees. Parking isn’t a concern either, with Schoolcraft College providing ample free parking on site. 

The festival aims to be fully accessible for people with disabilities. Anyone seeking more information about attendance for people with disabilities can contact the festival organizers directly at 734-462-4403.

Food and Drink

Schoolcraft’s Culinary Program caters to the festival, providing a wide variety of lunch and dinner options. Attendees over the legal drinking age can enjoy beer and wine, which must be consumed within the VisTaTech Center. In addition, Schoolcraft’s award-winning craft beers can be savored at the American Harvest Brewpub.

Opportunities for Promotion

The Michigan Jazz Festival offers promotional opportunities for organizations. Jazz-related non-profit entities can make use of 4’x8’ tables provided by the festival. For-profit organizations can also avail tables, provided they purchase an ad in the Festival program booklet. Festival performers have the chance to sell their CDs at the “Jazz Walk”.

Grooving with the Giants: About the Performers for 2023

The 28th Annual Michigan Jazz Festival is slated to impress audiences with a rich and diverse range of performers in 2023. From the upbeat rhythms of the Big Tent to the intimate tunes of Henry’s Café, the festival is ready to serenade jazz lovers with a medley of classic and contemporary jazz sounds.

The Big Tent – Leven Open Air Stage

Starting at noon, attendees will be treated to performances by Bill Meyer’s SONEO, Sky Covington Featuring Club Crescendo, Aguanko, Kimmie Horne & Friends, Dave Bennett Quartet, and Zen Zadravec. The lineup showcases the talent of notable jazz artists such as Alberto Nacif, Dominic Bierenga, and Zen Zadravec, with a blend of jazz styles ranging from classic piano and brass to Latin-infused beats.

Kehrl Auditorium – Bill Bolle Presentation Stage

The Kehrl Auditorium stage starts early with a vocal makeover clinic by Jiana Hunter at 10:30 am, followed by Terry Lower Trio with Edye Evans Hyde, Charles Greene Trio, Jonathan Blanchette’s Time-Jump, Ramona Collins, Signal Quartet, and Dave Sharp Worlds Quartet. Artists like Charles Greene, Jonathan Blanchette, and Ramona Collins showcase the depth and diversity of jazz, with instrumental, vocal, and contemporary performances on display.

Lower Waterman – Cotton Club Rathskeller Stage

The Cotton Club Rathskeller Stage kicks off with a ‘Playing with the Pros’ session. This is followed by performances by Detroit Office of Civil Defense, Ingrid Racine Quintet, Aston Neighborhood Pleasure Club, Andrew Rathbun Quartet, and Kathy Kosins. Jazz enthusiasts can enjoy the soulful tones of Ingrid Racine and Kathy Kosins, amongst a variety of other talents.

Rennolds Room – Vosgerchian Solo Piano Room

For fans of solo piano, the Vosgerchian Solo Piano Room will host a string of piano virtuosos such as Duncan McMillan, William Marshall Bennett, Matthew Fries, Rick Roe, Brendon Davis, and Michael Jellick. Their performances will range from melodic ballads to jazzy rhythms, capturing the pure essence of jazz through the ivories.

Diponio Room – Salden Big Band Stage

The Salden Big Band Stage will feature performances by large ensembles including Dr. Prof. Leonard King Orchestra, MJF All-Star H.S. Jazz Band, Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra, CSO, and Jeff Trudell Big Band. The ensembles will create a symphony of sounds that blend traditional jazz with contemporary beats.

Henry’s Café – Sally Bolle Cabaret Stage

Last but not least, the Sally Bolle Cabaret Stage at Henry’s Café will host a series of vocal performances. Artists Barbara Ware, Sandra Bomar, Marvin Jones, Emma Aboukasm, Sunny Wilkinson, and Ellie Martin will offer soothing tunes and powerful vocals to round out the day’s performances.

The Future of Jazz Stage

The Future of Jazz stage is a testament to the Michigan Jazz Festival’s commitment to jazz education and the promotion of young and emerging Michigan artists. Recognizing that on-stage experience is crucial for young jazz musicians, the Future of Jazz stage invites various groups of young musicians to apply to perform 45-minute sets.

The categories of young musicians invited include:

  • High school jazz bands or large ensembles
  • High school or high school age combos
  • University jazz bands or large ensembles
  • University combos

These performances aim to give young musicians a taste of professional performance, often putting them in front of hundreds of jazz fans.

The Benefits of Performing on the Future of Jazz Stage

The Future of Jazz stage offers a multitude of benefits for young musicians and their academic institutions. Besides gaining invaluable performance experience, the young artists have an opportunity to watch and learn from some of Michigan’s finest professional jazz bands – all at no cost.

Furthermore, students can interact with other jazz students, fostering an environment of camaraderie and mutual learning. The festival also offers a safe, contained environment with food facilities nearby, making it a perfect day-out for these young jazz enthusiasts.

Schools and institutions sending their students to perform can boost their program’s visibility while students can proudly invite family and friends to witness their performance. In keeping with the festival’s tradition, there are no attendance fees, making the event accessible to everyone.

Playing With the Pros

Beyond offering a platform for performances, the Future of Jazz stage provides selected students the opportunity to play for professional musicians in the unique “Playing With the Pros” show. This hour-long clinic allows experienced musicians to mentor young talent in front of a live audience. The clinic ends with a collective performance, bringing together the “pros” and apprentices, making it a rich learning experience for the young musicians.

For those interested in this initiative, applications for the 2024 Future of Jazz stage are being welcomed. For further information, prospective applicants can reach out to Scott Gwinnell at wscottgwinnell@gmail.com.

The Michigan Jazz Festival’s Future of Jazz stage is shaping up to be a pivotal platform in fostering the future generation of jazz musicians. This innovative approach to promoting young talent is not only a testament to the festival’s commitment to jazz education but is also paving the way for the future of jazz music in Michigan and beyond.

A Testament to the Power of Community and Jazz

The Michigan Jazz Festival, a symbol of local resilience and a testament to the enduring appeal of jazz, has a unique mission at its core. As we conclude our exploration of this influential event, it’s worth revisiting the mission that drives the festival’s operations, embodying the festival’s spirit, and defining its impacts on the community.

At the heart of the Michigan Jazz Festival’s mission is the promotion and encouragement of public interest, appreciation, and support for jazz as a musical art form and a cultural resource. Achieving this mission involves hosting an annual day-long Jazz Festival in Southeastern Michigan, a venture that has significantly contributed to Michigan’s cultural landscape over the years. Various jazz artists and groups are invited to perform at the event, further enhancing its rich musical tapestry.

A testament to the festival’s commitment to inclusivity is its policy of free public attendance. This approach ensures that the love for jazz transcends socioeconomic barriers, cultivating a diverse audience that reflects a broad spectrum of ages and backgrounds. The Festival anticipates approximately five thousand attendees each year, embodying the wide-reaching impact and appeal of jazz.

Fundraising forms an integral part of the Festival’s operations, necessary to compensate performing artists and ensure a high level of quality and diversity of the music. This fundraising includes seeking sponsorships and selling commemorative items, ensuring the sustainability of the festival while providing memorable souvenirs for attendees. The steadfast commitment to keep the Festival free for attendees while still ensuring high-quality performances underscores the dedication and passion driving this event.

Beyond the annual festival, Michigan Jazz Festival, Inc., also sponsors Jazz Brunches and occasional concerts, featuring live jazz performances. Although these events have a fixed charge, they serve as additional platforms for the celebration of jazz and contribute to the organization’s fundraising efforts. Key events include the annual April Fundraiser and the Father’s Day Brunch at Schoolcraft College.

In conclusion, the mission of the Michigan Jazz Festival is not just about organizing an annual event, but it extends to fostering an environment where jazz is appreciated, supported, and celebrated. The Festival leverages this powerful medium to unite communities, champion local talent, and maintain the relevance of jazz in our evolving cultural discourse. Whether through the annual Jazz Festival, Jazz Brunches, or special fundraising events, the Festival’s commitment to its mission is unwavering and is evident in its ongoing contributions to Michigan’s vibrant jazz scene.


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