Season 3, Episode 10 - WSU jazz department head Chris Collins on the global impact of Detroit jazz, the Detroit International Jazz Festival, teaching music through a pandemic, more
Internationally renowned saxophonist Christopher Collins, head of the WSU jazz studies program and director of the Detroit International Jazz Festival, shares his insight on the global impact of local jazz, teaching music throughout the pandemic, and the university's role as a crucible for new talent.
Chris Collins is a professional jazz woodwind player who has toured throughout Japan, South Africa, Europe and North America as the leader of his own ensembles and as a featured soloist. Cited as holding a singular place in the jazz scene of Detroit, he is also a professor and director of jazz studies at Wayne State University, and the president and artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival — the largest free jazz festival in the world.
Collins has performed at jazz festivals and has presented numerous workshops and residencies across the globe and has won numerous awards, notably becoming the first American to earn the Brusoni Award in Italy in 2011. His most recent CD release, Detours Detroit for Clarinet and Harp Quartet, blends classical and jazz elements. While Electro-Monk, Acoustic-Funk fuses techno and acoustic jazz, his Jazz from the Shamrock Shore (Harriett Jazz/ASCAP) features extended compositions which artistically combine the instrumentation, musical vocabulary and repertoire of Irish folk tradition with American jazz.
In addition to his work on commercial recordings and film soundtracks, including the soundtrack for the award-winning Paramount Pictures release The Big Night, and television series Leverage and The Librarian, Collins' jazz solo work can be heard on The Phil Collins Big Band's CD A Hot Night In Paris (Atlantic) and numerous releases. Collins has performed with artists including Danilo Pérez, Pistol Allen, Lou Rawls, Mel Tormé, Marcus Belgrave, the Detroit Jazz All-Stars, Doc Severinsen, Matt Michaels, The Turin Philharmonic 900 and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Introduction: Welcome to Today@Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community. With news, announcements, information and current events discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission, Today@Wayne serves as the perfect forum for our campus to begin a conversation, or keep Wayne going. Thanks for joining us.
Darrell Dawsey: Welcome to the Today@Wayne podcast. I'm your host, Darrell Dawsey. It is, of course, no secret that Detroit stands as one of the most prolific music hubs in the entire country, if not the world. And while the city's R&B and rock reputations are well established, there [are] still some who don't know that Detroit is also one of the most important centers for another critically important genre of American music: jazz. The list of Detroit jazz greats is an abbreviated who's who of jazz masters, from iconic musicians such as Marcus Belgrave and Elvin Jones to unparalleled vocalists like Ortheia Barnes and Betty Carter. And the city remains one of the world's premier jazz hubs.
And while this is most evident of events such as the Detroit International Jazz Festival, Detroit's importance is also found in the small clubs around town, the impromptu local studio jam sessions right here at Wayne State, where the jazz department continues as a critical crucible for the development of the music.
Here to talk a little bit about Detroit jazz and its outsize influence all around the world is Christopher Collins, the Valade Endowed Chair in jazz, professor and director of jazz studies at Wayne State University, not to mention the music director of the Detroit International Jazz Festival and president of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation. He's here with us today. Welcome, Chris.
Chris Collins: Thank you, Darrell. Thanks for having me.
Dawsey: Absolutely. Always good to talk to you. Always good to talk to you. So, just wanted to catch up a little bit, just kind of get a sense of what's going on around the world, what's going on here in the city, particularly in light of what's happening with the pandemic — so can you give us a sense of, first of all, how and why Detroit has managed to remain a critical hub of jazz music over so many decades?
Collins: Yeah, well, Detroit is one of the important jazz cities. There was a diaspora of jazz music and a point where it became actually popular music in America, and it moved out of New Orleans in that area where it really first germinated and began to spread out throughout the country. And Detroit was one of the very important cities, not only for the landing of many artists from that era, but also the development. Wayne State is hand in hand with that.
When we start to talk about the artists that came out of Wayne State and went on to actually shape the jazz vocabulary, it is a long list, as you suggested, from Detroit, and specifically from Wayne State: Yusef Lateef and Kenny Burrell, and Joe Henderson, even Curtis Fuller was here [as] well. Yeah, it is on and on, and of course, Wayne State went on to be one of the earliest universities in the entire region to have a jazz studies degree, so it embraced that part of its cultural, geographic location and its own history. So, it really has aligned itself well with that Detroit legacy, and that Detroit legacy is one that, again, it's not just something where some artists came out of Detroit, but these many of these artists throughout the '50s and '60s, they moved from Detroit into New York City and really helped to shape what we now consider the language of modern jazz music.
So, when we talk about things like the Detroit Jazz Festival, it's not just a jazz festival in some city, like many places; it's a jazz festival in Detroit. One of the great jazz cities recognized around the world; in fact, one of the great things about, I always tell students at Wayne [State] and young players from Detroit, "Wherever you are in the world, when you say you're from Detroit, it's going to get you on the bandstand" because there's a lot of respect for the cats that come from the city. There's this unique sound of the city that brings together, as you mentioned, all of these great traditions of our city; there's, like, a very strong church component and gospel component to Detroit that along with R&B and even some of the pop genres mixed with the jazz elements, which is a great respect for bebop and the language — Bird and Dizzy — mixed with a real respect for free jazz and the avant-garde, all that comes together to create something that's pretty unique coming out of Detroit, as far as sound.
And that is something that has been embraced by generations of musicians, and because of the family sensibility of the Detroit culture, it's passed down from mentor to disciple, mentor to disciple. It's very much a part of the Detroit jazz scene to pass on that language and that legacy and keep it alive. And there's been no better time than right now, I'll tell you, because of the investment of Ms. Gretchen Valade, and the Detroit Jazz Festival and the resurgence of many jazz clubs, you will find that there are a lot of young musicians who are choosing to stay in the city of Detroit — develop their careers here — because it is a great place for jazz, and a great place to develop your art.
Dawsey: OK, all right. Well, now, that's one of the things — that sort of leads us into one other thing I wanted to talk to you about. And that's — we're at a very unique time in our history, we're dealing with a once-in-a-generation pandemic, and the impact obviously has seeped into all corners of American life and life for folks all around the world — and certainly, it's had cultural impacts: It's impacted the way that we go out, the way that we socialize. What has that meant for the jazz scene here, the cultivation of jazz talent and the dissemination of jazz around the world? How's the pandemic impacted that?
Collins: It's so important because jazz music, more so than many other art forms, is very much a social music: It is a communicative music on the bandstand, and a communicative music between the artist on the bandstand and the room, the venue, the audience — every element of where you play has a profound effect on the music itself. And any jazz fan knows one of the great joys of this music is when you are there to experience a performance, you know that it will never be the same again. It has never been that way before, and it comes, you enjoy it in the real-time moment and it goes — and if you're not there to hear it, that's it, baby. So that social piece, that communicate piece, has really been affected by the pandemic, obviously.
I remember when this first started back in March of 2020, a number of students, I really felt for them — they had prepared all semester of new pieces. They had written their recitals they were about to perform, and many of them were quite distraught they weren't going to be able to do that. And as I said to them, "What you need to do is look at this like any challenge." Here is a challenge which presents opportunities for you to grow as a creative spirit, as a musician and as a social being of our culture: How can you find new pathways in this environment, like you would in any challenge, to continue to practice your art, to perform your art and to communicate your art? And I took that up very personally because of the Detroit Jazz Festival.
We have a festival that every year draws 325,000 people to the city of Detroit. It's a 43-year tradition. It's a very important piece of our culture, and our economic development brings millions of dollars in the city of Detroit. So we said, "Well, what can we do in this environment?" And we were fortunate in that we not rely on tickets, we're the largest no-admission jazz festival in the world. We also had several years of investment in livestreaming — real-time livestreaming — video and a high-quality audio that we brought to bear.
And in that first year, we presented over 40 hours of live jazz over Labor Day weekend in a broadcast-only setting, going to public television, radio, internet and so on, out to the world. And we were pleasantly surprised — had nearly a million unique viewers for that program. And when we got to 2021, and we were as shocked as anybody that we had to go virtual again, partially because of COVID, partially because we had lost some of our footprint to construction in the city, and we couldn't keep our safety protocols intact the way we wanted.
We went virtual again. And in this case, many said to me in the industry, "This year, you're competing against the sunshine and other events — you're probably not going to do as well." Well, I've got to tell you, we did it again: nearly 40 hours of live high-def broadcast globally. In 2021, we reached nearly 2.5 million unique viewers around the world, and that's not hyperbole. We had a whole metrics room tracking these in real time. More than two times, we've done it and it shows that the global jazz audience was a voracious audience — an invested audience — and we really were able to maintain and continue our mission and our outreach. And this has been the track of most live music. Some have been more successful than others because they had some investment beforehand.
It's very hard to ramp all this up in the moment, and we were certainly fortunate to be in that position. In fact, in '20, we were probably the only jazz festival in the states that remained active. So, here we are. And we now have ventured into weekly jazz programming, online and broadcast. We have our Jazz from the Cellar, which is a simulcast and WDET Public Radio 101.9, and we also have our after-hours jam session every Friday and we have jazz chat live.
So, we've tried to maintain connection with that digital platform and that digital dimension, and as we move toward the festival this year, we've learned some things, and not only will we have the festival live, in person for all those that travel from around the world, but we will maintain that connectivity with the global —
Dawsey: So you'll continue to stream digital.
Collins: Right, and something — not only our app, Detroit Jazz Fest LIVE!, where people can choose any stage they want in real time, but we're doing something called a companion broadcast, which will be free to the world — and it'll be available throughout the festival and entire set of programming from Sept. 2 through 5 — that will allow this to continue and to be approachable by everyone. And this is a way we've tried to learn from what we've experienced the last two years in a positive way and turn a challenge into a new audience, a new group of fans, and many who want to come to Detroit now, many who want to experience us from around the world, and many who aren't able to travel, who are just so thankful that they have an opportunity to experience live, real-time jazz in the moment, it's the closest we can get to being there.
Dawsey: All right. Well, you talked about challenges ... and that made me think a little bit; I mean, in addition to all the fantastic things you do with the jazz festival, you are the director of — the head of — the jazz department at Wayne State University. You are a highly respected and experienced music professor. And I just want to know: As we talk a little bit about how modern times — the pandemic — has impacted the festival, impacted the jazz scene, how has it impacted teaching? Wayne State, we follow the science, and the scientists directed us at times to have to go to remote learning. Music is sort of like cooking to me: Seems like you've got to be in the room to be able to really do your best. How do you, as somebody who teaches students, young musicians — how do you grapple with the challenges and the burdens of digital learning online?
Collins: Yeah, because you put your finger on it. I mean, to be a performer, to be in an ensemble and not be able to perform as an ensemble, to communicate and interact in real time is … makes the artistic creation almost impossible. And we've done some things along the way, as you know, to keep safety intact from masks and Plexiglass covers, and social distancing on stage and elsewhere, which mimics what's happening around the world. When it comes to the virtual component where we've been at the beginning of this term, many have had very creative approaches in our music department to addressing this issue, engaging students in solo works, or in studying the music that they will be performing to prepare to have take that extra time to invest from a theoretical and an individual point of view so they bring all of that knowledge, and that energy and that preparation to the rehearsals that we hope will begin very soon.
But I've also had some approaches where I've created something I like to call capsules of activity; so, for instance, in our combo program, in the Wayne State jazz program in the music department, because we could not perform and we could not rehearse at the beginning of the semester, I created a capsule where we focused on creating original compositions, and the way we did this was a series of workshops to introduce concepts and teach concepts of composition and then having students write pieces of music in various forms. And we work on those together, and we develop those together.
The end result at the very end of this month is that I'll have a professional quartet who will be actually right here in my studios called Jazz from the Cellar. And we will perform video and audio live in real time with those students — their final compositions with a professional band that will be able to give them input and interaction, they'll be able to ask questions and engage with them. And that whole capsule is a one-month capsule, the idea being, if we can then return to in-person teaching, the capsule will be completed, we'll have a beginning, a middle and an end and be a complete learning experience. And then we will delve into the real-time rehearsal.
If, for some reason, virtual has to continue longer, then I have other capsules that will be a two-week or a four-week capsule that will have a beginning and a middle [and an] end, the idea being that opportunities for learning will be ripe. They will be presented. Students will be engaged. There will be a completion at the end of each one of these modules so the students feel that sense of accomplishment and engagement — and yet still we're ready to move back in to more traditional rehearsals and performances when the time allows.
But I think this is crucial because one of the challenges of teaching, one of the challenges of creating environments for learning, I like to say, is that we don't have a definitive understanding of when we're going to be able to be in person. And when we are in person, to what degree are we going to be surrounded by Plexiglass and 12 feet apart? Are we going to be sitting next to one another, and hearing and feeling each other's vibrations as we should?
And so we as educators need to look to the challenge to create ways to continue to keep our students engaged, or provide them with opportunities to enhance who they are and continue growing as individuals, and do it in such a way that the students can feel that engagement, that sense of accomplishment, and then a preparedness to return to in-person performance and rehearsals, or move into another module that will give them a similar sense of satisfaction within whatever genre the course is teaching. Yeah — and I think this is where I like to go with it, and it's so far been pretty successful.
Dawsey: Well, good. I'm glad to hear that, and it's good to see that this is compelling some innovative approaches to some traditional things. Well, listen, Chris, I know you're busy; I don't want to take up too much more of your time. We're going to get ready to let you go, but I just want to ask you, is there anything else that you want to touch on? Anything maybe that I haven't had an opportunity to talk about? Anything you want to plug, or anything like that? I just want to give you the floor for a second to be able to do that.
Collins: Well, listen, there [are] a whole bunch of Detroit artists, including Wayne State jazz faculty and Wayne State jazz students that perform on Jazz from the Cellar. It's the third Friday of each month at 9 p.m. simulcast at WDET and on the Detroit Jazz Fest website, along with the Detroit Jazz Fest YouTube channel, and then every Friday at 9 p.m. we have the after-hours jam session with a great house band. And you never know who's going to show up — cats from all over the city.
And on top of that, of course, coming very soon, the Gretchen Valade Jazz Center on Wayne State's campus is going to be part of our new performance complex. This is going to be a game-changer because it will bring the world to our campus, the world to the city of Detroit; it'll be the new home of the jazz studies program. And it'll be a very important place for all of us to gather and experience and learn and develop from the jazz perspective, and other music genres. It's going to be very exciting, and a real development for all of us at Wayne State and in the city of Detroit.
All put together, I think we have an opportunity to do something very special for the world through the Gretchen Valade Jazz Center, thanks to her amazing gift. And as a little primer for you, on March 26, we'll be doing the Detroit Jazz Festival press preview event from the future Gretchen Valade Jazz Center. And it will include very special national artists along with the announcement of our headline lineup, some excellent guest speakers and a whole array of activities. I believe it's going to be 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, March 26 — we'll keep people apprised of that. So, come and check it out, be a part of the party, and invest in jazz. It's part of who you are; it's in your DNA if you're in the city of Detroit.
Dawsey: All right. All right. Well, that's absolutely. The truth. Chris, thank you so very much. It's always great to talk to you, and we're going to be talking to you again, hopefully a little bit closer to the jazz festival this summer, and we'll get another opportunity to have a great conversation.
Collins: Thank you, Darrell.
Dawsey: And you have a fantastic day, and we look forward to talking to you again.
Collins: You too, my friend. Take care.
Dawsey: All right, thanks.
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