We Talked to People at the Largest Free Jazz Festival on the Planet

The 38th annual Detroit Jazz Festival took over the city for four days last weekend.

by Natalie Weiner; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
|
Sep 6 2017, 8:02pm

"I tell people: if you come this weekend, you'll fall in love with Detroit," says Candice Fortman, a lifelong Detroiter who was one of several hundred thousand people in attendance at last weekend's 38th annual Detroit Jazz Festival (September 1-4). "The city is no more alive than it is this weekend, because the roots of Detroit are in music, soul, and rhythm—you'll get why we stay, and why we love it so much."

With a lineup that featured legends like Wayne Shorter (the festival's artist-in-residence) and Herbie Hancock alongside contemporary crossover sensations like Kamasi Washington, Karriem Riggins, and Esperanza Spalding, the festival was an easy sell to any jazz fan. But what makes Detroit's annual jazz fete different from any other in the world is that it's totally free—you can see any artist, not just a select few, for exactly $0. The city's entire downtown is shut down for four days to accommodate four stages, making it the largest free jazz festival on the planet.

"I always thought it was amazing to take a city this big and say, 'We're gonna shut down downtown and just make it about jazz music,'" says Kamasi Washington. "This vibe, it's amazing. You don't see it in many big cities. It's one of the coolest festivals in the world."

Because the festival is free, it attracts a considerably more diverse audience than most—people of all ages come down to the festival, whether just to pick up an elephant ear and some fried Oreos or because of a lifelong passion for the music. What they all have in common is an interest, even if just a passing one, in jazz—so we figured we'd ask some of the many, many attendees: what is jazz, anyway?

Molly, 29, Ypsilanti, Mich., and Chris, 66, South Dakota

Molly: For me, jazz means creativity and freedom. Just the ability to sort of play what you feel, and not be constrained by what's on the page.

Chris: I once heard a jazz person describe jazz as "auditory imagination," and I thought that was a great description.

Ian, 25, Detroit

Jazz, to me, is a form of expression. It's art that doesn't necessarily have to be accepted, but as long as artists feel like they've put themselves into their art, that's what's important.

Adam, 25, Detroit, and Rashid, 26, New York

Rashid: I like it because it's such a cool way of expressing yourself through music, but it has so many different variations and forms. It's music without the restrictions of category.

Adam: Adding to that, I love how jazz gives you such an ability to express your emotions—it can be different every time you perform. It's just so much less restrictive than other types of music.

George, 87, Brooklyn

"Jazz is the only thing America gave to the world. It's a very creative form, developed by slaves. This is my third time at the festival. I've travelled all over the world, and every place I've been I've heard jazz—the only place I thought maybe I wouldn't was Ethiopia, and I heard it there too.

The new music is different—Kamasi Washington is somewhat tied to the old school, though one thing I don't like is when he uses two drummers. But he has the concept of the rhythm."

Kamasi Washington, 36, Los Angeles

"Jazz is self-expression and collective expression coming together in one."

Philip, 53, Detroit

"I've been a jazz fan from the beginning, and I've been coming to the festival for 10, 15 years. The bands create peace and love. Jazz is where I can come and I can relax. It's just peaceful."

Ana, 22, Detroit, and Tiko, 34, Detroit

Tiko: Life, and movement.

Ana: Motion.

Hannah, 25, Ann Arbor

"Every way you try to define it sounds hokey, but jazz is an expression that encompasses what both the composer and the performer are thinking and feeling in a way that's more than the sum of its parts. It's welcoming. It creates an atmosphere that makes it easy to feel new things, and also to access other people's lived experience in ways that can be impossible in other contexts."

Michael Steele, 60, Detroit (second from left) and family

"We're here to support my son, David Steele—he's playing alto sax here. Jazz is comfortable—nice music, that down-to-earth music. You can just get in the car, and just go. On road trips, all we played was jazz. That's how David got into it."

Candice, 36, Detroit

"I'm a huge jazz fan—at my grandparents' house, the first thing that happened in the morning was that the radio was turned on to the jazz station, and you were not allowed to change it. At some point I think it literally got stuck there.

Jazz is structure. Jazz teaches you how to structure movement, how to structure a thought, how to structure music. That's why I love watching musicians jam together—they don't know what the other people are doing, but they're still trying to create structure out of chaos. When I think about jazz, I think about how you put structure around things that seem chaotic."

Melvin, 41, Detroit

"How do I define jazz? Heavy. When I listen to jazz, it brings a lot of thoughts to my mind. Just trying to figure out how this world can be better, real stuff like that. That's what it brings out of me. I get emotional thinking about it. See what's happening here? That's what I like to see: people of all different races sitting down and coming together."

Natalie Weiner is a writer in New York. She's on Twitter.