Posted on 1/28/2009at 3:07 AM
And for the single most memorable gig of 2008…..


Ironically, Terri Pontremoli, the executive director of the festival, is someone who I’ve crossed paths with for about 17 years, but I’ve never really known her too well. Terri, for many years, was the executive director of the Tri-C Jazz Festival in Cleveland. Thanks to Terri, the first time I was ever named an artist-in-residence for a festival was at the Tri-C festival in 2001, but even then, I still never really got to talk to her much. Since then, Terri moved on to Detroit and tunred the whole festival around. It’s become one of the biggest, most respected festivals in the country. So, when I got an e-mail from her at the end of 2007 asking if I would be interested in being the artist-in-residence for the Detroit International Jazz Festival, I was very excited. This would mean that I would hold that position at both the Detroit and Monterey Jazz Festivals. To be perfectly frank (and funny), I REALLY got excited when I was told the fee. But, there was one part that they didn’t tell me…..

I would work, crawl and scratch for every single, solitary penny!!!! ☺

I mean, I earned all that cake, man.

Terri and I met in New York just after the new year. We talked about what projects we could do. The theme of the festival was, “A Love Supreme: The Detroit/Philly connection”. Of course, an all-star band of Philly and Detroit cats would be a no-brainer. What else? Gotta have the CMB, right? Could I emcee some other shows for the festival? Sure, no problem. Could I come to Wayne State and do a workshop? Absolutely. What else? Something real big. Hmmm……

Terri then proceeded to give me the biggest musical responsibility anyone’s ever given me. “How about being at the helm of a Marvin Gaye Tribute?” Me? In MOTOWN??? Think about that – the “Prince of Motown’s” music would be left to my creative license for the big opening night concert? Ugh….

My thoughts took me back to Lalo Schifrin. I remember one concert we played in Vienna with the orchestra there. One of the pieces we played was “Birdland”. Lalo decided to give us, the Americans, a big lecture. He says, (I’m paraphrasing)”Look, guys, we’re in Zawinul’s homeland. Play this right, ok? The Austrians don’t appreciate it when you mess with the music of their natives. Treat Zawinul the same way you would treat Mozart, Schubert or Mahler.” I could dig what he was saying. Immediately, I started to imagine what would happen if I took too many creative liberties with Marvin’s music in Motown. Believe me, I knew that if I did that, I’d never be welcomed in Detroit ever again. So, trepidatiously, yet honored, I said yes. But I would plan this VEEERRRYY carefully in my mind.

We figured we’d let the singers do all the work, but we needed some good singers, for starters. I wanted to get some real serious R&B vocalists who really knew and understood Marvin’s music. I didn’t want a traditional jazz singer who’s idea of “R&B” is to put Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana” beat to something. Out of the 20 or so singers we asked, only 3 were available (and willing) – Jose James, Rahsaan Patterson and Lalah Hathaway. Terri hipped me to Jose. I wasn’t familiar with him, but after further research, I found out he went to the New School in New York and sang and hung out with all the musicians I knew at the New School like Robert Glasper and E.J. Strickland, for example – so I knew he must have been good! I then heard his CD, “The Dreamer”. Oh, yeah, he was going to be perfect for the Marvin show. I don’t need to elucidate on Rahsaan and Lalah. We all know how great they are. But back to the beginning of the gig…

My first AIR (Artist in Residence) duty came in April when I took a trip up to Detroit for the huge press conference at the Guardian Building. It was my “official” introduction to Detroit. There I was among the biggest and baddest movers and shakers of Detroit. I gotta tell you, they really did make me feel like a hometowner. Former Mayor, Kwame Kirkpatrick was not there, however. He, uh, had some problems of his own brewing. But I had to speak on the mic in front of all the corporate sponsors, city council and everything. Very heavy day. Because Terri knows how much of a sports fanatic I am, she was able to see to it that I met the legendary Detroit Lion Hall-Of-Famer, Lem Barney.

Also at the press conference, I got to meet all of the gang from the hottest jazz label on the scene now, the Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records. More on this later…

Later that night, I made my first trip to the legendary Baker’s Keyboard Lounge – one of the oldest, most storied clubs in history. Why so long before I made my first trip to Baker’s? For starters, I’ve never played Detroit too much in my career. I’ve played a WHOLE lot in Ann Arbor, but never Detroit. Go figure. Also, the three (!!) previous times I played in Detroit, I was only there for one night. Anyhow, let me tell you, when I walked in with the two Terri’s (Pontremoli and Koggenhop – my other new best friend), I fell in love. Baker’s was instantly my favorite club in the world. First of all, it’s not “downtown”. Personally, I don’t like “downtown” clubs – there’s NO soul in them whatsoever. They’re too sterile and polished. Not a good atmosphere for people to really feel the music. They can’t get down, you know? “Baker’s” is still in the community – where it’s most needed. As soon as we sat down, I asked both Terri’s instantly, “Can I have a gig here?? Please?? I’ve GOT to play here.” They said, “We’ll work it out. Don’t worry.” They asked, “Who would you play with?” I said, quite truthfully, “I don’t care - my band, a local band, solo, a wedding band, whoever!”

Onstage was organist Gerard Gibbs, drummer Jabari, trumpeter Dwight Adams, and a man who just absolutely BLEW MY MIND!! - an absolute giant of a guitarist. If the name Perry Hughes doesn’t ring a bell, brother, you better get out right NOW and do some reasearch. When I was listening to him, my first thought was, “Why is this man not a superstar???” I went to every jazz musician’s safe answer, “Man, if he was in New York…..” But, you know, talent like his is huge anywhere! He’s so bad, it shouldn’t matter where he lives. Plus, it’s not like Detroit is some kind of hick country town. Shoot, if he lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he should be a star! This man was playing so much guitar, it wasn’t funny! I was so messed up, I called Russell Malone the next day and told him I’d heard Perry. His response was a laugh and a “Yeah, man, Perry Hughes is a baaaaaddd..…..” (you know the rest!)

So I told Terri, whoever I play with here at Baker’s, I gotta play with Perry.

All you guitarists, FIND OUT ABOUT PERRY HUGHES!!

The following day, I did a workshop at Renaissance High School. What an amazing day. I met not only a bunch of wonderfully attentive and hungry students, but a lot of people from the community came out. Towards the end of the day after all the talk about building basslines and scales and modes and a musician’s role in a band and all that important theoretical stuff, when things got informal, we started jammin’ on, what else? James Brown!

If my time throughout the year in Detroit was going to be like this, bring it on, Jack!

My next trip to Detroit wasn’t until July when I finally did the gig at Baker’s along with a workshop the following day at Wayne State University. I now got to know Matt Lee, a publicist for both Mack Avenue Records and the Jazz Festival. He setup an interview for me on Mitch Albom’s radio show. Of course, I know Mitch Albom as a sports writer – I watch him on ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” along with my other pal, William Rhoden. I had NO idea he was a huge jazz fan. I had a great time on his show. One thing I didn’t know about him……he’s originally from Philly!

There was one hilarious thing that happened at Mitch’s radio show. When we got to the building where his show is broadcast, the building’s lobby was PACKED, CRAWLING and SWARMING with girls between 18 and 30. Listen, I’m sorry, I HAD to look!! Hey, anybody can LOOK! Turns out, these girls were auditioning for the “America’s Next Top Model” TV show. I gotta tell you, there were quite a few hoochie mamas in there for good measure.

As for the gig at Baker’s, it was great. I played with the exact same band I saw back in April. I basically just sat in and joined them in their regular show. I had a lot of fun. I’d like to go back and play with Perry again. Maybe even a duo gig.

The workshop at Wayne State was beautiful, I got to hear some really awesome young musicians. Although, since I had a television performance that morning on FOX-2 news at 8:30AM (for which I had to be at the studio at 6:30AM…), I wasn’t very alert by the end of the business day!

The following day (maybe it was the same day. I can’t remember anymore…), I was taken for a tour and an interview at the Motown Museum. It was heavy. To be in that “church” was overwhelming. Being in the same house/studio where all the great Motown hits were recorded was very, very deep. You could feel the ghosts – Marvin, the Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops, everyone. On top of it all, there was a feature story written up in the Detroit News by Detroit’s music “expert” and “historian”, Susan Whitall, another former Philadelphian. (Hello?? Philly?? Why does everyone leave??)

Somewhere in the middle of all of this activity, Mack Avenue Records started to show major, MAJOR interest in my career. Ron Blake told me about Mack Avenue a long time ago when I produced his first Mack Avenue CD, “Lest We Forget”. At the time, I was working out a deal with Ropeadope, so I wasn’t really interested. Since that time and “Live at Tonic”, Mack Avenue got bigger and badder. So, my manager, Andre Guess, said, “Say, uh, bruh, we need to check this out….” Having had three major label contracts already, the last thing I was thinking about was getting in the middle of that “major label” hustle again. Just don’t need it – my career’s going just fine, thank you. Andre stayed on it, though.

My next trip to Detroit wouldn’t be until the actual festival.

When I arrived for the festival at the end of August, here’s what was on my agenda : 1. TONS of press. I was so interviewed out, I almost started talking about myself in the third person (ala James Brown!), 2. The Marvin Gaye Tribute concert, 3. The Detroit/Philly Summit, 4. CMB, 5. The Count Basie Orchestra/Gerald Wilson Orchestra showdown (of which I played one tune), 6. A guest with the Michigan State Big Band, 7. A guest with the Brubeck Institute, 8. Panel discussion with Lem Barney and Abdul “Duke” Fakir on Marvin Gaye, 9. Panel discussion with Jimmy Heath on Philly, 10. Emcee Benny Golson’s concert, 11. Emcee the Heath Brothers concert. 12. Go see Barack Obama – who was making a campaign stop in Detroit!!

Is that enough for you?? You see what I mean about earning all that cake? Keep in mind, the festival wasn’t but four days!!

Out of all of that, I must single out two performances (because this is getting long…). First, the “Detroit/Philly Summit”. It was my pleasure to put together all-stars from both cities. Here’s who I got: Randy Brecker on trumpet, Perry Hughes on guitar, Geri Allen on piano, Karriem Riggins on drums, and my special, special guest was Philly’s own local superstar, the great tenor saxophonist, Bootsie Barnes. Bootsie has been a great teacher and mentor to SO many cats in Philly. Bootsie alerted me to the fact that he hadn’t been to Detroit since 1977!! I was so happy to get him back again. We had a great, great time. We played music composed by Detroiters and Philadelphians – Milt Jackson (Bag’s Groove), Joe Henderson (Recorda-Me), Kenny Burrell (Bass Face), Bobby Timmons (Moanin’), etc. I can’t remember the whole set, but it was really special. It was also extra special to play with Geri again. I hadn’t played with her in almost 10 years. She’s such an incredible musician.

Next, I must close out this final blog with the single most memorable (and best) gig of 2008….


There are absolutely no words that can decribe the anticipation I felt leading up to this gig. The press had been all over this since April. It got an enormous amount of press as this was the feature concert for opening night. The streets were PACKED, man!! The enormity of the night was magnified when I saw none other than the great Ali Woodson of the Temptations hanging out backstage. What a nice man. A very hip brother. My concept was to have a big band with three background singers and these great lead singers – Jose, Rahsaan and Lalah. I asked the principals to pick three of their favorite Marvin songs. Jose picked “Pride and Joy”, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”. Rahsaan picked “Trouble Man” (Actually, I picked that for him), “Hitch Hike” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. Lalah picked “I Want You”, “Got To Give It Up” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”. You can guess what the grand finale was, right? Go ahead, take a wild guess….”What’s Going Dow...I mean, “What’s Going On”! ☺

This may be the only time I’ll ever say this for the rest of my career, but I was damn proud of my arrangements. I purposely didn’t stray too much from the original recorded versions, but I put JUST enough in there so I knew at least it was definitely my arrangement, you dig? Thanks to the awesome saxophonist, Diego Rivera, I had the baddest cats in all of Detroit in the big band (built around the CMB, of course). For an overture, I used samples of the intro from Marvin’s 1974 “Live” CD, an interlude from the 1977 “Live at the London Palladium” CD, and to salute my new big brother and guest host for the evening, Lem Barney, I threw in the theme song from the 1974 blaxploitation film that he appeared in, “The Black Six”. The overture was big fun.

Jose to me sounds like an old man when he sings. I mean that in the utmost complimentary way. He sounds like an old, crafty veteran. Melissa said, “I thought I was listening to Ernie Andrews…”. Rahsaan took care of business, but I think the MVP was Lalah. I say that because on the day of the show, Lalah got very sick. Het throat was almost completely closed due to a flu. She was coughing a whole lot, and we were all worried that she just might not make the gig. But performing sick is what separates the little girls from the grown women - and Lalah is a grown woman! She pulled through like a champ. I was very proud of her, and not to mention, she’s just so cool. It was my first time working with her. The first (and only) time I ever hung with Lalah was back in Park City, UT in 1999 where we stayed up all night trying to “outjoke” each other. I didn’t realize she was such a comedy buff.

The concert went down without a hitch. It went just as smoothly as I’d hoped. The only thing that I wished could have happened was, dig this, during the grand finale of “What’s Going On”, I could see Ali Woodson making his way backstage. I tried to give him the signal to come out and get some, but he wouldn’t come. After the show, he said, “Aw, brother, I wasn’t going to come out without an intro!” I’ll make sure I hook him up the next time!

There was a distinct feeling of euphoria after the concert. I felt particulary special because if someone ever asked me to arrange music of a particular artist, I would have NEVER guessed it would be Marvin Gaye!! I would feel like no one would trust a jazz musician to do that. But Terri apparently had faith in me. I cannot thank you enough, Terri. Not to mention, you asked me to do that in DETROIT, no less! You put BOTH our reputations on the line on that one!! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Forever, your pal and partner.

Oh, I forgot the big, BIG news…..I signed with Mack Avenue Records the following day!

Thank you Mack Avenue, Lem Barney (I love you, Lem. And ain’t a THING you can do about it!!) , Mark Stryker, Mitch Albom, Renaissance High School, Wayne State University, Ginne Meyers, Terri Koggenhop, Lorrie Sinelli, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the Motown Museum and the city of Detroit for rolling out the red carpet for me and making me feel at home.

I’ll NEVER forget my time at the 2008 Detroit International Jazz Festival. Everything about it was magical.

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