Behind the scenes at the virtual Detroit Jazz Festival: Marvelous music, surreal vibes

Detroit Free Press ~ September 7, 2020
Brian McCollum Detroit Free Press
Published 6:01 a.m. ET Sep. 7, 2020
Click here to read more about the musicians
who performed at this year's virtual Jazz Festival

The Detroit Jazz Festival took on an ambitious project this weekend: a four-day live event streamed around the world amid a pandemic.

As the fest rolls into its fourth and final day, the verdict is comfortably in. It worked.

The one-of-a-kind undertaking, staged in a tightly controlled environment in the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center — minus an audience — has featured a Detroit dominated offering of jazz music watched and heard by fans online and on broadcast outlets.

The polished, high-end presentation, which launched Friday with a dynamite headline set by Pharoah Sanders, drew consistently positive feedback at YouTube and other social media. “I feel like I’m there!” was a common refrain.

For 41 years, Labor Day weekend in Detroit has meant a downtown teeming with eclectic jazz sounds and tens of thousands of fans. The COVID-19 upheaval sent the jazz fest shifting to a virtual edition, but unlike many other streamed concerts and festivals these past six months, it would all happen live.

The crisp, energetic production that greeted viewers on their screens was the result of a complex but tightly run operation inside the RenCen. That included an array of strictly managed safety measures, including multiple temperature checks and limited workers in any given space. Artists performing multiple sets stayed in hotel rooms for the weekend. Masked audio and video mixers operated in isolated pods of no more than five people each.

Behind the scenes, the vibe was often surreal. Inside the darkened Marriott ballroom, where two stages faced each other from opposite ends of the room with a row of cameras between them, the energy was quiet and low-key between sets.

A third stage, set up inside an area typically devoted to dining space at the 42 North restaurant, had a brighter ambiance, including the Detroit River as a handsome backdrop.

Missing was the hustle-and-bustle of your typical music fest. For a major event featuring nearly 200 staffers and crew, it didn’t exactly feel like a beehive onsite. That was by design: Distancing and safety protocols meant a minimal number of folks in any one space. Once they’d broken down and reset a stage, crews immediately left the area — then repeated the drill of temperature checks and sanitation procedures each time they returned.

Still, there was a cheery spirit around the place, coupled with a sense of purpose for the technicians and stagehands happy to work their craft after half a year on the sidelines. During downtimes this weekend, old friends and colleagues took the chance to catch up, trading tales about life during the pandemic.

Sam Fotias of Paxhau, the event company overseeing the production, said there was wide praise from crews and technicians for the intricate health and safety plan deployed by the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation. There was a consensus, he said, among those onsite: “This is a good pathway for getting back to work.”

The music — while reliably top-notch — was also a strange experience. Looking on in person, the lack of audience and applause gave the feel of watching a band rehearsal with sleek lighting and sound.

From onstage, said saxophonist Alex Harding, it felt “very, very bizarre.”

“It feels a little sterile at first because there’s no audience, so you’re not getting that energy back from a crowd,” said Harding, who performed a Saturday set with drummer Francisco Mora Catlett’s Afrohorn. “But it felt good when we got into it. We just had to focus in on the music, giving it 100%.”

Vocalist Emma Aboukasm said her Saturday evening experience felt like being in a movie. Performing with the group Something to Live For in a tribute to Billy Strayhorn, she too was jarred by the silence between numbers — the point where the band would typically regroup as the audience had its say.

But she was impressed with the professionalism of the operation. Aboukasm, who has avoided other live gigs during the pandemic, said she felt safe onsite — pleased that the festival crew even let her use her own microphone.

Aboukasm, 24, had played previous editions of the Detroit Jazz Festival as University of Michigan student. Saturday was her debut at the event as a professional, and she thought she’d have jitters.

“But I wasn’t nervous,” she said. “I was just so ready to perform again. It was like a volcano ready to erupt.”

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .