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The show will go on:

Mack Avenue Records saves the Jazz Fest

by Mike McHone

 


Detroit is known for the Three M's: Music, Motors and Murders. The 2005 saga of the International Detroit Jazz Fest, which berthed its 26th year, intertwines all three categories. Ford has been the main sponsor of the fest since 1995, but this past winter decided to pull out of the fest sponsorship faster than a 17 year-old boy scared of getting his prom date pregnant.

And for awhile it looked as if the whole goddamn thing would go tits up. A startling idea and a bleak vision to jazz fans to say the least, considering the fact that the Detroit Jazz Fest is one of the biggest in the land, drawing usually the top names in the business.

"We kind of felt like we were left at the altar," says Mike Vigilant, public relations specialist for Music Hall, which produces the festival.

Ford and Music Hall have had differences of opinion on how to run, promote, and expand the festival. However, what those differences were officially, no one has said.

It looked as if the epitaph was going to be written for the jazz fest. Because of Ford, the music would be murdered. This wasn't boding well, especially in a city that seemed to be decaying from the inside out. Enough scars were on the face of Detroit. Could it handle one more? General Motors wasn't going to help and it looked unlikely that Chrysler would chip in. Perhaps Kwame Kilpatrick (Detroit's own Suge Knight) would sell some of his SUVs and donate the funds to the city he loves? (Sure he would)

But not long after the Great Pullout, a small independent record company stepped up to the plate and saved the Detroit Jazz Fest from its demise.

"For the first time in a number of years we've been able to program a true jazz festival, due in large part to the fact that we have a sensational new title sponsor that just happens to be a first rate jazz record label....Detroit's own Mack Avenue Records," said Frank Malfitano, the artistic director for the jazz fest.

So, who the hell is Mack Avenue Records and who is Gretchen Valade, the label's CEO? And why did the label cough-up a quarter of a million dollars to save the festival?

Mack Avenue Records is a small, but internationally known record label. Although they have become the main sponsor to this year's festival, they have contributed a good deal of money and performers in the past. Jazz artists such as Terry Gibbs, Gerald Wilson, and George Shearing, are on Mack's roster; Gibbs recent album went to number one on the jazz radio charts while Wilson's album garnered a Grammy nomination. Not too shabby for a Harper Woods record label.

And you may not know Gretchen Valade's name, but you do know something about her family legacy. Her gandad was the inventor of Carhartt Inc. The Dearborn-based company's work clothes have become regulation in some stockyards and factories and lately, an important accoutrement to the fashion trendy.

Gretchen, a life-long fanatic of jazz music, decided in 1999 to form her own record company. Although jazz greats like Shirley Horn had recorded some of Valade's songs, Gretchen wanted to make her own music on her own terms. To date, 16 of her songs have made it onto albums from Mack Avenue.

But, more so than just putting her stuff on CD, Valade also shares a deep love and adoration for the first truly American form of music. Love for the sound designed by good ole' King Oliver and refined by his protégé Louis Armstrong is what's really keeping Mack Ave. alive and kicking. Sure, it can make some money, and by saving a beloved festival and picking-up the tab the image of the company is going to shine even more, but let's face facts. The name of the music game nowadays is hip-hop or retro-sounding rock. Jazz fans tend to be older and more selective in the albums they buy. In other words, there aren't too many 16 year-olds frothing at the mouth to hear some rare Miles or Bird recordings.

But as the writer of this article puts these words on the page, he is reminded of something another brilliant musician said one time. And that brilliant musician was, of course, Mr. Lemmy Killmeister of the great, wonderful, and stupendous metal band Motorhead.

"We don't have that many fans in America, but the ones we do have would kill for us," Lemmy said. And he's right. (And I know he's right because I am a fan, and I have killed men for not liking Motorhead or not owning the "Ace of Spades" album. But I digress.)

Our Lord and Savior Lemmy's words can be translated perfectly to jazz: there aren't many jazz fans around when you compare them to rock fans or rap fans, but the ones that are there will give you an education on the art, come out to the festivals every chance they get, and are more than happy to support it in any way possible. Think of jazz fans as the KISS Army but with talent. (No offense to Ace Frehley.)

Gretchen is one of those fans: a die hard, do-anything-for-the-music type of fan. When asked by the Associated Press why she and Mack Ave. decided to put up the $250,000 to save the jazz fest, she simply replied, "I love Detroit and I love jazz."

The future is not set. There's nothing to indicate that Mack Ave. will stay on as the main sponsor of the Detroit International Jazz Festival. But as was shown this year, hope springs eternal. Most things in this world fail, no matter their make or maker. But sometimes things have an element of surprise.

Out of the 600,000 people that attend the jazz fest annually, one, a resident of Taylor, is rather happy to hear it's still going on. Edward Keck, a doctor of philosophy and parapsychology, had the look of a terminal cancer victim awaiting the Reaper's scythe when he heard Ford was pulling out this year.

"It's over," he said over a beer at O'Reilly's, a pub in his hometown. "Yet another thing I love is going to be gone."

The news was relayed to Dr. Keck and his unhappy cancer went into remission. He will attend the jazz fest, which is a good thing. He was in his garage mixing up Molotov Cocktails for the Ford lot down the road from where he lived. Whether the slightly cracked old philosopher was actually doing this or not is unseen as we informed of the good news over the phone, but, as it has been documented in this article, stranger things have happened. Sometimes for the best of reasons and sometimes not.


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