Each year, more than 1 million guests and an additional 1 million radio listeners end their summer by enjoying the free Detroit Jazz Festival, which celebrates the vibrant jazz heritage of the Motor City.
The 27th annual Detroit International Jazz Festival, which took place over Labor Day weekend, is the marriage of two distinctly American art forms: jazz and
charitable giving. The first is a synonym for American individualism; the
second, for civil society. If not for the generous $10 million endowment from
philanthropist and jazz enthusiast Gretchen Valade, this year’s festival — and
the promise of festivals for the foreseeable future — might never have occurred.
Valade’s endowment attracted Ford Motor Company back into the sponsorship fold,
as well as new sponsor Absopure Water Company.
Gretchen Valade improved Detroit’s cultural scene with her gift, just as tens of thousands of Americans have done with their own contributions to countless organizations and enterprises.
Jazz evolved in the 19th century out of a form of music closely associated to
blues or "ragtime," which itself was heavily influenced by African-American
traditions. The term "jazz" was — many believe — born in New Orleans where the
rich mix of ethnicities (African, Latin and European) seemed to facilitate
experimentation with different music and performance styles.
The history of jazz music also is inextricably linked with the city of Detroit.
The Jazz Age of the 1920s saw the burgeoning musical form take root with the
nascent Victor recordings of such city luminaries as Bix Biederbecke, who made
some of his first recordings as a member of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra at the
Detroit Athletic Club in November 1924. In the latter part of the decade,
Goldkette’s Graystone Ballroom helped launch the careers of such legends as
Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Frankie Trumbauer, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Joe Venuti
and Eddie Lang. By the 1940s, jazz musicians were as much of the city’s
landscape as automobile and advertising executives. Earl Klugh and Donald Byrd
are only a few of the Detroiters to gain international prominence.
Another reason jazz may have become America’s first original art form was the
nearly anarchistic setting of American life in the 1800s. For most of the
nation, government intrusion was minimal. As government gets bigger, people
necessarily get smaller. That is why jazz is important to American cultural
history. It is symbolic of American ideals. It not only permits, but encourages
individualism; and it does so in a way that allows a collection of improvising
musicians to produce admirable works without central direction. It is, in a
phrase, "spontaneous order."
Duke Ellington, perhaps America’s greatest jazz composer, said, "Jazz is a good
barometer of freedom.… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned
certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was
evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only
unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this
This is precisely why the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has long opposed
government interference in the arts. Reliance on government booty can betray art
and artists by limiting support to the best grant writers or to politician’s
subjectively favored artists. Government grants also come with government
restrictions. The Ann Arbor Film Festival, for example, effectively lost state
funding due to the violation of one such parameter.
In fiscal year 2007, the state of Michigan is expected to redistribute $10
million in grants through its Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs
program. That represents involuntary tax contributions from arts patrons and
others alike. To the everlasting credit of the Detroit International Jazz
Festival, it has never taken a government arts grant. We encourage them to
retain this independence.
The best mechanism for preserving such independence is through what the Mackinac
Center calls "civil society." A civil society represents from-the-heart
transactions that provide societal benefits through private action. Gretchen
Valade improved Detroit’s cultural scene with her gift, just as tens of
thousands of Americans have done with their own contributions to countless
organizations and enterprises.
According to the nonprofit Giving USA, Americans donated a staggering $260
billion to charity in 2005. And that’s just financial donations. The total value
donated in volunteer hours also ranks in the many billions of dollars.
One of Detroit’s most endearing qualities is the way it honors its musical past while staying very much in the current musical vanguard. Garage, rock, techno, rhythm-and-blues and punk all experienced birthing pangs in Motown, and are
celebrated in festivals throughout the year. Thanks to Valade, jazz will
continue to be part of Detroit’s wonderful mélange of music.
Bruce Edward Walker is science editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy,
a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Michael D.
LaFaive is fiscal policy director for the Center. Permission to
reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the
Center are properly cited.