{{ credit }}

Jazzin' at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Vision, legacy, and evolution are the heart of the experience

Fred Erb understood that Detroit played a special role in the development of jazz traditions in the US. He believed the DSO would be a leader in continuing that legacy and helping to share it with the next generation of jazz musicians and audiences. ”

John Erb, President and Chair, Erb Family Foundation

Before the days of streaming music online and having instant access to the artists you wanted to hear, John Erb remembers his father, Fred, going to “pretty extraordinary lengths” to have more jazz in his life. 

“I remember as a child, him installing an extra antenna at home so that he could catch his favorite WEMU radio broadcast programs every evening after dinner,” John shares. “My dad’s interest in jazz started early in his life. (When he attended) Cranbrook School, he was known to play his favorite records in the dorm, and later helped bring pianist Ralph Sutton to campus to perform.” 

While stationed in Maryland after joining the Army during World War II, Fred took weekend getaways to New York City. With leisure time in the big city, he was able to elevate his enjoyment of jazz music by experiencing some of the greatest performers––Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, and among his favorites, saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer Sidney Bechet. 

With growing passion and appreciation for the art form, he felt inspired to nurture and preserve a vibrant jazz scene reminiscent of his days enjoying the vocal stylings and instrumentation of legendary musicians. In Detroit, this excitement could be felt during a night out at the Paradise Theatre (currently the home of your Detroit Symphony Orchestra), where attractions featured national talent ranging from Dinah Washington and Duke Ellington to Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis Jr. 

Fred’s support of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra started in the early 2000s with a $1.5 million investment and the establishment of the Fred A. Erb Jazz Creative Director Chair in 2002. The chair was created to recognize the importance of jazz as part of the past, present, and future of the DSO and Orchestra Hall.  

“He saw the Jazz Creative Chair as not only an opportunity to bring the best jazz talent––in Detroit and around the world––to Orchestra Hall’s stage, but also to connect them to the region’s young rising stars through masterclasses and mentoring,” John says. 

The position was first held by late jazz legend and hometown mentor, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave.

Belgrave’s ambition and intent to teach the next wave of jazz musicians and fortify Detroit’s jazz legacy aligned with then-DSO arts and education administrator Daisy Newman’s passionate advocacy for music education. Their partnership resulted in the formation of the DSO’s Civic Jazz Ensemble, to which they welcomed an inaugural class of jazz students, who are currently making their mark in music, locally and worldwide. 

Jazz training and education at the DSO has since evolved into three ensembles: Orchestra, Band, and Creative Jazz. With training from DSO musicians and educational sessions with local and international jazz artists, students engage in a curriculum focused on music theory and performance; improvisation, arrangement, and section playing; solos and collaboration; and a variety of jazz stylings that range from big band and classic jazz standards to modern and experiential styles that incorporate R&B, hip-hop, soul, and more. 

Continuing Erb’s vision of an abundance of jazz in Detroit, and keeping true to the role’s intention, the Creative Jazz Chair has been held by a range of artists including both Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and now Terence Blanchard, who has served in the position since 2012.  

Blanchard, an award-winning trumpeter/composer and 2024 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, is a direct link for students to get a glimpse into the jazz life on a worldwide scale–from stage to movie screens; composing and improvising, his skill and knowledge also continues the legacy of great mentors in the DSO’s lineage. In addition to curating the Paradise Jazz Series presented on the Orchestra Hall stage, he teaches masterclasses and hosts workshops with CYE (Civic Youth Ensembles).

“One of the cool things about working at the DSO is working with the Civic Youth Ensembles. It's been amazing to watch a lot of those young musicians grow up to be professionals. To see them in their youth, to see them wide-eyed and excited to learn about music, gets me excited because I remember those days,” Blanchard says. “With the Paradise Jazz Series, I’m most proud of our commitment to education and our connection to the community.” 

That connection and growth is evident in trumpeter and frequent DSO collaborator and educator Kris Johnson’s Paradise Theatre Big Band. During the 2022–2023 season, Blanchard joined the ensemble as they debuted in Orchestra Hall. Blanchard recognizes it as a proud moment and testament to the quality of education that takes place in the DSO’s CYE training programs, under the Wu Family Academy of Learning and Engagement banner.  

“When I first met Kris, he was in high school and part of the educational system at the DSO. He’s risen throughout the ranks and now he has become an international star––great arranger and composer. I’m very proud of all the work that we’ve put in to foster this talent. Most of the people in the Big Band are local musicians that came through the education system here.” 

Kris––who studied under Belgrave as part of the initial jazz cohort, and then went on to direct Belgrave’s son, Kasan during their Big Band debut–– is just one example of the mentee to mentor pipeline at the DSO. A brief list includes saxophonist and DSO Civic Jazz Ensemble Director Marcus Elliot, DSO violinist Adrienne Rönmark; former DSO cellist Paul Wingert, and bassist and DSO Civic Creative Jazz Ensemble Director Darell ‘Red’ Campbell Jr.  

The jazz form is one that welcomes musicians to fully engage with thoughts and emotions. It’s a conversation piece with a free-flowing approach that encourages you to expand outside of your comfort zone. Creating spaces where education is met with fun, community, and mentorship allows music-making to happen instinctively, which elevates the experience and provides space for collaboration to take shape organically. 

When you take these kids and give them all the knowledge that you have, it’s amazing what they’ll do with it, and it’s amazing how they’ll grow and become musicians that inspire us,” Blanchard expresses. “It’s back and forth; it’s not about hoarding information, hiding it, or holding on to anything. It's about being in this community together, helping each other grow and become better people and musicians. ”

2023-2024 Season

Paradise Jazz Series

Subscribe Now!

This is the synergy of evolution that John says his father would have loved to see.  

“The DSO’s jazz ensembles and bands—with mentorship from each of the Jazz Creative Director Chairs over the past 20 years—have developed some amazing young jazz musicians. My father would have been thrilled to see how things have played out.”  

The Erb Family Foundation’s dedication to sustaining Fred Erb’s vision is a guiding presence in the DSO’s commitment to keeping Detroit’s jazz ecosystem thriving and innovative. Through their endowment support of the DSO’s jazz-centered programming, the foundation helps feed our passion for music and jazz education.

Alt tag for image

Related articles