A host of Detroit super-stars and friends return to celebrate the Motor City's 275th birthday this July 16-24, including The Spinners, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Della Reese, Kim Weston, Yusef Lateef, Kenny Burrell, Clifford Fears, Freda Payne, Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine, Marlena Shaw, Barry Harris, Ron Carter, Dorothy Ashby, Terry Pollard, Jack Brokensha, The New McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Tribe, The Jimmy Wilkins Orchestra, and many, many more musicians, gospel singers, opera stars, dancers, entertainers, sports greats, and other people associated with the cultural life and history of the city.
Comprised of at least twelve concerts and a score of other events to be held around town during "bi-centennial week," the "Homecoming" event was named and is sponsored by The Detroit Bi-Centennial Commission. It is the largest festival of Detroit life and art ever held and represents the first time city government has sponsored a serious cultural event of this magnitude.
"The aim of Homecoming," Bi-Centennial Commission Executive Director Joyce Garrett told the Sun last week, "is twofold. We want to do something internally self-restoring, something that builds pride for the accomplishments of Detroiters: and we also want to draw national attention to the great contributions people of this city have made to music and the arts."
Despite severe budget limitations, which are the result of the city's current financial crisis, The Bi-Centennial Commission and Homecoming producer Walter Mason (who is originally from Detroit and has produced for the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Diana Ross on the west coast, in Las Vegas, and in Europe) have put together an extensive list of talent from a wide range of cultural forms including popular music, jazz, "classical," religious music, opera, modern dance, blues, piano music, and rock and roll. Almost all of the artists involved are now or were at one time based in the Motor City; several others are, according to Ms. Garrett, "stars whose carreers were greatly aided by the people of Detroit."
Detroit's major reputation as a center for developing jazz artists is substantially represented at Homecoming. Opening weekend for the celebration, for example, features a Midnight Jams session at Orchestra Hall Friday, June 16 (following an earlier event at Masonic where Billy Eckstine, Marlena Shaw and several others perform with the 26-piece Jimmy Wilkins band), that will include Eckstine, multi-percussionist Roy Brooks, pianist Barry Harris, the venerable singer Billy Daniels, guitarists Ron English and Wayne Wright, vocalist Ursula Walker, trumpet master Marcus Belgrave, venerable saxphonist Dr. Beans Bowles, and an appearance by Virginia Capers and the cast from "Raisin." The next night several of these artists join the legendary guitar specialist Kenny Burrell, bassists Ron Carter and Major Holley, drummer Oliver Jackson, tenor saxophonist Billy Michell, altoist Sonny Redd, pianist Harold McKinney and the famous classic jazz of The New McKinney's Cotton Pickers in a concert at Masonic Temple called Detroit Lives!-A Jazz Reunion.
Later in the week, on Tuesday, July 20 at Ford Auditorium, both classical and jazz are represented in a very exciting combination: the unique saxophone and multi-reed stylist Yusef Lateef returns with his quartet to play with the Detroit Symphony, conducted by James Frazier, Jr. Pieces will include Lateef's beautiful "Detroit Suite" and Frazier's "The Spirit and Emerging Shadow of '76." Another very interesting fusion is presented at Ford Auditorium Friday, June 23, when the West Bloomfield Symphony will perform a special arrangement by Dave Van DePitte, who has arranged for Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Temptations, and, most recently, for Johnny Taylor.
July 21 is another special night for jazz, as six great Detroit piano specialists combine for an historic night of Keyboard Harmony at the Masonic Temple. Returning for this one will be Ms. Dorothy Ashby, Ms. Terry Pollard, Tommy Flanigan, and Barry Harris, along with resident Detroiters Harold McKinney and Johnny Griffiths.
Because of the activity of several top-flight contemporary dance troupes and a high degree of interest in the art here, Detroit has recently become known as the center for dance in the Midwest. Representing Detroit Dance throughout Homecoming will be the mighty talent of Clifford Fears. Fears, a native Detroiter who has traveled extensively in Europe and returned here to teach modern dance in the city, will choreograph and lead the Homecoming Dancers, who will perform at most of the events during Bi-Centennial week. Special presentations include a Blues Ballet choreographed to Arthur Herzog's "God Bless The Child" (at the July 19 blues concert) and a religious work choreographed by Detroiter Vera Embree that will be showcased during a religious event scheduled for Sunday, July 18 at Masonic.
Blues is indeed the subject of the July 19 concert at Masonic, called What Color is the Blues. Along with Fears' Blues Ballet, the bill features former Motown star Kim Weston with her tribute to Dinah Washington, Motor City Blues star Bobo Jenkins, and the great Joe Williams vocalizing with the Jimmy Wilkins Orchestra.
Star Track, at Masonic Wednesday, July 22, is the most glamorous concert currently scheduled for the Homecoming celebration. Headlining are the mighty Spinners, who return to the city (member Phillippe "Soul" Wynne is the only Spinner not from Detroit) as one of the world's most popular vocal groups, having recorded hit after hit on the Atlantic label after leaving Motown in the sixties. The Four Tops (still residents of Detroit and still together after twenty-one years and countless hits for Motown and ABC Records) and The Temptations (still with Motown in California) are a also featured, along with the inimitable Della Reese, Freda Payne ("Bring the Boys Home") and Stu Gilliam.
Other features of Homecoming include the appearance at each event of nine-year-old Detroiter Lisa Stone. Lisa is the singing star of the musical Little Red; she will perform the Homecoming Theme, which was especially written for the celebration by Val Benson, author of Little Red and wife of Four Tops star Obie Benson.
On July 24, the final day of the celebration, there will be several special events throughout the city, including a Bi-Centennial procession downtown and the reenactment of Cadillac's 1701 landing on the banks of the Detroit River. That night there will be ballroom dancing of various types (conventional, disco, Latin American) at several locations, including Masonic Temple, the Renaissance Center, and outdoors at Eastern Market. There are also several events in the "to be announced" category (.e., not yet confirmed) from jazz and sports seminars to possible concerts by Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Gladys Knight.
An undertaking of this size and scope is nothing to be taken lightly. In attempting to present a comprehensive view of the best culture Detroit has to offer, The Bi-Centennial Commission of the City of Detroit has taken on a task that has never been done before.
Detroiters, for one thing, have made tremendous contributions to the arts over the years, but because they were often black and generally performing outside the realm of "classical" (European) culture, most of these people were never recognized, supported, or presented by any of the institutions or foundations set up to further the arts. Motown thrived with no help from the city government or any other established group; countless jazz artists grew up, developed in, and left Detroit with no encouragement from any agency or public organization. Motor City Blues continues to exist despite a lack of organized support; Detroit dancers have had to survive as best they could without subsidy, etc. Seen in this light, the development of music and art in Detroit is a great testimony to the determination and high ideals of the people who live here.
And it is a very new and different approach for the City to conceive, sponsor, and present an event which features the indigenous music of Detroit as a primary representative of its cultural life and history. City government really should have been doing this kind of thing all along- but it didn't. With the presentation of Homecoming, the city and its official cultural outlook are taking a large and very obvious step forward.
An undertaking of this size can be done in Detroit because there is a cultural base here to support it: there is an abundance of highly-talented, professionally-skilled people in most areas of the arts- people who call Detroit home, or those who once did and still have plenty of roots here. Bringing together all or most of these great artists, yes, that should indeed make a great Homecoming, a series of events that should not only be inspirational and culturally progressive, but successful in every other respect as well.
The brainchild of Ms. Garrett and the Bi-Centennial Commission, this year's Homecoming got its initial impetus from a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which announced its approval of the funding in December 1975. Commission members projected then that concrete plans for Homecoming would be announced on or near January 1, 1976.
Plans were not announced, however, until another Bi-Centennial Commission press conference June 7. Ms. Garrett later told the Sun that it took five months longer than expected to contact artists and confirm all the events planned.
"We held off announcing as long as possible so we could make sure all aspects of these events are set up and firm," Ms. Garrett explained. "As an arm of the City government, the Commission is especially responsible for insuring that concerts we sponsor present everything that's advertised."
It is generally accepted in the entertainment industry, however, that extended musical festivals and concert series need to be announced and advertised several months in advance. Homecoming, for example, comprises at least twelve concerts over a seven-day period, not including several more events which could be confirmed in the next couple of weeks. The delay in publicizing all this could easily have an adverse effect on ticket sales, especially if the word on the shows is slow getting out.
Advertising for Homecoming will be limited due to a lack of funds for that area, Ms. Garrett told the Sun. Although it is hoped that Homecoming will attract people from as far away as Chicago, Cleveland, Toledo, and Canada, publicity in those areas will largely be limited to news stories and features that can be placed in the local media, which is basically the advertising approach to be taken here. Despite the fact that Homecoming will generate some interest in the local newspapers, on TV talk shows, etc., a shortage of publicity could act to the detriment of any one or several of the Homecoming shows.
Poor attendance at any one of the Homecoming concerts would be unfortunate to say the least, and not only from an artistic standpoint. Most of the basic expenses of the concerts are not covered by the initial $25,000 figure, and the Commission hopes that ticket sales will offset most of the production costs. If these events do poorly at the box office, then the results could be quite embarrassing and disappointing to the Bi-Centennial Commission and the City as well. A large monetary loss could also prejudice people against holding events like this in the future, which, we think, would be a definite step backward.
It has already been suggested that Homecoming be established as an annual celebration for this city - this is certainly desirable as far as Detroit culture is concerned and it is entirely possible if the program is successful and self sustaining. What could insure this possibility? One obvious measure would be to make an earlier start; another would be the involvement of more Detroit people and grass-roots cultural organizations in the Homecoming project, from its earliest stages on through to production and - especially -promotion.
Because of the lack of so-called "legitimate" cultural institutions in the city over the years, several alternative, grass-roots -type cultural organizations already exist which have considerable expertise in presenting and promoting self supporting artistic events in the city. Some immediate examples are the Allied Artists Association, which produced the music at last year's Afro-American Festival; the Detroit Blues Club, representing most Motor City Blues artists and sponsors of the annual Detroit Blues Festival; Musicians United to Save Indigenous Culture (MU.S.I.C.) and The Jazz Development Workshop. Most of the community minded groups would, no doubt, be glad to make their services available to the Homecoming project if they were invited to participate in its planning and production.
Detroit-based promotors could also prove to be a valuable asset to the Homecoming effort. There are, of course, several concert promotors and promotion companies who regularly put on commercially-oriented shows in the Motor City. These people have access to backing money for musical events- if their help could be enlisted in presenting any one or several of the Homecoming events in exchange for a nominal percentage of the proceeds, this might be a solution to the lack of funding, especially for essential items like advertising and promotion.
There is little doubt that the Homecoming events this year will be top-flight, professionally-executed productions. The talent involved in each show is first-class, Walter Mason's staging skills are well-known, and the mix of different cultural media is unique. Artistically the concerts promise to be far superior to most commercially produced musical events.
Whatever problems Homecoming '76 may have at this point can be attributed to a lack of experience on the part of the Bi-Centennial Commission, which is quite understandable given the innovative nature of the entire presentation. Detroit has got the skill, talent, expertise, guts, determination, and even the resources, needed to solve all of these problems, though, and we shouldn't waste any time getting ready for a bigger and better Homecoming party in 1977.