It’s early 2023, but I’m still thinking about the cultural highlights of 2022 in Detroit, particularly the New Standards/Jazz Without Patriarchy initiative that unfolded over three weeks in October. There were so many vibrant aspects to this ambitious project, spearheaded by the Carr Center and curated by the organization’s artistic director Terri Lyne Carrington, that getting my arms completely around its larger implications has been a challenge.
From the savvy multi-media installation and grand opening celebration of the new Carr Center Performance Studio across the street from the Detroit Institute of Arts, to more than a dozen high-powered concerts throughout Midtown, featuring some of the most-celebrated women in contemporary jazz, the New Standards/Jazz Without Patriarchy soared over a high bar. The artistic level of the project was something that any arts organization in the country would have been proud to present.
Beyond the details of the concerts, installation, and other ancillary events, what Detroit saw in October was the coming of age of the Carr Center.
Completing its 30th anniversary season, the once-itinerant organization has long filled a critical niche in the city as an African American arts organization fighting the good fight on myriad fronts — jazz, visual arts, dance, film, and arts education. The Carr Center programming is known for punching above its weight class in terms of quality and impact compared to its modest budget, board resources, and staff size.
But since landing in Midtown a few years ago, the organization has steadily raised its game and reset its mission. The Carr Center’s reinvention has significant implications for the city’s cultural life and beyond, given the organization’s embrace of webcasting performances. “We moved from an organization focused on what we call placemaking, or helping to build a neighborhood, to presenting the highest quality art in all disciplines,” explains President Oliver Ragsdale Jr.
The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, among other foundations, has been a key partner in the Carr Center’s growth, providing a series of transformational grants to support the organization’s new vision. (The Erb Family Foundation has also been funding broader efforts to jumpstart a reimagination of the city’s surrounding cultural district.)
The Carr Center is the first African American organization in 35 years to move into the cultural district. That’s important symbolically and programmatically. It brings a jolt of diversity and artistic excellence to the starry constellation of venerable institutions in the neighborhood and Midtown environs, including the DIA, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Historical Museum, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, College of Creative Studies, Detroit Science Center, Detroit Public Library, Scarab Club, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Hellenic Museum of Michigan, and Wayne State University.
Just north of the DIA on Kirby Street, the Park Shelton has been the home of the Carr Center’s 2,000 square-foot gallery for a couple of years. The new Performance Studio, an intimate and acoustically rewarding cabaret-like space in a cozy renovated ballroom, has the potential to become a major-league venue in Detroit for jazz, chamber music, black-box theater works, and performances of all sorts. Plus, what a feather in the cap of the Park Shelton, a classy residential building that already includes high-quality retail and restaurants but now boasts a soulful cultural presence that none of its peer buildings can match.
The New Standards/Jazz Without Patriarchy programming showed just what the new Carr Center can do:
*The Jazz Crawl series of concerts found hundreds of listeners strolling between nine collaborating Midtown venues to hear a remarkable range of contemporary women performers and composers, among them bassist Linda May Han Oh, flutist Nicole Mitchell, drummer Susie Ibarra and a gaggle of others — including Carrington, a multiple-Grammy winning drummer, who led a vibrant set with the Carr Center’s Gathering Orchestra, a resident ensemble comprised of gifted emerging professionals.
*The Shifting the Narrative: Jazz and Gender Justice multimedia exhibition, also curated by Carrington, put an exclamation point on the compelling role that the Carr Center — and thus Detroit — is playing in the national discussion over gender equity in jazz. This is how it should be, given that the city has historically been on the leading edge of nurturing women jazz musicians, from Terry Pollard and Alice (McLeod) Coltrane in the 1950s, to Geri Allen in the 1970s, to Endea Owens, a rising-star bassist who received training through Carr Center programs.
The installation included a fantastic interactive display allowing you to electronically flip through the music in the freshly published New Standards book of 101 compositions by women composers, and hear the music as you read the charts. Carrington conceived the book, a major contribution to jazz literature and a potential game-changer within jazz education.
*A Jazz and Gender panel discussion was as substantive as it was star-studded, featuring Angela Davis, Robin D.G. Kelly, Gina Dent, and Carrington.
Finally, while Midtown Detroit was the coordinating partner, it should not be lost that of the nine individual organizations that collectively staged the Jazz Crawl, it was the Carr Center — the youngest, smallest and newest-to-the-neighborhood — that brought them all together. That’s the definition of leadership.