The article was originally put together by Michael Erlewine, the official festival historian.
On a warm summer night, in August 1969, a legacy was born: several thousand blues lovers gathered in a small athletic field in Ann Arbor, Michigan to witness the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival. By the time blues icon, B.B. King took the stage to close the show, it was clear that something magical was happening in this southeast Michigan college town. Few present also knew that music history was being made, for the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival was the first blues festival of its kind in North America. It is still going strong in the year 2000.
When we look back at the roster of performers at those first two Ann Arbor Blues Festivals, it is hard to imagine that all of this great blues talent managed to converge in one spot, blues greats like Bobby "Blue" Bland, Big Joe Turner, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Albert King, Freddy King, Lightnin' Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf, Magic Sam, Muddy Waters, Son House, T-Bone Walker, and Junior Wells, to name a few. And that was just the beginning.
In 1972, the festival was expanded to include jazz and it became (and has remained) the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival ever since. Jazz stars like Miles Davis, Count Basie, Sun Ra, the Arts Ensemble of Chicago, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor have played the festival, as well as top headliners like Ray Charles, Maceo Parker, Etta James, James Brown, Booker T. & the MG's, Taj Mahal, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, and Al Green.
Although started with the support of the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival has, over the years, become an all-volunteer, non-profit (501-c) event, supported by a dedicated group of community volunteers working with the city administration. Since then, the scope of the festival has broadened expanded.
What began as an outdoor concert has now become a full weekend of blues and jazz events. In addition to the daytime festival, evenings offer festival goers a choice of indoor (seated) concerts and live jazz in a club setting. Blues and jazz lovers wander the streets of Ann Arbor, meeting, sharing meals, listening to the music they love, and celebrating on into the night.
In recent years, the Festival organization has been expanded to include activities for children, educational outreach programs, and the very popular “Meet the Artist” program, which gives the audience a chance to meet and speak with performers, face to face.
Begun as a celebration of blues and jazz, the Festival celebrates and preserve blues and jazz, in this 21st century, ensuring that our grandchildren will also have the opportunity to know and experience this uniquely-American music.
Although the outdoor festival continues to be the major focus, it is only a daytime event. Where before, there were always evening shows outdoors, these have been moved inside to other venues. The public is now given a choice for evening entertainment, featuring major artists, including indoor numbered-seat concerts held in the historic Michigan Theater. Overlapping, but running much later into the evening, Festival-goers can hear live blues and jazz artists at a local jazz club, the Bird of Paradise. This expansion of the Festival accomplishes at least two things: first, it gives some protection for the festival, should the outdoor event be completely rained out; second, it offers festival attendees some variety as to venue. Many blues and jazz lovers appreciate the indoor, seated-concert approach, and the shows at the Michigan Theater are frequently sold out. For others, the live club scene is just the way they prefer to spend their evenings, with plenty of music and conversation.
Gallup Park Outdoor Concerts – The Festival’s Saturday and Sunday outdoor concerts take place in Gallup Park, a unique 70-acre park straddling the Huron River in northeast Ann Arbor, a city known for its excellent parks. The Festival site can accommodate over 10,000 attendees and features a large main stage, a big tent to shelter attendees, sponsor booths, the Kid’s Tent, food and vendor booths, arts booths, the Meet the Artist tent, and tlast but not least, the backstage hospitality area reserved for artists, sponsors and their respective guests. Ample parking is available at nearby Huron High School. Free shuttle buses pick concert goers up at the parking lots and drop them off at the gates of the Festival. Attendees also walk, cycle, skate, and canoe to the Festival.
The Michigan Theater – The largest evening concert for the Festival takes place in a lovingly- restored art deco jewel, the historic Michigan Theater. Headline jazz and blues artists of international renown pack the theater each year. Fans of all ages often turn the night into a dance party.
The Bird of Paradise Jazz Club – This intimate jazz club, operated by jazz artists in downtown Ann Arbor, attracts the Festival’s most ardent jazz aficionados to two Friday night and two Saturday night concerts. The buzz each year about the Festival’s featured artists at the “Bird” can be heard in jazz circles across the country.
In Ann Arbor, the accent was off folk and country blues and on modern, big-city, electric blues artists. While the Newport Folk Festival featured more than folk music and to a degree helped blues to segue from folk and country blues to more modern blues, it was in Ann Arbor that the first all-out extravaganza of modern city blues was born.
There is no record of any blues festival of any similar scope and extent that predates that first Ann Arbor Blues Festival, which was organized in 1968 and held in 1969, much less one that endures to the present day.
The Ann Arbor Blues Festival was just that: a festival of blues, including (and featuring) modern electric city blues -- the first of its kind. It helped to mark the discovery of modern blues music and the musicians that made that music. However, the festival was something more than just Black music for White people. It was somewhat of a celebration for the Black musicians themselves and the list of great blues artists present, on or off the stage, reads like a Who’s Who of blues musicians, of all types alive at the time. They came from all over to play, of course, but also just to be together, to hang out.
One young White festival volunteer wrote this:
“What a sight for me! There was my dad, the controller of a small Michigan university, and blues great Roosevelt Sykes, sitting on folding chairs, leaning back up against the chain-link fence, swapping stories and having beers all afternoon. They just liked each other and were having a ball. That’s the way it was all around – one big getting-to-know-one-another party. It was special.”
Those first two Ann Arbor Blues Festival, sponsored by the University Activity Center (UAC) of the University of Michigan and the Canterbury House, were organized by a small group of University of Michigan students. Their leader was John Fishel, a young man who just happened to really love the blues.
Late in 1968, Fishel and a small group of students formed an exploratory committee to create a blues festival, tentatively scheduled for the fall of 1969. Among other things they traveled to Chicago and heard some of the great blues men in the South Chicago bars and clubs. They came back from that trip with their eyes opened, more convinced then ever to organize a festival that next fall.
Their chief worry was whether, in the commotion of the returning to school, students would have time to grasp what a blues festival was all about. Therefore, they decided to hold a warm-up concert in the spring of 1969, so that everyone on campus could preview the music and build an appetite for the coming festival. The preliminary concert was held in the University of Michigan Union Ballroom, featuring the Luther Allison Trio, a young blues group from Chicago. It was very much a success and the larger festival was scheduled for the Fall. The University of Michigan approved a budget and Fishel and his group set about making the festival a reality.
And what a festival it was! That first Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969 included such great blues artists as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Freddy King, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin' Hopkins, and many others. The 1969 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival even made a small profit. It was an enormous artistic success and it was decided to make this an annual event. A proposed budget for the 1970 concert was formulated and accepted by the university.
It has been said by way of criticism of the first two Ann Arbor Blues Festivals (mostly by the producers of the subsequent Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival) that their choice of talent was too esoteric and that these artists were not known by the general public. In defense of the early festivals, it is only fair to point out that at the time of those first two blues festivals, these performers were indeed almost completely unknown to White America. That is a major reason why the original Ann Arbor Blues Festival was undertaken: to bring these artists to general attention, which it did.
It is true that there was no attempt to include jazz, R&B, or popular headliners in these first festivals, and it is true that that might have resulted in larger attendance. It just was not envisioned by the festival coordinators, who were struggling to bring blues to national recognition. More than anything else, everyone involved in the early festivals wanted to hear this music live and meet the performers.
Discovering these great blues artists, alive and living all around us, but never previously accessed or known, was a revelation to all present at that time. Here was not a dying or antiquated music, as was the case with certain styles of folk music. Modern-electric blues was very much alive and well in cities across the United States, only separated from White America by a racial curtain.
Removing that curtain exposed a vast wealth of music to be experienced and absorbed. What happened in that first blues festival in 1969 was a revelation to those in attendance, at least to the White members of the audience. It helped to launch a new era of blues discovery and acceptance.
For this festival, the same concept was followed as with the first: gather together as many of the great blues players, of all styles, as money would allow. The program for the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival was just as robust as the first festival and included artists like Howlin' Wolf, Albert King, Bobby Blue Bland, Otis Rush, Son House, and dozens of other performers.
However, the 1970 festival ran into stiff competition from a large rock concert being held at the same time, in nearby Goose Lake. The Goose Lake Bonanza drew a lot of attendees away from the blues festival, with the result that, when all was said and done, the festival came out in the red, a loss of some $30,000, which was a lot in those days. It should be noted that festival organizer John Fishel went on to create four additional blues festivals in Miami, Florida from 1972 through 1974.
After the loss in 1970, the University was not willing to fund an unprofitable event, and the future of the festival was suddenly in limbo, with the result that the 1971 festival was never held. Peter Andrews, who co-produced the ’72 and ’73 festivals, writes:
“In 1971, I was appointed to the position of Events Director for the University of Michigan and asked by the Vice President in charge of student affairs to try to recreate the festival for the coming year. I told them that it would be impossible to have a festival that summer and that they should aim toward 1972. “
“the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. The university administration asked me to look into reviving the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, because everybody saw that it was a great artistic success, which it was.”
However, other forces were at work, planning a new and expanded festival for 1972. The continuation and expansion of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was primarily the work of Peter Andrews and John Sinclair, two local Ann Arbor personalities with extensive musical experience. Peter Andrews had managed bands and promoted music in Ann Arbor for several years, both on his own and under the auspices of the University of Michigan in his position as events coordinator. Andrews had the business experience, a track record, and promotional skills to bring this off. John Sinclair had experience as the manager of the MC5 and an international reputation as a controversial political figure and poet. John Sinclair provided the creative side of the equation and Pete Andrews the business and booking skills.
Together they hatched a plan to continue the festival, but with some modifications. First, they expanded the festival to include jazz as well as blues, so it became the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. Secondly, while preserving the great (but often unknown) blues acts of the times, they added enough headliners to the bill to up the attendance, pushing the profitability of the festival into the black, or so was the plan.
This was pretty gutsy of them, since they had no backers. John Sinclair was able to find one friend to put up $20,000 in seed money and they built from there. John Sinclair and Peter Andrews wrote in the 1972 Festival Program:
“The Blues and Jazz Festival was conceived last winter by Rainbow Multi-Media president Peter Andrews as a revival of the original Ann Arbor Blues Festival, which, after two incredible years (1969 and 1970) of artistic (but not financial) success, was laid to rest by the University of Michigan before a 1971 festival could struggle into life.”
The 1972 and 1973 festivals were a decided success artistically, if not financially. The addition of some headline acts like Ray Charles, Miles Davis, and others drew more people, and there was a decided attempt to meld together different styles of music into a seamless whole. Both the 1972 and 1973 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals were very well attended, with some 12,000 people.
“Ann Arbor, Mich., Sept. 9, 1973 – Silver-haired Count Basie stepped up to the microphone Friday night, smiled a beneficent smile and welcomed 14,000 cheering young people to the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz festival… By last night more than 20,000 young people had streamed into this college town from all over the country…” --- The New York Times
“in which about two dozen blues and jazz artists played for crowds estimated at times to be as high as 16,000.” -- Rolling Stone, October 12, 1972
In 1974, with a change in city government (more republicans on the city council), Sinclair and Andrews ran into problems getting a permit. The festival promoters were denied permission to hold the event in Ann Arbor, and the fate of the festival became a bitterly-debated issue in the press and about town. There was nothing to be done about it, so it was decided to hold a 1974 festival, but some place else. A small college in Windsor, Ontario volunteered a good spot and it was decided to hold the 1974 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in another country -- Canada.
All the standard festival preparations took place, including an extensive car-pool system for busing blues enthusiast from Michigan to the site in Canada. There was only one problem, but it was a big one. They failed to anticipate that the FBI and other law enforcement officials would prevent the thousands of would-be attendees from crossing the border. They just refused to let concert goers from the states cross the border, ordering them to turn back.
Even worse, they refused to allow John Sinclair, who was co-producing the festival, to cross into Canada, forcing him to retreat to a temporary headquarters in the Shelby Hotel in Detroit. No reasons were given at the border for turning the cars back. Cars were searched and any with drugs were detained and their occupants arrested – a great many. That same was true at the gates in Windsor: anyone found smoking Marijuana or carrying it was immediately arrested and taken to jail. The net effect was to ruin the festival, causing over $100,000 in losses -- a disaster.
After the 1974 fiasco, the festival was inactive for a number of years. Peter Andrews, co-founder of the 1972 festival, refused to allow this beautiful creation die and continued, year after year, to approach the city about reinstating the festival. He was sent, each year, to the Parks Department, where he was habitually turned down. In fact, success did not come until he teamed up with Lee Berry, a successful Ann Arbor music promoter.
The refusal on the city’s part to grant permission for the 1974 festival and the financial disaster that border officials caused had left bitter opposition between the festival producers and the city administration. Although Peter Andrews made a proposal to revive the festival almost every year, it seemed that the city council did not want to reopen that door. Promoter Lee Berry had been considering creating an entirely-new blues and jazz event, but decided that the legacy of the original festival was worth saving.
Berry had a different plan and, together with Peter Andrews and Eric Cole, persisted until the festival found supporters. Lee bypassed the parks commission and took the question directly to the city council. There was to be no recrimination and no confrontation with the city. He laid out a very high road and saw to it that his crew stuck to it. It took some 80 private meetings and a number of public ones to bring the council around, but they managed to do it. The city council voted eleven to nothing to reinstate the festival. The 1992 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival was approved and preparations began to revive the Festival, but with some differences.
Perhaps the main difference was the introduction of alternate venues to the all-day-all-night outdoor concerts. The outdoor night concerts were replaced with indoor evening events, including sit-down concerts at the historic Michigan Theater and night shows the Bird of Paradise, a local jazz club with a national reputation.
Today the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival is once again under the direction of one its original founders, Peter Andrews, and is scheduled to appear as a free festival in the Fall of 2007. The Festival and the City of Ann Arbor now work hand-in-hand to provide a music experience that is both exciting and authentic.
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