Drummer Adam Nussbaum joins the likes of Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Regina Carter and more at this year’s festival.
Adam Nussbaum began learning the drums while growing up close to New York City, where he found work and mentors to help him advance when he was still in his teens. One of those mentors was the late Elvin Jones, a celebrated drummer who grew up in Pontiac along with two brothers who also attained musical success.
“My formal education, as such, was by doing. I had a chance to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”
— Adam Nussbaum
Nussbaum, who has appeared at the Detroit Jazz Festival on a number of occasions with different groups, this year returns on Labor Day to remember Jones and his hit recordings.
“I’ll be working in a band called New Light, and I’ll also be doing a roundtable discussion of Elvin,” Nussbaum says. “New Light includes two musicians, David Liebman [saxophone and flute] and Gene Perla [bass], who worked with Elvin. Saxophonist Adam Niewood also will be with us in place of Steve Grossman.
“David and Gene recorded a very seminal record in the early ’70s with Elvin. It’s called ‘Live at the Lighthouse,’ and we’re revisiting that music. It’s a real treat for me because that’s some of the music I became enamored with when I got into playing. The band name comes from that famous recording.
“Elvin, who got his due with the great John Coltrane Quartet, was the baby in his family. His older brother, Hank Jones, was an incredible pianist. Another brother, Thad Jones, was a great trumpet player, composer and arranger who worked with Count Basie for many years and led a big band with Mel Lewis. “
The festival, in its 38th year, runs Sept. 1-4 on four stages spread across Hart Plaza and Campus Martius as the world’s largest free jazz festival.
New Light joins a stellar lineup anchored by 2017 artist-in-residence Wayne Shorter, a revolutionary saxophonist and composer globally recognized for his contributions to jazz. Drummer and producer Karriem Riggins is the untitled featured artist, who will appear in two performances — one with Common and a special guest and the other with singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding in a unique duo performance.
Also in the headliner spotlight will be Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Regina Carter and the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet. Among the more than 100 hometown artists will be McKinFolk, Sheila Landis Jazz, Marcus Elliot Quartet and the Michigan State University Jazz Orchestra.
“I was at the Detroit Jazz Festival last year playing with guitarist John Abercrombie,” Nussbaum, 61, recalls. “I played there several times with the late Michael Brecker [saxophonist] after working with him from 1987-1990. Michael was a friend and colleague and will be remembered by another panel this year.”
Nussbaum, who has played for hundreds of recordings, performed on the Grammy-winning “Don’t Try This at Home” with Brecker.
“I started studying classical piano when I was 7 years old,” says Nussbaum, whose wife of 30 years, Susan, is a special education teacher. “During that time, I was always listening to good music because my parents had a diverse record collection.
“When I turned 12, I got serious about playing the drums in performance with other people. Because I came to the drums from music, I think that affected my whole point of view.
“I started playing in bands while still taking private lessons, but a lot of what I picked up was from listening, watching and getting the opportunity to play with many people who played better than me and gave me a chance to learn and develop.”
Nussbaum, raised in the Reform tradition, remembers his first paid performance as being at a Connecticut temple.
With a progressing career in New York City, Nussbaum worked with many jazz stars, including pianist Gil Evans and saxophonists James Moody and Stan Getz. He also formed bands, such as BANN with Seamus Blake, Jay Anderson and Oz Noy; We3 with Liebman and Steve Swallow; and The ZZ Quartet with Ratko Zjaca, Simone Zanchini and Martin Gjakanovski.
Nussbaum reaches out to the next generation by holding master classes at universities and conservatories. Consulting with instrument makers, he helped design drums and cymbals.
“I recently recorded ‘Silent Voices’ with saxophonists Kirk MacDonald and Pat LaBarbera,” says the dad of two 20-somethings who pursue music as a hobby. “I have a project coming out soon playing the music of Lead Belly, who was a very famous blues and country folk singer.”
The drummer, who did not participate in music throughout public school but took some classes at the Davis Center for Performing Arts at City College of New York, believes he got more out of trying his talents before live audiences than he ever could have experienced in classrooms.
“When I was starting out in New York City, I was getting the chance to play with so many people that I began getting calls to go out and work,” he explains. “That’s what I did. My formal education, as such, was by doing. I had a chance to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”
New Light will perform at 5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 4, on the Wayne State University Pyramid Stage. “The Music of Elvin Jones” will be the topic of group members 2:15-3:15 p.m. that day in the Talk Tent. Festival performances also can be viewed at live.detroitjazzfest.com for free but without the livestream capability (all four stages, all four days). It costs $10 to watch livestream performances using the app (Detroit Jazz Fest LIVE!), which provides festival maps and other details for free. Detroitjazzfest.org.