An Insider’s Guide to the Detroit International Jazz Festival

During Labor Day weekend, Detroit, Michigan hosts the Detroit International Jazz Festival, where festival-goers can relax and enjoy the sounds of smooth jazz: big band ensembles, avant-garde improvisations, vocalists, Latin jazz, and other related genres, like funk, and gospel. The Jazz Fest performers are a diverse mix of international artists, emerging artists, and regional jazz musicians.

To view the artists and events schedule for this year’s Jazz Fest, visit:

Festival Origins

Formerly known as the Montreaux Jazz Festival, the event was founded in 1980, and conceived to bring positive attention, visitors, and cultural enrichment to the city. The Jazz Fest is the nation’s largest free jazz festival, and is produced by the local Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. Over 3/4 of a million people attend this annual event.

Since the first Jazz Fest, the event has taken place at Hart Plaza, a large and open riverfront complex at the heart of downtown where the Woodward and Jefferson Avenues intersect. Several music and cultural festivals take place at Hart Plaza each summer, featuring electronic, country, and Caribbean musicians. The venue lies between the reflective towers of the Renaissance Center, and the COBO Convention Center.

I’ve attended the Detroit International Jazz Festival for three years, and each time, I’ve found a large crowd, with a mix of Detroiters, Canadians, and guests from all over who’ve come to visit the city for the festival. It’s interesting to see a crowd full of older jazz with the cats, younger fans, and those unfamiliar with jazz who’ve come out to have a good time.

In addition to the music, Jazz Fest attendees can also take in arts and cultural exhibits, and visit vendors selling drinks and fresh grilled foods. I’ve found the atmosphere to be lively, blissful, and overall, a fun and inexpensive outing for the whole family. There are even activities and games to keep the little ones entertained.

One can sit under the shade of trees, absorbing the music, and watching the flow of the crowds to different stages. From the grassy area at the rear of the venue, there is a refreshing breeze off the water on a hot day, and a clear view of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, as it lies across the Detroit River. Or, one can hop from stage to stage, with a festival program in hand, dancing, or just relaxing and enjoy the performing artists.

The are six stages at the festival, but the best spot in Hart Plaza is at the main stage. The stage itself is elevated at the upper level of the area, with steep, amphitheater-style seating circling the interior of the theater. From this area, there is also a great view of the sky, and the surrounding city.

Festival Tips

  • bring sealed bottled water
  • wear comfortable shoes
  • bring sunscreen
  • bring a light, portable chair, or a cushion

Festival attendees are asked not to bring recording devices, animals, tents, grills, coolers, or alcohol.


I recommend buying food at the Detroit International Jazz Festival. The aromas of grilled meats mixed with the sounds of jazz create a memorable experience, and it’s a way to support the funding of the event.

Greek Town

There are, however, restaurants nearby if you feel like taking a break and having a meal away from the crowds. If someone inquires about good food in Detroit, I tell them to go to Greek Town. It’s along the length of Monroe Street, a few blocks North-East of Hart Plaza. The following places are quite popular:

New Hella’s Cafe , at 583 Monroe St., Detroit, MI 48226, (313) 961-5544
Hella’s is famous for their lamb dishes, Greek salads, and Saganaki, which is Kefalograviera cheese, flambÃ?©ed with brandy at your table, and accompanied by a loud “Opa!”

For New Orleans-style seafood, visit Fishbone’s Rhythm Kitchen Cafe , at 400 Monroe St., Detroit, MI 48226, (313) 965-4600. The atmosphere is loud and lively.

If you want pizza, there’s Pizza Papalis , at 553 Monroe St., Detroit, MI 48226, (313) 961-8020,
Their gourmet deep-dish pizzas are expensive, but huge, and they have a full bar.

And for dessert, check out the Astoria Pastry Shop , at 541 Monroe St., Detroit, MI 48226, (313) 963-9603.
Astoria’s desserts are as artistically crafted as they are decadent.


The Jazz Fest is easily accessed by following the major freeways, I-696, I-94, I-75, and I-375, toward the downtown area, and the Jefferson Avenue exits. Coming from Canada, Hart Plaza is left out of the Tunnel, or right of the Ambassador bridge.

On a good day, the downtown area is about 30 minutes from the Detroit Metro Airport. The taxi fare between the airport and downtown Detroit is about $40.


Festival parking can be challenging, as the area is rather crowded. There is, however, roof-top parking at the Cobo Center, which is on the water, slightly west of Hart Plaza. At around $5 for the day, it’s the best secured parking in the area. It tends to fill to capacity before dusk, so get there early. The smaller surrounding lots will cost a bit more. One can keep their eyes peeled for street parking, though an empty space is rare.


The following hotels are about a 10 minute’s walk from Hart Plaza and the Detroit International Jazz Festival. Normally, I look for cheap lodging, but I want to mention two places that will run you over $100 per night for two guests. Here’s why: they offer unique glimpses into the culture and history of the downtown Detroit area, they each have a unique and interesting ambiance, and the staffs of each hotel are very hospitable.

The Hotel Pontchartrain
2 Washington Boulevard, Detroit, MI 48226
(313) 965-0200, 568-8000
$130.00 – 240.00 per night

The Pontchartrain is European in style, and built on a historic site: the first permanent French settlement in the region, founded by the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, in 1701. The area surrounding the hotel — today’s downtown — was known in that time as the “Ville du Detroit”, the City of the Straights.

The Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center
Renaissance Center Drive, Detroit, MI 48243
(313) 568-8000,
$130.00 – 240.00 per night

The Renaissance Center is the tallest building in Michigan. It is a massive mix of retail shopping, dinning, offices, and lodging. Look for the transparent elevators, and take them up to the 73rd floor and you’ll get a great view of Metro Detroit, Hart Plaza, the Detroit river, and Windsor, Ontario. Those staying at this Ramada location should explore the Renaissance Center, and those who aren’t spending the night here should definitely come in and have a look around.

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