In Full Swing

As head of the Detroit International Jazz Festival, Terri Pontremoli makes sure she doesn’t miss a beat
In Full Swing
Photograph by Frank Pinc

Terri Pontremoli, second-year artistic and executive director of the Detroit International Jazz Festival, is a classically trained violinist by trade. What’s more, she lives in Cleveland. So go ahead, ask: How did she land the gig preserving one of our city’s most treasured holiday musical traditions?

“Her vision is far beyond that of most festival directors,” replies Gretchen Carhartt Valade, chairwoman of the Detroit International Jazz Festival Foundation and owner of Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records. “She’s helped bring this event to a level where it’s becoming a national destination on Labor Day weekend.”

In other words, Pontremoli (pronounced Pon-TREM-o-lee) has chops. Despite her own musical direction, which includes a degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music and 15 years spent teaching there, jazz flows through her DNA. Her late father, Alfred, was a gifted guitarist who jammed with Nat King Cole in New York before World War II interrupted his career. “He had a phenomenal ear, and I mean he could swing,” she recalls. “He was still playing the week before he died. I grew up listening to that, learned all the standards, and developed a real love of the Great American Songbook.”

As a freelance violinist, she performed in the string section when artists like Smokey Robinson and Sammy Davis Jr. brought their concert tours to the Cleveland area. And as director of Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland, she raised $250,000 for its endowment before resigning upon the festival’s 25th anniversary.

“But then I went to hear Ahmad Jamal in concert, I was sitting in the audience, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t be away from this music,’ ” says Pontremoli, 57, a determined pixie whose bright eyes and disarming grin evoke a jazzed-up Debbie Reynolds. “I sent out my résumé and [former Detroit festival artistic director] Frank Malfitano responded.

“He said, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen in Detroit; everything is always so iffy.’ It was always teetering on whether it was going to continue or not.

“That was 2005, [lead sponsor] Ford dropped out, and Gretchen jumped in. But she said, ‘I want someone doing day-to-day managing of this.’ So that was my role.

The festival expanded that year, and I do not take any credit for that. But I do take credit for holding us to a budget and breaking even that year. You’ve got to be smart about it.”

After serving two years as managing director, Pontremoli moved up in 2007 to replace Malfitano as head of the event Jazz Times readers voted one of the top five festivals in North America. The 29th annual edition, Aug. 29-Sept. 1, is billed as “A Love Supreme: The Philly/Detroit Summit,” featuring renowned bassist and Philadelphia native Christian McBride as artist in residence, as well as a glittering array of acts from both cities.

Pontremoli has focused her priorities on increasing financial support for the free festival through foundations, grants and individual contributions, and strengthening the educational component of the event through partnerships with local entities from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History  (which hosted a jazz concert for 2-to-7 year-old “weeboppers” in July) to the DIA and Wayne State University.

“We’re taking partnerships very seriously, so that we don’t look like the circus that comes to town, then rolls up its tents and goes away,” she says. “Because we’re not. We’re an organization in this community, and it’s our duty to work with everybody who’s interested in this music, because we have such fertile ground for it here.”

Between her weekly commutes home, the single woman whose friends have dubbed “the Cleveland Flash” already has begun formulating the lineup for the jazz festival’s landmark 30th anniversary next year. “I know that I am an advocate for this music,” Pontremoli says. “I feel it is as important as any other art form out there, but receives much less funding, less attention, you name it. So I feel like this is my calling. I really do.”

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