Jazz and the Motor City: Behind a Big Music Gift At This Detroit University

Wayne State University in Detroit recently received $7.5 million to support a jazz performance center and an endowed jazz chair and scholarship. $5 million will fund restoring and updating the university's performance venue, Hilberry Theatre, which will be renamed the Gretchen Valade Jazz Center. The rest will suport the creation of the Gretchen Valade Endowed Chair in Jazz Studies and the Gretchen Valade Endowed Scholarship in Jazz Studies.

The donor, here, is Gretchen Valade, who has two philanthropic vehicles that are laser-focused on the Motor City. There's the Gretchen C. Valade Foundation, which has given modestly of late, including to outfits such as the Detroit Economic Growth Association and Michigan Opera Theatre. Then there's the the Gretchen C. Valade Endowment for the Arts, which has one sole granteethe Detroit International Jazz Festival Foundation, an outfit she created to support and oversee the annual Labor Day weekend festival in Detroit. Valade has bankrolled this outfit with millions over the years, including an endowment gift last decade to keep the festival alive. In 2013 and 2014, close to $5 million total went to the Detroit International Jazz Festival Foundation.

Who is Valade and what's the story here? Well, in the late 1990s, Valade founded Mack Avenue Records, an independent record label in Detroit, Michigan, with a jazz focus. Major Mack Avenue artists include Grammy Award-winning bassist Christian McBride, and guitarist and former Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks. Valade's passion for jazz goes way back, and when she was at finishing school in New York City, she explored many of the city's jazz clubs: "That's how I learned all about Eddie Condon and Sidney Bechet... I went to see them all the time."

That part about finishing school brings us to another point. Valade hails from the Carhartt family of Michigan. The late Hamilton Carhartt, Valade's grandfather, launched the eponymous work clothing company in the late 1800s that created denim overalls for railroad workers. Today, the company is known for making super-durable clothing for tough working conditions. The company posted 2014 revenues of an estimated $630 million and the Carhartt family is worth $1.2 billion.

So there you have it—an overalls heiress with a passion for jazz and deep ties to the Motor City who gives big to a school in Detroit for jazz. I should also mention that with Valade's $7.5 million gift to Wayne State University, the school will become the official educational partner of the Detroit Jazz Festival, another added benefit from this donor.