Local Arts and Music Festival Resurrects Detroit’s Jazz History at the Vanity Ballroom

Jazzin’ at the Vanity pays homage to the music, people and history of East Jefferson corridor on the city’s eastside.

Cruise down East Jefferson and “entertainment mecca” doesn’t quickly come to mind. 

Sure, restaurant options are popping up and folks are still navigating their 9-to-5’s. But back in the late 1920s through the 1950s, the neighborhood bustled with business and the weekend howled with nightlife. The Vanity Ballroom, the last and largest surviving ballroom from the Detroit jazz era, was the hotspot. National acts like Dizzy Gillepsie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and many more took centerstage as folks danced the night away – alcohol-free – for five cents on the dance floor. 

“The Jefferson-Chalmers business district was really known as the epicenter of jazz, blues and entertainment on the eastside of Detroit,” recalls Josh Elling, CEO of Jefferson East Inc., a Detroit-based nonprofit that promotes and supports neighborhood development and has documented the history of the ballroom. “Given the density of auto jobs there and housing, it was just the place to be on a Saturday night.” 

Detroit Archives

Come this weekend, the popular Jazzin’ on Jefferson returns as Jazzin’ at the Vanity, resurrecting the ballroom that fell into disrepair after decades of neglect. The two-day free music festival will shut down Jefferson Ave. for a weekend of local and national music acts, Detroit-based vendors, mixed-art installations and audio stories from Detroit residents reflecting on the Vanity and city neighborhoods. The collected stories are provided in partnership with the Detroit Historical Museum and funding support from the Michigan Council of the Arts & Community Affairs and the National Endowment of the Arts. The neighborhood’s staple event will also provide community members an opportunity to meet and dialogue with the Jefferson East Inc. team and their real estate subsidiary organization East Jefferson Development Corporation. 

“This excites me,” Elling expressed. “We have [Alexandre Saada, a pianist] coming from France, who goes around the globe and has musical conversations between different people around iconic structures. He wanted to bring that cross-cultural musical conversation to be in front of the Vanity Ballroom. That just speaks to the power of jazz.” 

He adds, “I think that what you think about when honoring these iconic places, [is] how to honor the past, but build a future for everyone. We want to have unique inventions, we want to have art, music and we want to have it in a way that everyone feels a part of it. So as we look at the Vanity Ballroom, we want to find a way that will honor that music heritage but is forward-thinking in a way that’s inclusive to the Detroit of today and envisions Detroit for all of tomorrow.” 

Click on the player above to hear CultureShift’s LaToya Cross chat with Jefferson East’s CEO Josh Elling about the history of Jefferson Chalmers and the upcoming fest.

Jazzin’ at the Vanity takes place June 29 and 30. Visit jazzinatthevanity.com for the full lineup. Admission is free.