The Detroit International Jazz Festival was founded in 1980 by Robert McCabe and the Detroit Renaissance. Along with the Detroit Grand Prix and the International Freedom Festival, Jazz Fest was intended to bring people into the city and to provide all segments of the population with world-class entertainment. It quickly became a Labor Day weekend tradition at Hart Plaza, a city park along the Detroit River designed by Isamu Noguchi and Shuji Sadao.
From 1980 to 1991, the Festival flourished through a partnership with the highly regarded international jazz festival in Montreux, Switzerland, sharing performers and commissioned poster art.
In 1991, the Festival merged with Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, where it resided until September 2005.
In March 2005, Detroit philanthropist and Mack Avenue Records Chairman Gretchen Valade emerged as a major sponsor of the Festival. With additional support from the Knight Foundation, the Festival expanded programmatically and physically. The new footprint, covering 3 blocks of Woodward Avenue north to the newly developed Campus Martius Park, provided two additional stages and more space for food vendors and other activities. The result was record-breaking attendance and revitalization of the festival.
In January 2006, Valade founded the Detroit International Festival Foundation, which took over production and management of the festival. Valade also committed $10 million to establish an endowment that would provide much-needed seed money for festival operations.