Karriem Riggins sitting with other people in a classroom
Karriem Riggins spent time working with Wayne State University musicians Tuesday, April 11, 2023. Riggins’ appearance at Wayne State was part of the events planned as the 2023 Artist-in-Residence for the Detroit Jazz Festival. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Karriem Riggins made his way into the crowded music room and sat down in one of the few empty seats in the front row.

He fit right in with the college students he was surrounded by, wearing a knit hat, black hoodie with an owl on the front, jeans and black and white sneakers. The Emmy-winning jazz musician was at Wayne State University Tuesday to teach a master class, but first, Riggins sat back and observed as two of the college’s jazz bands performed. 

“I hear how the horns are playing to the room and I really respect that” he said to one of the bands after they played a rendition of the Alf Mist song, “Errors.” “It’s important to hear everything, so great job.” 

Riggins’ appearance at Wayne State was part of the events planned as the 2023 Artist-in-Residence for the Detroit Jazz Festival. The Detroit native is a drummer, producer and DJ who has worked alongside some of the biggest artists in the jazz and hip-hop worlds. 

On the jazz side, Riggins has partnered with artists like Diana Krall, Milt Jackson, Norah Jones and Esperanza Spalding. On the R&B and hip-hop side, he’s produced for Common, Erykah Badu, Kanye West and the late Detroit rapper and producer J Dilla. Most recently, Riggins helped produce the song “Sunshine” for Steve Lacy’s album, “Gemini Rights,” which won Best Progressive R&B album at this year’s Grammy Awards. 

As part of his residency, Riggins, who now lives in Atlanta, will play multiple performances at the Jazz Festival, which takes place downtown Sept. 1-4, including on opening day as well as Sept. 3 and 4. 

Wayne State music technology student Malcolm McNitt appreciated the laid-back approach Riggins brought to the master class. McNitt played percussion for one of the jazz bands. 

“It was nerve-wracking at first, but it went away,” he said about performing in front of Riggins. “I had harsh expectations, but he was so chill.”

McNitt didn’t know much about Riggins before the class, but was excited to hear he worked with one of McNitt’s influences, J Dilla. 

“J Dilla is a big influence through my production side, so to know Karriem worked with him, that’s a flow of knowledge that he’s passing on to us.”

Daniel Bennett playing piano in a classroom
Daniel Bennett played piano during Riggins’ lecture and master class at Wayne State University on April 11, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Learning from the best 

Riggins, 47, grew up in Southfield and said he is a product of his father Emmanuel Riggins, who was also a musician, and jazz trumpet player Marcus Belgrave. Hearing the two play when he was a kid inspired him to get into music. When he was three years old, he started to play around with the drum set in his house. Shortly after, Belgrave gave Riggins his own drum set. From that point on, Riggins knew he wanted to be a musician when he grew up.

“When teachers asked me what I wanted to do, they’d laugh when I said I wanted to be a musician,” he said. “All the other kids were saying they wanted to be doctors, a police officer.” 

Belgrave took Riggins under his wing and became his mentor. He introduced the trumpet to his young protege and gave him lessons for a while. Ultimately, Riggins’ heart was in the drums, but said learning different instruments has been beneficial for his career. 

“It’s good for a musician to learn different instruments, because then you have a different perspective,” he said. “I’m a producer now, so I can tell people how and what I need musically.” 

Belgrave also taught Riggins how to be confident and make sure the message he’s trying to convey through the music is clear. 

“Every Sunday, he had a workshop, and he would bring in new music,” he said. “And we would have to interpret that musical sight reading. So, he’s taught me to be a true individual on my instrument.” 

Melody Balos singing into a microphone in a classroom
Wayne State University Jazz Lab big band vocalist Melody Balos performs during Riggins’ April 11, 2023, visit. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Empire state of mind 

After high school, Riggins joined Flint jazz singer Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead band and moved to New York. Riggins also went off to play with jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and bassist Ray Brown’s ensemble. 

His foray into hip-hop began when Common made Riggins the musical director for his group A Black Girl Named Becky. The musician met J Dilla in 1996 when Common was in Detroit to get beats for his third album, “One Day It’ll All Make Sense.” The two hung out in J Dilla’s basement, with Riggins amazed by the music he was hearing. 

“I was already a fan of his music and heard a lot of his beats, so seeing it live was inspiring,” he said. “We exchanged numbers and he called me to collaborate on a song for (Slum Village album) ‘Fantastic, Vol. 2’ and that was recorded at Studio A in Dearborn Heights.” 

The two worked together again on J Dilla’s solo debut, “Welcome 2 Detroit” in 2001, and the rapper’s first posthumous album, “The Shining.” J Dilla was still completing the album when he died in February 2006, so Riggins went in the studio and finished it. 

“I miss him. He was so prolific, he left so much music,” he said. “We’re still discovering stuff and it’s just a blessing. I feel like his music is here to live forever because there’s so much positivity in what he left us.”

Making music with no boundaries 

In the almost 30 years he’s been making and performing music, Riggins described his music style as wide open and diverse. Like his influences Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, he doesn’t want to stick to just one genre, but blend multiple genres together. 

“I grew up listening to classical music, jazz, hip-hop, Cuban,” he said. “I listened to everything. I’m just gonna bleed out everything that’s in me.” 

Riggins wants to bring that boundary-less music to his performances at the Detroit Jazz Festival. He said artistic director Chris Collins reached out to him about the opportunity to become an artist-in-residence. 

“The selection of Karriem Riggins as the 2023 artist-in-residence represents our mission to embrace the next generation of jazz leadership, and jazz’s continuous evolution that makes this genre of music so special and eternal,” Collins said in a news release. “His artistry, energy, transcending jazz style and presence will create an exciting showcase of talent and diverse tapestry coming from the festival stages.” 

Being a resident artist also gives Riggins a chance to come back home and visit his mother and close friends. 

“This city has given me so much, the tools that I needed to get to where I am now,” he said. “So, coming home is just…it’s medicinal for me.” 

Detroit Jazz Festival lineup 

The Detroit Jazz Festival unveiled its 2023 lineup Wednesday, with Detroit artists and recent National Endowment for the Art Jazz Masters Fellowship recipients Regina Carter, Louis Hayes, and Kenny Garrett headlining. 

Jazz singer Samara Joy, who won Best New Artist at the Grammys earlier this year, will also be one of the performers. 

The partial schedule includes: 

Friday, Sept. 1 

  •  Gretchen C. Valade Tribute 
  • 2023 Rocket Mortgage Artist-In-Residence Karriem Riggins “Interplay” 

Sat., Sept. 2 

  • Regina Carter: Gone in a Phrase of Air
  • Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade: Children of the Light
  • Miho Hazama and M_Unit
  • “The Detroit Piano Legacy Continues…” – A montage of Detroit pianists
  • Dafnis Prieto: “Cantar” with Luciana Souza
  • John Scofield Trio featuring Vicente Archer and Bill Stewart
  • Melissa Aldana Quartet
  • Isaiah Collier & The Chosen Few
  • Stefon Harris & Blackout
  • Detroit Jazz Festival Global Connect International All-Stars Hurricane Trio featuring Chris Collins

Sunday, Sept. 3 

  • 2023 Rocket Mortgage Artist-In-Residence Karriem Riggins: “J Dilla Lives Forever”
  • Kenny Garrett Ensemble
  • Jason Moran and the Harlem Hell Fighters/James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin
  • Lizz Wright
  • Johnny O’Neal & Sullivan Fortner “Tribute to Detroit Piano Masters”
  • Alexa Tarantino Quartet
  • Nduduzo Makhathini Quartet
  • Joel Ross’ Good Vibes
  • Veronica Swift

Monday, Sept. 4 

  • 2023 Rocket Mortgage Artist-In-Residence Karriem Riggins: “Karriem and the Erratic Specialist”
  • Louis Hayes Quintet
  • Michael Weiss Trio: A Tribute to Barry Harris, with Peter Washington and Lewis Nash
  • Samara Joy
  • Dafnis Prieto with the Detroit Jazz Festival Collegiate Student All-Stars
  • Allison Miller and Boom Tic Boom “River in our Veins”
  • Linda May Han Oh – The Glass Hours
  • Papo Vazquez Mighty Pirates Troubadours

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