The Jazz.com Blog
May 26, 2009 · 3 comments
Tough times always seem tougher in Motor City. If the "Big 3" automakers are on the brink, can jazz musicians be any better off? Bill Barnes looks at the jazz heritage of Detroit and the current environment, and finds some grounds for optimism amidst the day-to-day struggles. This is the latest in a series of article taking the temperature of the jazz scene in various communities in the US and abroad. T.G.
Imagine, for a brief moment, that jazz is a commodity like wheat or soybeans, then consider the fields from which it is harvested. You would likely envision New Orleans, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Chicago and New York as the first major factory farms, with L.A. and the West Coast scene providing fertile, cool acreage.
However, without the seed bed of talent from other parts of the country these epicenters would have yielded far less varied and flavorful produce. Pittsburgh gave us George Benson, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Brown and Billy Strayhorn to name but a few. From Indianapolis we have Wes Montgomery, Slide Hampton and Freddie Hubbard. Louisville gave us Jimmy Rainey. Two otherwise insignificant small towns in North Carolina helped shape modern jazz by producing Thelonious Monk, born in Rocky Mount, and John Coltrane, who hailed from the tiny enclave of Hamlet. Jazz has deep, diversified, interconnected roots, fed by some improbable wellsprings.
But, among all the U. S. cities, perhaps the most incredible wellspring would be the embattled city of Detroit. Far from the Mississippi riverboat routes which circulated and nurtured the music’s development, the gritty Michigan industrial center became a polarized community of haves and have-nots churning out automobiles and great wealth for the Grosse Pointe set, shocking poverty for the denizens of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. Yet it produced legendary artists such as Thad Jones, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Yusef Lateef, Elvin Jones, Pepper Adams, Curtis Fuller, Donald Byrd, Betty Carter, Hank Jones and Paul Chambers. Tenor titan Joe Henderson called it home while developing his hard bop technique. Whether it was musical evolution or revolution, swing, bop, blues, fusion, funk, free or cool, Motor City musicians have been active participants in the development of the art of jazz.
Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra (courtesy of Scott Gwinnell)
From the beginning Detroit has played a unique role. Acclaimed journalist and biographer Herbert Boyd suggests that the city may be the birthplace of ragtime, citing W.C. Handy’s admiration for the syncopation of the Fred Stone Orchestra. During the 1920s ensembles such as the Jean Goldkette Victor Recording Orchestra and McKinney's Cotton Pickers helped lay the foundation of big band jazz. Throughout the next two decades, Detroit dance halls such as the Graystone, the Pier Ballroom and the Bop-Lo Island Pavilion played a significant role in the evolution of swing.
In the fifties the bebop epicenter of the city was the Blue Bird Inn, a prominent nightspot immortalized in Thad Jones' composition "5021” and a frequent venue for local luminaries such as guitarist Kenny Burrell and pianist Tommy Flanagan. According to authors Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert, (Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-60), “Almost every significant 1950s hard bop veteran in the city either played or hung out there during its peak years.”
When most people think of Detroit music, they probably think of the “Motown sound” of the sixties, of which Detroit jazz musicians such as Marcus Belgrave were a major component. The city had its international musical profile raised significantly during the Motown era, with the help of local studio musicians such as Joe Hunter, James Jamerson and Jack Ashford, part of an elite cadre dubbed “the Funk Brothers.” These seasoned, multi-styled instrumentalists provided a solid foundation for the unique sound behind the Supremes, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and other R & B icons. But the real value of these Motown sessions may have been the consistent stream of studio dates providing sustenance to local jazz musicians, while helping to hone their commercial chops.
The avant-garde movements of Chicago and New York were echoed by Detroit musicians as well. While New York had its October Revolution and Chicago gave birth to the AACM movement in the sixties, an organization known as “The Tribe” established an avant-garde beachhead in Detroit in 1971. Founded by trombonist Phil Ranelin and sax man Wendell Harrison, The Tribe functioned as a creative experimental clearinghouse and record label. During its heyday the label producing notable albums such as Message from the Tribe, Doug Hammond’s Reflections in the Sea of Nurnen with David Durrah, and Marcus Belgrave’s Gemini II.
From the turbulent sixties until the present, Detroit has weathered its hard knocks and there are still daunting challenges facing its jazz community. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, a jazz icon currently in its 75th year, is fighting to keep its doors open. In a recent NPR interview, owner John Colbert said there was nothing unique about his club’s plight. “We're in a depressed economy. We're no different than anyone. We're in line."
While the physical location of the historic Blue Bird Inn is still intact, its future is uncertain. The popular jazz spot Cobb’s Corner didn’t survive the shooting death of its owner in 1974. Still, the city continues to offer an enticing variety of venues, from the posh, art-deco Cliff Bells and the nostalgic Baker’s to the relatively new showcase, Jazz Café Detroit at Music Hall. Live jazz still thrives at venues like Bert’s Jazz Marketplace, the Dirty Dog and the Harlequin Cafe. The city’s economy continues to struggle, but an empowerment zone program promises hope for businesses along the streets of the former Black Bottom neighborhood and Paradise Valley. It’s like the town that refused to die.
More to the point, Detroit continues to produce world-class players such as Barry Harris and the late Roland Hanna. Hank Jones, the father of the “Detroit school” of piano, has influenced several generations of Detroit keyboard artists and is still touring, at the tender age of 91! Trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave continues to make waves, while up-and-comers such as tenor man Keith Kaminski, rising alto sax star Kenny Garrett and pianist Scott Gwinnell forge their reputations in the jazz world at large. Sax man Steve Woods continues to spread the Gospel according to Lateef. Detroit-born jazz violinist Regina Carter is a top concert draw around the world, mainstream singer Meri Slaven wows crowds at Cliff Bells, while Detroit expatriate chanteuse Victoria Rummler delights Parisian troglodytes. Jazz-funk enthusiasts can shake it with the Bobby Streng Saxomble, and the Hot Club of Detroit chomps out the pompe with top Gypsy jazz guitarist Evan Perri and accordion virtuoso Julien Labro.
Despite boasting a fine international airport and an intriguing jazz scene, Detroit remains a reluctant tourist destination for many. However, on Labor Day weekend there will be an even more compelling reason for jazz lovers to overcome such prejudice: the Detroit International Jazz Festival. Now in its thirtieth year, the festival will honor three of Detroit’s legendary jazzmen, Thad, Elvin and Hank Jones, in a family-themed lineup pithily titled, “Keeping up with the Jones.” In conjunction with this theme there will be sets by the Heath Brothers, Dave Brubeck and sons, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Larry and Julian Coryell and other jazz family groups. Hank Jones will perform as well as some perennial favorite non-Detroitniks such as Chick Corea, Sheila Jordan, Christian McBride and Wayne Shorter. Appropriately enough, the homegrown Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra has been booked to close the show. Another highlight will be the Clayton Brothers Quintet, performing a commissioned concerto grosso written by bassist John Clayton.
In the face of overwhelming odds such as the decline in the auto industry, the exit of Motown Records, the current recession and continued urban decay, Detroit jazz continues to thrive. According to singer Meri Slaven: "Great jazz musicians come out of Detroit like grass growing through cement. You gotta wonder why it happens, yet it does." Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned, the ultimate validation of the old “pearl in the oyster” theory. Without the grit, there would be no precious jewel born from a suffering organism. Jazz is not the sort of music that could have been spawned in the playgrounds of the idle rich. With the juxtaposition of poverty, urban strife and industrial wealth, Detroit may have been the perfect crucible.
Whatever the future may hold, the Motor City has already left its indelible hallmark on American culture—and its jazz community has carved a significant piece of that stamp.
This blog entry posted by Bill Barnes