Detroit Jazz City

When the music of Detroit is the topic of conversation, what comes to mind for most people is Motown — which stands as the city’s foremost musical identity — but that is just part of the story.
Detroit is Gospel City: the Winans, Fred Hammond, the Clark Sisters, Byron Cage, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, J Moss, etc.
Detroit is Rock/Rap City: Bob Seger, Eminem, the MC5, Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder, Kid Rock, the Romantics, etc.
Detroit is R&B City: Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, Michael Henderson, the Spinners, Anita Baker, the Dramatics, George Clinton, Ray Parker, Jr., Little Willie John, Ortheia Barnes, etc.
In addition, “The D” is also Techno City, and it has plenty of Blues City credits as well: John Lee Hooker, Thornetta Davis, Sippie Wallace, Johnnie Bassett, Little Sonny and Alberta Adams among them.
But always to be acknowledged is the fact that Detroit is also Jazz City. There is a good reason why the Detroit Jazz Festival is such a smashing success every year, and why the festival — previously known as the Montreux-Detroit International Jazz Festival — takes place here in the first place.
IT IS interesting to note that virtually all of the musicians recruited by Motown were firmly rooted in Detroit’s jazz clubs, including Earl Van Dyke (keyboards), James Jamerson (bass), Thomas “Beans” Bowles (flute, saxophone), Uriel Jones (drums), Eddie Willis (guitar), Joe Hunter (keyboards), Robert White (guitar) and Benny Benjamin (drums).
Berry Gordy described them as being “the greatest house band that anyone could ever want.”
The list of jazz musicians originally from Detroit, or who migrated here, is a long one and includes, among many others, Elvin Jones, Harold McKinney, Sir Roland Hanna, Wendell Harrison, Lucky Thompson, Pepper Adams, Robert Hurst, Paul Chambers, Ursula Walker, Rodney Whitaker, Phil Ranelin, Thad Jones, Regina Carter, Kirk Lightsey, Dorothy Ashby, Duane Parham, Tommy Flanagan, Straight Ahead (the all female band), Howard McGhee, Kenn Coxx and Ralph Armstrong.
Indeed, as this story is being written, I am listening to two great CDs featuring all Detroit talent, “You Be The Judge” by the Mike Wahls Trio, with Mike Wahls on piano, Marion Hayden on bass, George Davidson on drums, and guest vocals by Ursula Walker and trumpet input from Marcus Belgrave, and “Bill Banfield and the BMagic Orchestra.”
Numerous Detroit jazz greats are being spotlighted here.
MARCUS BELGRAVE, master of the trumpet, is a Detroit jazz treasure. Throughout his long career he has worked with a virtual who’s who of the jazz world, including Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Max Roach.
Among his early major achievements was touring and recording with the Ray Charles orchestra. Today he has the title of Jazz Master Laureate for the city of Detroit and has also been recognized for mentoring an array of developing young jazz musicians.
EARL KLUGH (pronounced “clue”) began playing guitar at the age of 13, fascinated, surprisingly, by the playing of country guitarist Chet Atkins and he got the opportunity to play on several of his albums.
Klugh has been prolific as a recording artist, with over 30 albums to his credit, spanning from 1976 to 2013, and including 12 Grammy nominations.
JAMES CARTER, who plays saxophone and clarinet, is among the younger of the Detroit jazz greats. But doing things at a young age is something of a tradition for Carter who toured Europe as part of the International Jazz Band at the age of 16.
A performance at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1988 led to an engagement at the Carlos 1 jazz club in New York, playing with Lester Bowie (with whom he had also played at the DIA). By way of this engagement Carter met a lot of people who would be key to the advancement of his career.
GERI ALLEN, pianist, received her early music education at Cass Technical High School and the Jazz Development Workshop where her mentor was Marcus Belgrave. She went on earn a jazz studies bachelor’s degree at Howard University, in Washington, D.C.
Allen also earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh. She recorded her first album, “The Printmakers,” in 1984 and 18 more since then.
DONALD BYRD, the celebrated trumpeter whose birth name is Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II, also attended Cass Tech. While still in high school he had the opportunity to perform with the legendary bandleader/vibist Lionel Hampton.
Byrd earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Wayne State University and while pursuing a master’s degree at Manhattan School of Music, joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
Although he had a great deal of success as a recording artist in his own right, his 1973 album “Black Byrd” took him to a new level and much broadened his audience. He was recording for Blue Note at the time and “Black Byrd” quickly became the label’s biggest seller up to that point.
BETTY CARTER (real name: Lillie Mae Jones) was the queen of jazz vocalizing. Her scatting and improvisational technique were astonishing and set her apart from all others.
Among those who recognized Carter’s unique skills early on was trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie. But the first band she joined was that of another jazz legend, Lionel Hampton. The next big break came when jazz icon Miles Davis suggested that Ray Charles take her under his wing. He did. She toured and recorded with him. Eventually she went out on her own.
Betty Carter always refused to compromise her art for the sake of possible commercial success.
KENNY BURRELL, guitarist, made his recording debut in 1951, playing as part of Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet. He was attending Wayne State University at the time. After graduating in 1955, he toured with Oscar Peterson.
Although, he was and continues to be very successful as a solo attraction, Burrell is best known as the consummate sideman, having worked with everyone from Eddie Harris, Coleman Hawkins and Hubert Laws to Stanley Turrentine, Jack McDuff and Herbie Mann.
RON CARTER, bassist, has been recognized as one of the most recorded bassists in the history of jazz. Amazingly, he has been in the studio for the recording of 2,500 albums.
Yet another Cass Tech grad, Carter later attended Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, New York. There, he played in the Philharmonic Orchestra. Chico Hamilton and Jaki Byard were the first to hire him as a professional jazz musician.
YUSEF LATEEF (born William Emanuel Huddleston), multi-instrumentalist, launched his professional career upon graduation from high school.
Though he was very young, Dizzy Gillespie invited him to tour with his orchestra in 1949. He accepted but returned to Detroit the following year to begin composition and flute studies at Wayne State University. (He played saxophone while with Gillespie.)
One thing that made Lateef different from his peers was the fact that he made Eastern instruments, such as Chinese wooden flutes and bells, a part of the music he created.
ALICE COLTRANE, who played piano, harp and organ, was married to jazz icon John Coltrane but made inroads and achieved much recognition in her own right.
After her husband’s passing, Coltrane played with her own groups that later included their sons, Ravi, John Jr. and Oranyan. As time went on, she moved increasingly in the direction of meditative music, heavily influenced by her interest in the spirituality, music and culture of India.
MILT JACKSON, vibraphonist, is best known for his contributions to the Modern Jazz Quartet. Like so many others, he was discovered by Dizzy Gillespie who utilized his skills in his sextet and in larger ensembles.
Formed around 1950, the Modern Jazz Quartet were mainstays on the jazz scene, disbanding in 1974, at which time Jackson went out on his own. However, the quarter re-formed in 1981 and played together until 1993. — Jayson Lewis contributed to this story.


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