The street sign on the corner of John. R and Madison Avenue in downtown Detroit now reads “Marcus Belgrave Avenue,” after late jazz trumpeting great Marcus Belgrave. The sign was unveiled during a ceremony Thursday before the launch of the Detroit Jazz Festival.
The particular block of Randolph being renamed is significant because it is in front of the building where Belgrave and his wife Joan mentored youth at what was formerly the Carr Center. The street also abuts the block of Madison Avenue that was renamed “Aretha Franklin Boulevard” in honor of the legendary Detroit singer in 2017 (who Belgrave toured with early on in her career), as well as near the brand new mural of Stevie Wonder on the Music Hall (who Belgrave met when Stevie was only 13, when Marcus was performing in the backing band on many Motown hits).
“This is something that I could do to pay tribute to the man that I loved so dearly,” said Joan Belgrave, an acclaimed jazz vocalist in her own right. “He was not only my husband, but my musical partner. We played together, we created together, and we served the musical community together. So this is for all of that. I can’t even begin to tell you how much it means.”
Belgrave (1936-2015) came to Detroit in 1962 and became a Motown studio musician, playing on such classics as Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” and the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl.” Born in Chester, Pennsylvania, he joined Ray Charles’ backing band in 1958, the first leg of a career which saw him work with some of the most important instrumentalists of the 20th Century — including Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Wynton Marsalis. He also backed some of America’s finest vocalists, including Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn.
“Marcus’ legacy is phenomenal. It reaches so far and so wide,” said Joan Belgrave. “I can’t go anywhere without someone telling me that he taught them, helped them or influenced them. Now, all of the people whose lives he touched will be able to come back and see that his legacy is still here. This is something permanent that will be here forever in the city of Detroit that he loved.”
Belgrave’s music is only part of his influence. As a teacher, he helped mentor several generations of jazz musicians and was a professor or visiting artist at numerous institutions, including Detroit-area schools and Michigan State University.
He was also a key contributor to the collective around Tribe Records, the Detroit jazz independent label founded by Phil Ranelin and Wendell Harrison in 1974.
In conjunction with the street naming, Detroit techno innovator Carl Craig’s pioneering Detroit electronic music label Planet E Records will release a limited edition “Detroit-only” reissue of Belgrave’s 1974 masterwork GEMINI II via its Community Projects sub-label.
GEMINI II was originally released on Tribe Records in 1974 (and later rereleased by Belgrave with a different album cover on his own Gem-Eye imprint), and was composed and produced by Belgrave, who also played trumpet, flugelhorn, and miscellaneous percussion on the record. Vintage copies of the album have traded for as much as $500.00 among collectors, and the record has long been one of the most sought-after recordings in Detroit jazz history. The remastered GEMINI II will be pressed on 180 gram vinyl by Detroit’s Third Man Records, and will be available only during Detroit Jazz Festival weekend.
“I’m so proud that Marcus will have a street in his name,” said Craig. “His legacy deserves this. Marcus is a prime example of how musicianship skills are sharpened in Detroit because Detroiters won’t accept anything less than musical excellence. When I think of musical excellence, Marcus’ smiling face dominates that whole thought. I’m so glad to have known the man and his horn and am happy and proud to be a part of this celebration.”