April is Jazz Appreciation Month and the city is showing some music love to the sound that started it all. When thinking of music, Detroit is synonymous with the Motown Sound. Berry Gordy and his legion of powerhouse vocalists and composers created a movement and an individual sound that continues to influence artists and songs of today. However, before Gordy’s reign, jazz music soothed and oozed through the streets of Detroit and was once the sound heard all around the city.
Starting in the early 1920’s the jazz scene in Detroit set itself apart from sounds in cities like Chicago, St. Louis or New Orleans. Tunes from McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Jean Goldkette Orchestra and McKinney’s Synco Septet helped pave the way for other iconic jazz musicians and crooners.
In Detroit, clubs began popping up all over and booked performers offered sounds rich with trumpets and saxophones. The Greystone Ballroom became a hot spot for not only Detroit acts, but giants like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.
As the years progressed, jazz became more intimate in Detroit and went from the grandeur of ballrooms and big band performances to small cabaret bands. The historic community Paradise Valley was a major player in early jazz. Through the 1930’s and 1940’s, Paradise Valley was the place to go for Detroit nightlife. More than 10 clubs served as hot spots for local jazz musicians and lovers. The jazz genre continued to shift and grow and parent other musical genres.
“Jazz has evolved so much over the decades. It’s evolved so much that we can’t even classify what’s jazz and what isn’t. All of the music that we know and love today all comes from the umbrella of jazz; hip hop, R&B, rock, country, techno,” says Trunino Lowe, a local musician, trumpeter, composer, band leader and educator.
Today, jazz has seen a steady evolution from its early days. While jazz bands still exist, the scene in Detroit has become smaller since gentrification closed the doors to many of the small clubs. Still carrying the torch, some artists across the city are taking jazz and making it their own.
“The importance of jazz in Detroit is very high. A lot of the ‘Detroit Sound’ is rooted out of jazz. From Motown, hip hop and even techno, all of the Motown studio arrangers and musicians were local jazz musicians here in Detroit,” says Lowe,
Still pulling from its foundation, today’s jazz artists recognize the evolution of their craft yet are continuing to keep the sound alive. With a new generation of jazz musicians coming from the city, Detroit’s sound is mighty and presents another showing of the city’s grit and Phoenix-like persona.
“Jazz is one of the genres that has taken a bit of time to evolve. But I’m really excited to see people like Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Jacob Collier, Terence Blanchard, MonoNeon and many more paving the way,” says LaDarrel ‘Saxappeal’ Johnson, touring saxophonist for Charlie Wilson and solo artist.
Etched in song samples, lyrics and artist’s influences, jazz has a rich history in the city that permeates the fabric of Detroit. From its very foundation, Black jazz artists, as with many things, created a sauce no one could imitate.
“Detroit and jazz go back way before Motown. It stems all the way back to the 1920’s. The history and legacy of this city is so rich. I’m honored and proud to be a part of it,” says Lowe.
As we commemorate Jazz Appreciation Month, remembering the legacy and influence jazz has had and continues to have in the city is monumental. For up-and-coming local Black jazz artists and those already established, their roots are firmly planted and jazz music is their water.
“Let’s continue to listen to these incredible artists who leave it all on the stage, and also listen to some of the classic jazz giants,” says Johnson.