All That Jazz

A full-swing resurgence is drawing on Detroit’s rich music culture


Ralphe Armstrong

Photographs by Justin Maconochie

(page 1 of 2)

Ralphe Armstrong is pissed. This enormously gifted musician, considered by many to be the finest jazz bassist on Earth — a performer so talented that he earned a gig playing with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra at the age of 16, straight out of Interlochen Arts Academy — is a Detroiter through and through. Born and raised. He’s extremely proud of that. In fact, he submits the reason he’s so good may be “because I was born in Detroit. That had a lot to do with it.”

And when Detroit doesn’t receive its full propers as a jazz music empire, particularly from people who live here and should know better? Oooh, it makes him mad!

“Please put this in the magazine!” implores the ever-flamboyant Armstrong, now in his 50s. “I get really upset when I hear about Detroit companies that sell ‘jazz tour packages’ and take people to Chicago or New Orleans, when we’ve got more musicians here than any other part of the United States! New Orleans don’t have a third of the jazz musicians we got here! We come from a very rich tradition.”

Ralphe, maybe the complication is, we have too much music. In the city that created Motown, refined gospel, symbolized rock ’n’ roll, and invented techno, it’s simple to see how jazz might slip occasionally in our sonic popularity poll. But it could never be completely overlooked.

From the 1920s era of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, viewed by some historians as the first swing band, up through the likes of James Carter, Kenny Garrett, and Geri Allen today, jazz is deeply embedded in this town’s collective DNA … as in Detroit’s Native Artistry.

A Labor (Day) of Love

The Detroit Jazz Festival, the Labor Day weekend institution celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, is the most visible and glittering manifestation of our city’s love for America’s indigenous sound. The world’s largest free jazz festival lures music lovers of every age, race, sex, and level of hipness to the Detroit riverfront by the thousands for four dizzying days of local and international acts, led in 2014 by saxophonist/artist-in-residence Joshua Redman. It’s a cultural touchstone — and a considerable economic boon since nearly a quarter of attendees come from out of town.

“It’s one of those great Detroit experiences,” enthuses jazz saxophonist Chris Collins, in his third year as the festival’s artistic director (see "Side Notes," page 2). “There’s a unique vibe anyone will tell you about when they’re down there. It’s not just artsy; it’s like a family thing.

“People are experiencing this high art, and they’re coming from all over Detroit, all over the country, not just because of the great music but the way we set it up. We don’t have a Ferris wheel and 25 different kinds of doughnuts. It’s all about the music.”

The theme of this year’s Detroit Jazz Festival is “Jazz Speaks for Life.” Fitting, since in some local cliques jazz is life. For all of its luster, however, the festival only scratches the surface of the extent to which jazz permeates Detroit.

Legendary Locations, New Hot Spots

Take Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, “the world’s oldest jazz club” that’s looking to expand to a second, showroom-sized venue for the first time in its 80-year history. Or Cliff Bell’s, the sophisticated Art-Deco throwback on Detroit’s Park Avenue voted 2014’s Best Jazz Club by Hour Detroit readers. Or the Dirty Dog Jazz Café, the impossibly posh, 65-seat Grosse Pointe boîte owned by Carhartt heiress and jazz festival benefactor Gretchen Valade.

Baker's Keyboard Lounge

“Visiting artists who go around the world and play everywhere have told me they don’t know of anyplace else like this that exists,” says the Dirty Dog Jazz Café’s publicist and Detroit music veteran Matt Lee. “Her model would work nowhere else in the real world.”

Or consider Bert’s Marketplace in Eastern Market, home to legendary Thursday night jam sessions for 14 years. Then there’s the Jazz Café inside the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, The Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Paradise Jazz Series at Orchestra Hall, free summer “Jazz on the Riverwalk” Thursdays at Roberts Riverwalk Hotel, and live musical performances at the Carr Center, where Detroit’s national treasure, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave (see "Side Notes," page 2), is the master artist-in-residence.

According to the website, there are more than 175 venues in the metro area and Ann Arbor that feature jazz music on a regular or frequent basis. Add a down-the-street record company, Mack Avenue Records, which specializes in the genre and owns the subsidiary label Detroit Music Factory spotlighting local artists (see "Side Notes," page 2).

Detroit’s indestructible Democrat, U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., has introduced numerous jazz-oriented bills in Congress, including one designating the music “a rare and valuable national American treasure.” Around here it really is “all that jazz,” and while the sound never fades from earshot in Detroit, indications are that it’s thundering back like a Gayelynn McKinney drum solo.

“Detroit is the mecca for jazz in the United States,” declares Armstrong, whose bass mentors were DownBeat Hall of Famer Ron Carter and Motown immortal James Jamerson. “If you look at the history of the jazz culture, Detroit has turned out more prominent jazz musicians than any other part of the world. And there’s more talent here now than … I don’t know, it must be something in the water, man.”

An ‘Acquired Taste’

Perhaps one reason it doesn’t remain top of mind with John Q. Motor City as Armstrong would like is because “Jazz is an acquired taste,” posits Charles Boles, the octogenarian Detroit piano master who released his debut CD in 2013 on the Detroit Music Factory imprint.

“It ain’t like ‘hurry-up-and-get-to-me-now’ hip-hop or party music. Jazz is on the same level as classical music,” Boles says. “Kids go study classical music, and that’s a lifetime study. Jazz is a lifetime study, too.

“I don’t want to talk about hip-hop or rap, but that ain’t no lifetime study, brother!” he adds. “I know people making music out there making tons of money, and they wouldn’t know an eighth note if it beat them across the head with a pipe.”

Bert's Marketplace

Pianist Bill Meyer, the former musical director for Martha Reeves and current bandleader of several bands who originated the Thursday night jams at Bert’s Marketplace with singer Dee Dee McNeil, believes there’s another reason — a jazzy elephant in the room — that can’t be overlooked: A large part of the genre has been shaped and cultivated by African-American culture.

“I know there’s a problem, so I can’t ignore it,” says Meyer, who is Caucasian. “I always pay attention to that and I think everyone should … not to think there’s no racism and everything’s hokey-pokey and fine and we all play together and love each other. Although the music is one of the forms that can bring people together.”

That seems to be the case at Bert’s, as the gentrification of Detroit is playing out Thursdays inside the airy club. “There are a lot more white people coming down than there used to be,” Meyer notes.

“It’s probably one of the most unique experiences in Detroit. There’s never been two nights the same in the 14 years we’ve been there, and there’s never been a bad experience. It’s been positive every week, how fun and beautiful the whole thing can be.

“Bert Dearing has been a jazz club owner in Detroit longer than any other. [The late Clarence Baker sold Baker’s in 1996.] He’s survived some tough times, and deserves a lot of credit for helping to keep jazz alive in Detroit.”

Detroit’s Alluring Jazz Jewels

Jazz has survived and appears to be resurgent at Baker’s, where owner and onetime club manager Hugh W. Smith III and business partner Eric J. Whitaker are looking to more than double the capacity of their world-renowned, 99-seat nightspot in a new downtown location.

At present they’re faced with an embarrassment of pitches: Since announcing their interest in working with, among other parties, Detroit land baron Dan Gilbert’s real estate group to find their second home, “now we have several developers offering situations,” Smith grins, “and we are looking at all of them to see what is best for our customers and for Baker’s.”

The competition has pushed back their timeline. “Of course we want to be in the middle of a great development, it’s going to be a five-star venue, and those things take a little time,” Smith says. “So we’re looking at 2015 to be online.” Yet Smith, who says he first entered Baker’s Keyboard Lounge as a music-hungry 17-year-old from Henry Ford High School, has no intention to forsake the original.

Cliff Bell's

“I could almost shed a tear being grateful to be a steward of such a legendary jewel of Detroit,” Smith says. “Eric and I have a duty to keep it a traditional jazz club, to continue the great legacy left by Clarence Baker. We don’t want to change Baker’s at all. Baker’s is Baker’s.”

A great jazz club should have two things: great acoustics and outstanding sight lines. Cliff Bell’s has neither, and co-owner Paul Howard was no jazz buff when he and two business partners became tenants in the long-shuttered, Albert Kahn-designed building in 2005. “And I can tell you that I’m still not,” he admits.

Yet Cliff Bell’s is an unqualified success. After stripping away decades of bad ideas and restoring the interior to its 1930s allure, there was only one logical choice for the room’s entertainment.

“I have to say that jazz in the club setting is absolutely the best music to experience live,” says Howard. “To be able to sit right upfront, 4 feet from the drummer, or right out in front of the saxophone, to be part of that experience so intimately, there is just nothing else like it.

“And this place has an effect on people. It’s Art Deco but it’s not cold,” Howard says. “You can sense the age and the history, but at the same time there’s a very young energy to the place.”

That’s due in large measure to entertainment director Phil Salatrik, to whom Howard has entrusted the musical menu. “If the music is good, people are captivated by it,” Salatrik says. “I just try to keep my finger on the pulse of what is going to entertain a Detroit audience, which for whatever reason has always been one of the hardest to impress.”

‘Each One, Teach One’

And Detroit’s talent pipeline keeps flowing. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz Ensembles provide structured training ground for young musicians, and through the leadership of world-class player/educators like Collins at Wayne State, Rodney Whitaker at Michigan State, and Robert Hurst at the University of Michigan, collegiate jazz programs in the region have gained national renown.

“Actually, growing up in Detroit was a very encouraging place to be a musician,” says bassist — and Distinguished Professor — Whitaker, who transformed jazz studies at MSU (see "Side Notes," page 2). “There are negative things in the city, but by and large most people love musicians. If you wanted to learn and play this music people would pay for your lessons if you couldn’t afford them! And it was full of folks like [pianist] Kenny Cox, one of my great mentors, who taught me the expression ‘each one, teach one.’ It’s about carrying on the legacy of mentoring. I was mentoring folks long I officially became an educator.”

Mack Avenue’s L.A.-based president, Denny Stilwell, sees the same phenomenon — even from long distance.

“Until I started working closely with Mack Avenue, I hadn’t spent much time in Detroit,” he says. “And when I go back I sense it every time, there’s just this great closeness there. I think the music community is such a tight-knit group. Everybody generally supports everybody else, everybody works on everybody else’s projects, and there’s a very nice, robust spirit of collaboration I enjoy witnessing.

“Los Angeles, where I live, is so spread out geographically that it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, it’s sometimes hard to feel that community even though it’s the entertainment capital of the world. But in Detroit, there’s this great focus on the music and it’s such a heartbeat of the city, it’s just a nice experience.”

“There’s a lot of good stuff going on in Detroit,” concludes Armstrong. “I’m not leaving. I’m going to stay around here.”

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