Perfect Highland Park Harmony

The canvas is pristine — immaculate in color, texture and expression. The intricate melange of colors seems to dance, to come alive in an instant, summoning African heritage, Brazilian flair and modernist impression. The hues seem to sway, to bounce, feet tapping, fingers snapping, heads bopping to a swinging jazz rhythm.

On its face, it's an intricate abstract, subject to the eye of the beholder. But to those who appreciate carefully crafted artwork, the painting represents a union — specifically the union of two of Detroit's most creative couples, artist M. Saffell Gardner and musician Marion Hayden.

Gardner is a celebrated painter who specializes in amazingly colorful abstracts. Hayden is an award-winning jazz bassist and member of the Grammy-nominated ensemble Straight Ahead.

The "fortysomething" couple lives in Highland Park, and both are proud graduates of Detroit Public Schools, crediting the system with providing them the foundation to build careers doing the things they love.

The couple met at a Badal Roy concert in Detroit. Roy is a famed tabla player and among the first artists to meld Indian music with jazz and funk. Appropriate, because the couple not only share an undying love for one another, but for their respective cultural arts as well.

Detroit is home to a cultural arts community that rivals cities around the globe. Gardner and Hayden are two of the group’s proudest representatives.

“I think the arts community here is really very vibrant,” says Hayden. “I’m actually amazed at the fact that it continues to thrive come hell or high water. And usually here, it’s hell and high water.”

Love, life, arts

Making art and performing for a living, while juggling the responsibilities of parenthood, is a challenge. But they pull it of well because in addition to their love affair they share a like affection for the cultural arts.

“I’ve been interested in art for as long as I can remember,” says Gardner. “Around fifth grade, I did a drawing on a steno pad. It was a small drawing of a mountain climber. I don’t know where I got that from.”

Gardner impressed instructors early on with his ability to draw and he quickly progressed to painting water colors. As a sixth grader, some of work was recognized in a citywide art competition and ultimately landed in the Detroit Institute of Arts. He continued to win honors in high school, and although he studied the more practical craft of architecture, by the time he moved on to college, plans changed.

After entering Wayne State University as an engineering student, Gardner quickly found the discipline too confining and realized he had to express himself, so he turned to art full time. He began doing sculptures and paintings, and has never looked back. Gardner went on to earn both bachelor's and master’s degrees in fine arts from WSU.

Hayden also walked into the arts in grade school, when an instructor asked her students if they would like to take up the study of an instrument. She originally chose the cello and moved on to the bass, which she says, was more fitting for a “tall girl.” It proved to be a wise decision.

At Cass Technical High School, Hayden was introduced to jazz and fell in love with it after an instructor brought in renowned artist Marcus Belgrave to teach students about theory and technique.

Hayden then entered a summer program that featured Belgrave, Wendell Harrison and Harold McKinney as instructors. She learned jazz from musicians who were on stage with the legends of the business and along with their knowledge came firsthand insight into the lives of the artists — what they were like and how they approached performing. That type of instruction is priceless.

“That’s how we learned to play music,” says Hayden, “It’s a really nice thing to come from Detroit, during that time, because you got to learn jazz in a really authentic way. You got it right from the source.”

Giving back

Now, Gardner and Hayden are the artists giving back.

Gardner has taught at the college level and below. Hayden is a faculty member at the University of Michigan. She has a bachelor’s degree from U of M and a graduate degree from Michigan State University.

“Hearing jazz played and understanding how it fits into the lives of a people is another thing, because it’s part of the African-American experience. It’s as much a part of the culture as gospel of anything else,” says Hayden.

Hayden can be seen all over town. In the span of two recent weeks, Hayden played at the annual America’s Thanksgiving Parade and the grand reopening of the DIA, and recorded songs for a new disc, based on the biblical Book of Ruth. It was a commissioned piece, and a moving one at that. She is also promoting a CD, “Visions,” her first solo album released a couple of months ago and available in local stores and online.

The most substantive time she has spent in the studio has come with Straight Ahead, a renowned collection    of female jazz artists. Straight Ahead currently features Hayden on piano, Alina Morr on bass, Gaylelynn McKinney on drums, and Kymberlie Wright with lead vocals.

The group has performed together for 15 years and recently completed an album. “We were lucky enough to get a project going and stick with it,” says Hayden.

Meanwhile, Gardner stays busy creating work and showing at local galleries around town.

He tries to address topical issues on canvas, including the history of the slave trade, Hurricane Katrina, and soon something on the war in Iraq. Among his influences are Robert S. Duncanson, the first celebrated African-American painter, and Henry O. Tanner, a 19th century African-American painter.

“For Katrina, I painted something that was bright, something that was kind of uplifting. That may be what I may have to paint to talk about the war in Iraq. Because I really do think I need to make a painting about it, and that’s been on my mind,” says Gardner.

At recent showing of his abstracts at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Southwest Detroit, attendees marveled at the painter’s work. More than a few noted how his paintings seemed to leap off the canvas, an effect he achieves by mixing paints with metallic substances.

Gardner and Hayden are indeed part of the creative engine that drives Detroit, making it a more vibrant and interesting place to be.

“If it’s a passion and something you love, then you keep doing it,” Gardner says of his work. “I think as an artist that’s kind of my job, to bring more beauty into the world.”

For more on the artists, go to and

M. Saffell Gardner and Marion Hayden Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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