All That Jazz

While jazz fans count off the days until the start of this year's Detroit International Jazz Festival, held this weekend in downtown's Cadillac Square and Campus Martius, it might be a good time to think about the part the music played in the city's cultural heritage.

Before there was a Motown Sound — yeah, man — there was Detroit jazz. As Detroit’s population reached its pinnacle in the 1950s, so did its jazz tradition. U-M sociology professor and President of Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association (SEMJA), Lars Bjorn notes that during the first half of the twentieth century, jazz moved west across Detroit, following the migration of the Black community along Gratiot Avenue, from the lower east side’s "Black Bottom" neighborhood, through Paradise Valley in what is now Harmonie Park, and along the legendary Hastings Street.

In the book Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-60, Bjorn and co-author Jim Gallert follow Detroit jazz from its early society days. The so-called "black-and-tan" clubs of Paradise Valley, evolved through the 1940s, when Detroit dance halls were de rigueur, with ballrooms especially popular in the East Jefferson and Woodward corridors. The 1940s through the early 1950s, saw the big band swing style morph into the 'jump’ band style of Louie Jordan.

One of the best-remembered and largest dance halls, with a capacity of several thousand, The Greystone Ballroom was an architectural gem that flourished in the early years, establishing its stellar reputation with Ohio expatriates The McKinney Cotton Pickers. Later, The Greystone hosted a variety of hardcore punk bands until it met the wrecking crew in the 1980s. Northwest Detroit’s famed Grande Ballroom was a 1920s jazz dance hall cum 21st century Rock ‘n’ Roll palace.

As the 1950s progressed, the Detroit sound developed – a hardcore Be-Bop – and a Detroit jazz tradition was born. Long-time local jazz fan (and Clark Hill attorney) Paul Green was a teen-about-town in the 1950s, and recalls sneaking out of his Northwest Detroit home in the wee hours to frequent the Minor Key and a number of other clubs and musician hang-outs. “The Del Ray afterhours jazz place I used to go to as a kid was called The West End Hotel. …The jazz was in a little dining area on the first floor. A wonderful flute/saxophone player named Yusef Lateef was the apparent artist in residence. He, of course, went on to much greater things.” Bjorn names Klein’s Show Bar, the Blue Bird Inn, and Baker's Keyboard Lounge as clubs that weathered the 1950s and 1960s. Inarguably the most important Detroit club in jazz history, The Blue Bird Inn was the birthmother of the Detroit jazz Be-Bop sound and was so influential, local jazz legends Tommy Flanagan and Thad Jones composed with the Inn in mind (Beyond the Blue Bird and 5021, respectively). The Blue Bird Inn is still standing on Northwest Detroit’s Tireman St. Bjorn says upon his most recent visit the the building was "in pristine condition (and) on the whole, nicely preserved.” But its club status is currently in question.

The Players

Detroit is and has been home to many jazz legends. Philly-born trumpeter Marcus Belgrave has made Detroit his home for over 40 years, during which time he was ‘instrumental’ both in establishing Detroit Bop and creating the Motown sound. A musician in the style of the venerated Louis Armstrong, Belgrave is one of the few musicians that not only created local music history, but also established the future of the Detroit jazz tradition, as a former faculty member at Oakland University, and having mentored the likes of pianist Geri Allen and up-and-coming artists from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Civic Youth Ensembles. A 1994 Michigan Governor’s Arts Award recipient, Mr. Belgrave gigs regularly around town, most recently at the Comerica CityFest and Grosse Pointe’s Jazz on the Plaza, and nationally with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and others.

Renowned saxophonist/composer and Lafayette Park resident Donald Walden also is on the road often, performing currently with other international jazz greats Mulgrew Miller and Louis Hayes. A University of Michigan professor, the multi-award winning Walden has performed with Dizzy Gillespie and Barry Harris, and studied improv with Yusef Lateef. Walden says he does like to perform in Detroit when the opportunity presents itself; recent summer gigs included joining former Detroit vocalist Miche Braden at The Detroit Institute of Arts.

Tenor saxophonist Steve Wood, a longtime East English Village resident, survives on the local jazz circuit as do fellow eminent local musicians: with chops and tenacity. A Lateef scholar of sorts, Wood and his tributary quintet performed the music of the internationally renowned musician at this year’s Detroit Music Awards. The Steve Wood Quintet performed Lateef's music recently at the Music Hall Jazz Café, and will appear at this weekend's Detroit International Jazz Festival. Wood is also a sideman in The Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra, resident Wednesday night Big Band at Cliff Bells.

Revered bassist Marion Hayden joins the shorter but strong list of Detroit female jazz instrumentalists with national recognition. The Highland Park resident is a founding member of acclaimed jazz group Straight Ahead. Hayden’s new CD Visions is a product of her own label, Equinox Mansion. Hayden believes it’s important to reach out to younger people and invites them – and others – to listen to new and old sounds; her trio is the resident Friday night band at Lola’s in Harmonie Park.

The Venues

Bjorn says his favorite venues to hear jazz in the Detroit tradition are downtown’s Cliff Bells, Bert's Marketplace in Eastern Market, and of course the Northwest Detroit stalwart Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, which opened over 70 years ago as a sandwich shop featuring local piano talent. The intimate club has a signature piano-shaped bar and features Wednesday night jam sessions.

Since relocating from the foot of Woodward to Eastern Market in the 1980s, Bert’s has welcomed local and national musical greats dropping in unannounced to join the jam or just have a listen. (Past drop-ins include B.B. King and the Marsalis brothers.) A laid-back atmosphere with soul food to boot, Bert’s features open mic night every Wednesday and Thursday.

The stylish and doctrinaire Cliff Bells, steeped in history going back to the post-Prohibition era, is open to developing traditions, and luxuriously wrapped in art deco. Tuesday nights features an open jazz jam; Wednesday nights is big band night.

Jazz is a long-surviving art form in Detroit, showcased by the splendid outdoor jazz ahead this weekend and weekly club nights throughout the rest of the year.

Veronica Paiz is a Detroit-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to Model D.


Jazz at Cliff Bells

Nathaniel Mayer at the Bohemian National Home

Jazz at Cliff Bells

Jazz at Cliff Bells

Baker's Keyboard Lounge

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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