Embracing Detroit music as economic, cultural force

Something Piper Carter said stayed in my head, ever since last week when we met in Studio 5E, the arts space she operates in conjunction with several other entities in Midtown.

"We come from an expectation of failure, then blow people away with insurmountable success. Flip the script. Innovation. That's who we are as a people."

Piper was referring to the obstacles that have historically plagued African Americans, and yet African American artists specialize in swallowing these barriers whole, regurgitating them as new art forms. So then the expectation becomes not simply to create but to create defiantly and exceptionally.

And ain’t that Detroit? 

As the new-volution of our city continues to sort out what will and won't be included in the next phase, the necessity for a much warmer and wider embrace of  the local music and arts scene continues to be an imperative that must be addressed if Detroit has any hope of remaining truly Detroit.

The way forward necessitates a look back at the footsteps that brought us here before planning the future. Spencer Barefield, a prominent jazz musician, and his wife Barbara, an equally prominent artist and photographer, have been an integral part of the local jazz scene for more than three decades, which gives them a well-rounded -- and brutally grounded -- perspective on what was, is, and could be.

According to The Center for Michigan 2012 Scorecard, Michigan's arts funding "has dropped precipitously in recent years and ranked near the bottom (47th) in the nation in 2011. By comparison, in 2011, Michigan invested $1.4 million in arts, while Minnesota invested $30 million and Illinois invested $9.4 million."

"The year Engler was elected in 1992, right after he was elected, he made an announcement; all arts funding has ended. Everyone who got a grant, if you’ve already received monies from us, you may have to refund what you got," said Spencer.
"Not you may have to. They asked us to refund money, and we had already contracted musicians," said Barbara.

"All these organizations had already spent their money," continued Spencer. "They had got their first checks and had started spending on their seasons, and they said, 'Well, you’re gonna have to give that back.' So everything shut down."
But then came the kicker…

"That same year we won the Governor’s Arts Award for our concert series at the DIA, which had been going on for 13 years at that time. They had shut down the museum. Plus they fired the entire Performing Arts Department of the DIA. Seventy people."

Nearly $500,000 in promised arts funding was yanked out from under them. Not long after, Spencer struck up a relationship with the Detroit Jazz Festival organizers and soon he was co-producing cutting edge and avant garde jazz on one of the stages. That led to the Barefields offering intimate  concerts at their home in conjunction with the festival each year, something which they had actually been doing since the late '80s, just not in partnership with the DJF. And that eventually led to the now 7-year-old Jazz in Homes music series they have been operating for seven years throughout Palmer Woods. When they first presented their idea to the Palmer Woods board, the board wasn’t so sure it could work but they gave it the green light nonetheless.

"Every concert sold out," said Barbara.

Flip the script. Innovation. That’s who we are as a people

Jazz/Blues drummer R.J. Spangler, has been an influential constant on the local music scene for more than two decades as bandleader, producer, promoter, not to mention mentor and teacher to younger musicians. Although he has toured extensively both nationally and internationally, largely under his own steam, he is also one of the hardest working musicians on the local club scene who manages to still find work several nights a week in one of the toughest live music markets Detroit has ever seen. 

"If you wanna know how it was, I can tell you," he said. 

Back in the early '80s, "you could get hired at a place like Alvin’s who would hire bands like George Bedard, or Chicago Pete.  Johnny Bassett. The Sun Messengers. Chicago Pete had a four-piece rhythm section and three horns. The Sun Messengers had a bunch of horns. We had bigger bands back then, and you know why? Because at Alvin's, on a bad night, you could make $8-900 bucks at the door. And you paid the sound man out of that money. On a good night you could make $1,200-$1,500. You could really mob that place."

Those days are done

"There’s a lotta, lotta, lotta musicians out there now playing every Sunday in some church making $100, $200, $300. Playing in a church” to make ends meet. More musicians are also teaching to fatten up their revenue streams, and/or playing with as many as five or six bands simultaneously. 

At least for now, that's one thing most Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians (included among that rare breed of Detroit musicians who are actually paid a professional wage for what they do)  don't have to worry about. Widely recognized as one of the nation's best symphony orchestras, the DSO has fought its way back from the brink of near extinction not quite three years ago to becoming Detroit's landmark cultural institution. They have done so, in large part, by honoring the 'D' in DSO. 

"It means that we have a responsibility, and obligation, and a duty to play as much variety as possible. To reach as many segments of the audience as possible," said DSO music director Leonard Slatkin, now in his sixth year here and largely credited with helping turn the DSO's fortunes around.

"I think a lot of this has to be placed in the context of what kind of history does the symphony orchestra have in an urban center, and of course what you discover is almost every major city in this country has, as its cultural leader, the symphony orchestra. So the question is, how do we really relate the content of what we play to our community? Clearly our major financial backing doesn’t come from people who live in the city. It comes from the suburban population. It comes from people who left the city going well back into the '60s. But the Hall is downtown. Our home is downtown. Even if we play all over the place, this is our home. So we are connected to the city."

"Whatever we perceive in the recent upturn in the fortunes of Detroit, part of it is due to the fact that the orchestra, the leading cultural institution,  stuck it out and wanted to become part of the solution in the city. We are called the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The name of the city is in our title. If we can continue to project positive energy, positive image, a sign that we are  helping the city to bounce back, then that’s all to the good. And we can do that."
Flip the script. Innovation. That’s who we are as a people.

Keith Owens is a Detroit-based freelance writer. 

Photos of Palmer Woods home concerts courtesy of Barbara Barefield

All other photos by Marvin Shaouni

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