Detroit music scene speaker series recapped

It began with a question heard around the world: what is the "Detroit sound," and what is it that makes it travel so well?

"It's a working man’s sound," said panelist Marcus Belgrave, a legendary trumpeter who was innovating with space-jazz collective Tribe in the early 1970s and continues to innovate today with techno titan Carl Craig. "It's a sound of people doing things. Detroit was once a melting pot, so the music is international." 

Another panelist, Steve Nawara of Beehive Recording Company -- also a past member of the Detroit Cobras and the Electric Six, two of Detroit's most successful rock bands of the last decade -- said: "There's grit to it, there's grease to it."

Poet and multi-media artist Jessica Care Moore of Black Women Rock! said that the Detroit sound came from "cars and the streets. I spent 12 years in New York, but the sound came with me."

The conversation was moderated by Walter Wasacz, Model D's managing editor who has been writing about Detroit music for over 30 years. The panel also included entertainment attorney Howard Hertz and composer/promoter Joel Peterson.

Wasacz asked the panel what can be done to keep high-performing Detroit musicians in the city, rather than export them -- Jack White to Nashville, Don Was to Los Angeles, countless techno artists to Berlin -- to other music centers.

"I don’t think we export our best people," said Peterson. "No one’s going to get big coming out of here, but it's why the Detroit music scene is as good as it is. Because no one was getting signed, people made music because that’s what made life tolerable. We do it because playing music is how we have fun." 

Moore said: "You have to leave Detroit to see how good you are as an artist."

Hertz said: "People go to New York or LA to try to make it, but they're not from there, they’re from other places. Jack White made himself what he is in Detroit, not in Nashville."

Hertz and Peterson had an interesting exchange about the need for a centralized entertainment district, "like New Orleans' Bourbon Street or Beale Street in Memphis. We need a focal point in Detroit," said Hertz, who later said he would like to establish a Detroit Music Hall of Fame that would also include a venue for performances.

But Peterson disagreed. "Everything is dispersed here but that’s part of what people like about Detroit. We need cultural institutions to support living artists, and contribute to the art of today, not just be repositories of history."

Nawara said: "Detroit needs spaces where people could come together. It's hard to get them off Facebook to listen to (live) music."  

Another question that Wasacz asked brought out opinions on all sides: wouldn't Detroit be better off if creative DIY types like Peterson, Moore, Belgrave and Nawara could receive help from more lawyers, accountants and other music business enablers like Hertz? 

"We don't need more business," Peterson said. "Money ruins everything. We need to create our own self-sufficient economy. A lot of other strategies don't work, including cultural arts funding."

Moore said: "We need money, sponsorships, Kresge fellowships."

Hertz recalled an experimental business community created in the late 1960s on Plum Street, on the edge of the northwest side of downtown. "Unfortunately it failed. But it was an effort that included about 20 businesses. What Detroit needs is multiple districts, to attract suburban money that never comes down here. I believe that will happen if we can bring music into more concentrated areas. Everyone will benefit, including musicians."  

Photos by Marvin Shaouni