How a Wayne State program is preserving Detroit's unique take on jazz music

Trombonist Vincent Chandler considers himself a Detroit jazz preservationist in addition to being Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at Wayne State University and one of the more respected and in-demand musicians around Detroit.

Over the years, he’s built a sturdy resume having performed nationally with jazz royalty such as Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, Joe Henderson, and Wynton Marsalis. When he wasn’t touring, Chandler fronted the hugely popular jazz ensemble Urban Transport, which produced three self-released albums. These days, he’s focused on a profound calling, ensuring the music of past and present Detroit jazz musicians is recognized and appreciated. 

Chandler is preserving the Detroit musician's musical legacies through his program, The Detroit Jazz Preservation Concert Series sponsored by WSU. The monthly series takes place on the WSU campus, and admission is free. So far, Chandler has presented the music of pianist Kenn Cox, saxophonist Joe Henderson, trumpeter Thad Jones, and guitarist Kenny Burrell. 

What makes the hour-long concerts extraordinary is that Chandler starts each with a pivotal chunk of the featured musicians' biographies and presents music from their classic or obscure discographies. Such a year-long program is vast and requires world-class musicians to accomplish. Chandler hires Detroit’s best veteran and up-and-coming swingers, showcasing a different group at each concert. The up-and-coming jazz musicians still in the formative leg of making names for themselves are privileged to perform music they may have never been exposed to, which is part of Chandler’s vision for this series.


For the legendary Detroiters Chandler chose for this concert series, he wants to highlight their diverse pedigrees, sounds, and musical accomplishments to people unfamiliar with their music and their impact in Detroit and globally. 

"You can read about the great Detroit musicians, but do you know what their music sounds like? And as a community, have we embraced the sound of their music? Do we know what it sounds like? Have we encapsulated it so that we can get a true sense of our identities sonically?

Chandler attempts to answer these questions by featuring nine Detroit musicians who made history, greats like bassist Paul Chambers, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeter Donald Byrd, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and saxophonist Yusef Lateef.

The first concert was held in September and honored Cox, who led the progressive Contemporary Jazz Quintet, recorded for Blue Note in the 1960s and was a formidable music educator and jazz historian of sorts. In November, the series paid tribute to Jones from Pontiac, who made a name as a composer and leader, most notably with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. 


Detroit's jazz legacy remains an indelible part of the overall jazz spectrum. Journalist Mark Stryker's book Jazz from Detroit, which Chandler referenced in his research, is a firm example of the city's profound influence on the genre dating back to the 1940s. The city was also a center for modern jazz, and as Stryker highlighted, some specific stylistic traits and attitudes define Detroit's approach to the music.

Still, Chandler feels the city still needs to fully embrace this Detroit sound and these musicians for the stars they were. He references musicians like Fuller, who was part of distinguished jazz bands like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet, and who composed music for some of these larger bands.

There are also musicians Chandler included who fell short of international acclaim but had an impact, nonetheless. Saxophonist/composer and educator Donald Walden created the Detroit Jazz Orchestra, which the teenage Chandler was a member of. The orchestra was sort of an unaccredited finishing school for hungry young jazz musicians focused on perpetuating and refining the music.

"He was the first to put an orchestra on stage with strings and a jazz rhythm section. I even played a concert with him on the Orchestra Hall stage. Back in the day, Orchestra Hall was reserved for classical music. It wasn't a place where Black musicians got to perform jazz," says Chandler.

Walden’s ensemble Free Radical also was a graduate band for young musicians on Chandler’s level possessing an advanced understanding of improvisational savvy. Chandler was exposed to the same degree of energy and genius performing with Cox in his band. 

"They (Cox and Walden) were not just jazz musicians. They were intellectuals, activists, mentors, and Afrocentric, and you can hear that in their music," Chandler says.

Preserving the music through the concerts has presented some challenges though. According to Chandler, so much of the music has never been written down, so the musicians playing the concerts must isolate time to transcribe the music, rehearse it, and perform it as flawlessly as humanly possible. 

The encouraging news is the concerts thus far have been successful, nearing capacity with each performance as well as the positive comments via social media and the litany of well-wishers Chandler speaks with after the shows. 

"I'm getting people saying, 'Donald Walden did this for me.' After the concerts, people talk about being happy with the experience, the musicians they heard, the performance layout, and the venue's comradery. They are talking about those things and speaking of it with gratitude."

Chandler has plans to take this series beyond what he is currently doing at WSU. 
He’ will be starting a non-profit organization for the series where he can receive donations for additional support to continue it annually. He also sees the series being performed at jazz festivals globally and touring.
“This is something that I will do every year, even if the money comes out of my pocket. I even want this to be part of my identity. I want people to know me as a Detroit jazz preservationist. I want to be someone who can represent history through sound."

The next Detroit Jazz Preservation Concert will take place February 11 and will present the music of Donald Walden. The concerts take place at Schaver Music Recital Hall, 480 W. Hancock Street on WSU campus.

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Read more articles by Veronica Johnson.

Veronica Johnson is a freelance music writer from Detroit. She has written for Detroit-based publications Metro TimesReal Detroit Weekly, Model D, and The Michigan Historical Review, as well as the national jazz site The Jazz Line. She is currently a writer for the national jazz publication Jazz Times.