THE DETROIT EFFECT
There are a number of cities that have made important contributions to America’s greatest gift to music, jazz. Many have had a moment when musicians have been drawn to their city by conditions that inspired them or by offers of well paying gigs. Musicians really listen to each other, and as new players drifted into town the local sound influenced the skilled newcomers giving the city’s music its unique sound. St Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, LA, etc. all have had their time in the spotlight. Meanwhile Detroit has always relentlessly and steadily provided the artists that know how to play the music. Detroit’s sound has been clomp clomp of the footsteps of in-demand jazz musicians heading out of town and then often back into town. Is there something in the water of Detroit that for decade after decade has produced so many of the worlds greatest jazz musicians?
The answer could be in the river that forcefully runs through Detroit bringing products, jobs and energy to the city.
Detroit is uniquely located on a fast moving river with land that spreads out into rich farmland, Detroit has attracted all kinds of new arrivals to our city. Fortunately, for all of us who followed them, many of the arrivals and settlers were clever . They brought ideas while they sought opportunity. Inventors came because in Detroit they could see that their ideas could become reality. Workers came because things were being made and there were jobs. We made stoves, railroad cars and eventually became the auto capital of the world by 1910. Many others came because it was a good place to live. They called their relatives and described a city that had good individual housing, good schools, parks, churches and places to go on Saturday night. They were told that all you had to do was show up to your job on time and work hard. Detroit became a magnet for many that lived in overcrowded cities and changing rural communities.
They often worked shoulder to shoulder but played and lived separately. Detroit had Irish, Italian, Polish, Chinese, African American and Hungarian neighborhoods. Each enclave brought its culture. They had the best of their old world along with this new place of opportunity. Everyone did share the parks and many of the places of entertainment. We had radio stations that only played country, others played just ethnic, and most importantly Detroit had stations that gave us a stream of jazz and R&B.
It was not hard to find a place to go dancing. We had all kinds of clubs to hear music. Being a musician in Detroit was a possible occupation. Good musicians hung around. The idea that you could succeed if you worked hard and the abundance of jobs created a rich culture of excellence in music in the city of Detroit. We had a great deal of structural segregation which, for a while, limited the city’s embrace of all its music.
The syncopated music coming up from New Orleans eventually became universally accepted and still is. This rich trove of music has remained embedded in the culture of all of Detroit. Always at the center of our music has been our jazz.
One summer I was given an insight into the Detroit’s musical culture.
Photo by John Beresford
I was showing my art in Ann Arbor when I met Ling- Ju Lai. Ling-Ju was taking a serious look through my book, Detroit Jazz. She looked up at me and said ” I really admire these guys”. As a classical piano soloist Ling -Ju has had an opportunity to hear all kinds of music around the world. She offered that when on her travels she can usually tell when a player is from Detroit. I asked her what tipped her off. I wish now that I had written her words down, but she talked about a strength, a persistent force that drives a group. She felt that this came from their roots in Detroit. Their life experience teaches them to persevere. We may not have the easy sway of the gentle warm sea breezes of the Caribbean, but Detroit and its musicians possess a unique quality that pushes the music to greater heights.
Ling -Ju later sent me these words:
“Detroit jazz musicians in general have a very alert and intense rhythmic drive, which brings a sense of urgency and endurance in their live performance. I find the great figures of Detroit legends such as Marcus Belgrave and Barry Harris truly inspiring. They sing at their instruments, trumpet and piano respectively, with earnest love for the music. Their live music making was especially powerful, because they played with clarity. And Clarity is Power. From what I can tell as a classically trained musician, in the newer generation of Detroit jazz composers there is a deep sense of respect for their roots and at the same time a daring and honest attitude to create a style of their own. I speak from my own musical connection and experience with Michael Malis, a native Detroit composer. I am fascinated by this distinct Detroit culture in Jazz. “
IS DETROIT’S MUSICAL CULTURE CHANGING?
Detroit will be tested in the coming years. We will be asked to be part of a new culture that will seem more comfortable to those who are new to town and are currently shaping our city. Will we continue to honor our past or allow it to evaporate into the latte scented air of a new Detroit.?
I think the culture that has defined Detroit’s music is an endangered species. I also think it is important that we protect it. Here are some reasons for hope.
Detroit has enjoyed a continuum of artists who have been driven to retain a high level of discipline and a commitment to pass it on the the next generation. They will not go away quietly.
Many of our new residents came to Detroit because they were attracted to its unique ability to stave off adversity. They will join us to resist losing our mojo.
Detroit has institutions in place that just need to be supported, reinforced and enhanced. These include our school art and music programs, our festivals and venues.
Detroit’s musical history continues to be important to those who are actively inventing new forms of music in our city.
Jazz continues to be in good hands. Detroit’s culture has deep roots that will support growth in many directions. Please add your support when you can.
THIS WEEK AT THE DIRTY DOG JAZZ CAFÉ
September 11- 14
Paul Keller has toured, played gigs with, done arrangements for, collaborated with countless jazz artists.
Paul has played on over 60 CDs with artists such as Diana Krall, Russell Malone, Tom Saunders, Chuck Hedges, Eddie Higgins, Larry Fuller, Johnny O’Neal, Bess Bonnier, Jon-Erik Kellso, Dan Barrett, Rebecca Kilgore, Phil DeGreg, Mr. B, Steve Wood, Rick Roe, Ellen Rowe, Marcus Belgrave, Franz Jackson, Pete Siers, Dan Faehnle and Larry Nozero. Paul has also performed in concert with jazz greats Joe Williams, Cab Calloway, Oliver Jones, Clark Terry, Red Holloway, Gene Bertoncini, Jeff Hamilton, Scott Hamilton, Ken Peplowski, Jake Hanna, Terry Gibbs, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Mark Murphy, Doc Cheatham, Byron Stripling, Jay McShann, Barry Harris, Mulgrew Miller, Jessica Williams, Bill Mays, Kenny Drew, Jr., Herb Ellis, Bucky Pizzerelli, Mark Elf and James Moody.
We are lucky to have him for four days at the Dirty Dog. He will bring with him some of his most talented pals.