Black Bottom and Beyond A View from the Eighties by
Herb Boyd


Marcus Belgrave Album Cover
Marcus Belgrave
Like a Marcus Belgrave solo or the vocal shadings of Miche Braden, Detroit's jazz scene is complex, ever-changing and full of sweet surprise. In its seventy some years of existence, jazz in Detroit has pushed beyond the restrictive confines of Black Bottom to virtually engulf the city. It was once a music limited in space and sound, now it is possible to whistle along with Hastings Street Experience in the central city and end up on Orange Lake Drive in the suburbs.  
  But for all its seeming gusto and popularity today, which is especially widespread during the summer months, the local jazz picture remains a puzzling image that -- depending on where you stand and who you're listening to -- is at once hopeful, and then gloomy. In the following excerpts, taken from the first two Montreux/Detroit Jazz Festival programs and an article published in the Detroit Metro Times, we offer some impressions of Detroit's recent jazz history and its shifting fortunes.  
  If the prospect ends here on a somewhat blue note, it only signals what has been true in the past -- that the beat and the mood is about to change, about to modulate to a more promising outlook. And with groups such as Venus and Bird/Trane/Sco/Now on the set that promise is as good as kept.  
 
 
  The advent of World War II not only stimulated a sagging economy, it also attracted to Detroit yet another heavy influx of Black migrants from the South. Black Bottom, already bulging with people, finally burst and spilled over into Paradise Valley. Paradise Valley was soon more than a mere entertainment section; it was fast becoming a crowded residential section, as well. But listening to the fabulous blues singer/rapper, Detroit Count, or to the ageless Buddy Bell, a gifted musician in his own right, it is hard to doubt the continuing presence of bars in and around the Valley.  
  The guide on this brief tour is Buddy Bell: "You had Campbell's, Stone's, the Silver Grill, Sonny Wilson's, Garfield Bar, Silver Lining, Ace high, Hastings Bar, the Three Star Bar, the Midway and then on to the Rainbow, which was on Hastings and Adams, then you make a right on Adams and you go to the Valley. When you get to the Valley, you got the Paradise, and then on down from the Paradise, the second door off of St. Antoine, was the 606 Horse Shoe Lounge. Upstairs was the Bandbox and 'cross the street was the Russell House. Then you go on down St. Antoine to the Norwood Hotel. The Club Congo was down in the Norwood Hotel. And the Palms was on Brush and Adams. And on St. Antoine, you had the Turf Club and at Madison and St. Antoine you had the Rhythm Club…"  
  Bars, bars, everywhere, but, ironically, the swingingest place around, served no liquor and was just beyond the Valley's perimeter. This was the Paradise Theatre, and it was an entertainment grab-bag. Vaudeville, burlesque, movies, amateur shows, and, of key importance, a steady flow of nationally recognized bands, kept the Paradise humming, and sometimes roaring with laughter. It opened the same year, 1943, that the city had one of its worse race riots, and many of the most brutal encounters happened within the shadow of the Paradise Theatre. After the conflict, to quote one local wag, "white folks stayed away from the Paradise Theatre and the Valley in droves."  
  For the die-hard jazz lover, of whatever complexion, there were decent clubs outside the Valley. Of particular note was the Blue Bird Inn and Baker's Keyboard Lounge, reputed to be the world's oldest jazz club. Soon, such alternatives would be the only choices as the advance of urban renewal rearranged Black Bottom and transformed the Valley into freeways, rubble and vacant lots. An era was slowly fading and so was the audience for the shows at the Paradise.  
  The jazz scene quickly adjusted to a rapidly changing city, resituating itself in several dissimilar places. Joe Brazil and Barry Harris held regular jam sessions in their homes. High schools especially Northwestern, Northeastern, Miller, and the incomparable Cass Tech - began to offer a more progressive music curriculum- and the New Music Society, a cultural organization with a strong emphasis on the preservation of jazz, was soon having some impact in the community with its programs. In fact, it would be a pioneer for the self-determination organizations that sprang up in the late '60s.  
  Some of the results of these efforts were immediate. Detroit had always produced an inordinate number of world class musicians, which, at least in recent times, is attributable "to having a city with a strong working class and a minimum of distractions from the visual arts," if we can accept the analysis of organist, Lyman Woodard.  
Pepper Adams lying on bed
Pepper Adams
The emergence of the Jones boys (Hank, Thad and Elvin) from Pontiac, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Teri Thornton, Pepper Adams, Donald Byrd, Betty Carter, Curtis Fuller, Yusef Lateef, Dorothy Ashby, Kenny Burrell, Terry Pollard, Paul Chambers, et al, was just the beginning of numerous Detroit musicians who would eventually populate nearly every major jazz ensemble in the country. Donald Byrd on stage
Donald Byrd
  To be sure, many musicians left Detroit seeking fortune and fame elsewhere, but, of deeper significance, there remained in the city a surplus of excellent players. These musicians would form the core of the self-determination efforts which surfaced after the rebellion of 1967 and which continue to be pertinent forces today.  
 
 
  Ron Jackson, his trusty Bach trumpet tucked under his arm, is a consummate musician. He is also a walking file cabinet. To shake your hand he has to first put aside his armful of flyers, resumes, proposals, posters, brochures and other "tools of the trade."  
  Jackson is typical of those jazz artists who are not content to sit and wait for a gig to chase them down. Despite a reputation as a widely heralded trumpeter and leader of the People's Creative Ensemble, Jackson is still compelled to work overtime as his own secretary, frontman, booking and press agent.  
  "If you're going to survive as a jazz musician around here," Jackson said, sorting through his stack of documents, "you've got to get out and hustle. I believe in getting out and creating some gigs for myself."  
  An increasing number of jazz musicians are following Jackson's example as they struggle to make a living in an economically troubled environment where clubs that feature mainstream or be-bop-laden jazz can be counted on one hand, and concert series or festivals are too few and far between.  
 
 
  To associate the economic well-being of the jazz musician with nightclubs is, perhaps, automatic. Throughout the short history of jazz, nightclubs - like improvisation - are an expected part of the scene; traditionally, the musicians' lifeline. That lifeline, unfortunately, is becoming shorter and shorter. An informal poll of a dozen or so musicians revealed that there are only three local clubs that consistently feature mainstream jazz artists: Baker's Keyboard Lounge, Dummy George's and Bert's Place. And only Bert's provides performance space that is almost exclusively set aside for local musicians.  
  For over 15 years, booking local bands has been an important facet in the nightclub policy of Bert Dearing, owner of Bert's Place. "We have a number of truly outstanding musicians here in town," Dearing told the Metro Times, "and if they are to gain exposure they must have a place to play; that's one of the things I'm in business to do." After dismissing the rumor that he was forced to close this past winter because of heating problems, he reported on present conditions. "Right now things are going pretty good, which is due mainly to the mild weather we're experiencing. Business usually picks up around this time of year."  
  Dearing plans to expand his club in the near future and hopes to employ even more bands. "I plan to bring in Jimmy Wilkins, Earl Van Dyke, Angie Smith, Ed Pickens and several other groups. Once I get a new fire exit door and install air-conditioning upstairs, things will be ready to go."  
  But for all of Dearing's dedication, he alone cannot provide enough dates for the hundreds of stellar musicians such as Donald Walden, who, save for a few concert performances, has not had a gig since Montreux '83, nor can Dearing alone alter Sam Sanders' remarks when he declares that "If I had to depend on clubs for a gig, I'd starve to death."  
  To a large extent, Sanders, whose musical groups include Visions and who heads the Detroit Jazz Center, has for several years relied on grants from the National Endowment of the Arts to help keep the wolf from the door. These grants, once earmarked for various educational projects, have of late been allocated to finance concert series, which means that very little of the money received can be used to bolster the Jazz Center's sagging fortunes.  
  "At the Jazz Center we're trying to do something about the terrible situation facing jazz musicians, but we can't afford to bring in the top name that will attract the kinds of crowds we need to keep things going," Sanders explained. Having to comply with guidelines that specify only national acts be presented severely limits appearances from local musicians. However, there are some occasions on which Sanders is able to employ local musicians to accompany an invited out-of-town artist.  
 
 
  When the Jazz Center was founded in the late '70s it was but one of many jazz organizations that espoused self-determination as an answer to the musicians' pressing dilemma. While these organizations are today dead or dormant, there has arisen a number of jazz concert series and festivals. The annual Detroit-Montreux/Kool Jazz Festival, if not the centerpiece of these events, is a least the most publicized. Some 30 or more local bands benefit from this affair, which is viewed by its coordinators as primarily a catalyst to spark the jazz firmament and make the city a more exciting place to live.  
  As with any program or event that can only accommodate a select few bands, Montreux is the target of much censure and criticism. The most disgruntled are usually those musicians who have been passed over by the festival's five-member subcommittee responsible for selecting the local groups to perform. Joyce Cusmano, a spokesperson for Detroit Renaissance, which produces the festival, is fully aware of these complaints. "Everyone gets hurt feelings when they are rejected. The process used to determine who is selected is not a scientific method," she said. "That's why we place the onus of this on a committee of peers.  
  "To ensure that more musicians get a chance to perform at Montreux, we ask groups who have been a first act to step down for a year," Cusmano further explained. And for those who have complained about not being informed of deadline dates for applications, Cusmano noted that 100 or more cassettes received from local musicians who saw the two published announcements of application deadlines."  
  Thus, only a third of those groups who submit tapes or cassettes are chosen, and this is done by a panel of musicians which, according to Gregg Bloomfield, a nonvoting coordinator of the panel, "is changed every year. There is no permanent panel of musicians making these difficult decisions."  
  Bloomfield is also associate curator of music for the Detroit Institute of Arts, where since 1977 he has guided the museum's very successful jazz series, "Jazz at the Institute." Again, there are but a limited number of opportunities here for local musicians, and Bloomfield has taken great care to offer balanced, diversified programming. Have there been complaints about his handling of the series? "If there are, I haven't heard them," he said. As to what local musicians will perform with such headliners as Barry Harris, Billy Mitchell or Joe Henderson, Bloomfield leaves that to the musicians themselves.  
  "The Joe Henderson concert is a good example of how this is done. Originally, drummer Danny Spencer, who has performed with Joe, was sought, but he was already engaged. Joe's second choice was Roy Brooks, but he too was unavailable. Finally, Joe recalled Wendell Robinson, whom he had heard on a previous visit. That's how Wendell was chosen for the gig."  
  Bloomfield's schedule of jazz concerts for the coming season is peppered with local musicians, but this series, combined with Montreux, P'Jazz (which makes no pretense at featuring local mainstream jazz acts), Fort Wayne, African World Festival, Creative Arts Collective Concerts by the River and Concerts in the Park et al still falls far short of compensating for the gigless days over the other nine months of the year.  
  The scarcity of jazz clubs and concert series has forced some local musicians to seek work in the suburbs and across the river in Windsor. Joe LoDuca, Larry Nozero and Danny Spencer are three fine local artists who are able from time to time, to secure engagements in the outlying suburbs, but they are white musicians and the opportunities are much better for them. "There are not too many black musicians performing in the suburbs," Danny Spencer observed, "and much of this can be blamed on the booking agents who think they know what and who people want to hear."  
  Recently, job opportunities for local musicians have begun to multiply in Windsor. J. Michael Bottoms and several hotels have begun a policy of presenting Detroit-based musicians such as Shoo-Bee-Doo, bassist Ali Muhammad, Sheila Landis and Cortez Love. But for this activity to truly blossom and continue more promotion is crucial. "It is a shame," harpist/flutist Kafi Patrice Nassoma said, "that world-class musicians who reside in Detroit have to leave the city and sometimes the country to get a job."  
A. Spencer Barefield Xenogenesis 2000 album cover
A. Spencer Barefield
A few local musicians have profited from marshalling savings and producing albums. Through airplay of WDET and WJZZ, these records have brought the musicians some recognition. As far away as California, Sam Sanders has received commendations for his recent release. Such are the expectations of pianist/vocalist Alma Smith, pianist Bess Bonnier, Shoo-Bee-Doo, A. Spencer Barefield, the Sun Messengers, Marcus Belgrave, Katalenic/Kwek, Miche Braden and a host of other local jazz artists who have produced records over the last couple of years.  
  Nkenge Zola, a music host at WDET, welcomes these efforts and has already featured some of them on her show. "A recent survey revealed that listenership for our program is increasing with each quarter. Slowly, listeners are adjusting to our new format."  
  To be sure, all the news from the jazz front is not entirely bad. Such developments as the increase in attendance at the various concerts presented at the DIA, the larger audiences at Dummy George's, the Motor Bar in the Book Cadillac and Bert's Place, and the DCA's efforts to create legal and medical plans for local artists are encouraging signs, but only the most optimistic among us believe that such signs will endure beyond the summer season.  
  If the jazz outlook doesn't improve soon, young musicians such as Philip Cox, a percussionist who plays with Bird/Trane/Sco/Now and Detroit Jazzmen, will surrender all ambitions to become full-time professional jazz musicians. "I've seen what a struggle my father (pianist/composer Kenny Cox) has gone through; I don't think I want to go through all of that." While he plans to still be a musician, he is certain that he will "have some other skill on the side." Kenny Cox
Kenny Cox
 
 
  Former Detroiter Herb Boyd is the co-editor (with Robert L. Allen) of "Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America." He has written for numerous publications, including the Detroit Metro Times (for which he is a contributing editor), the Village Voice and Downbeat. He is now based in New York. This essay originally appeared in "Detroit Jazz Who's Who" in 1984. That book, published by the Jazz Research Institute, is now out of print.  

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