What the Cultural Warriors Won A Nineties View by
W. Kim Heron


  In one of the triumphant performances of the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival, saxophonist James Carter took the stage on Sept. 4, 1994, while the audience buzzed with electricity. Carter was a homeboy who'd played on the festival sidelines as a middle schooler and returned time and again, a more commanding presence every year as he progressed to literal and musical manhood.  
  With his first recording as a leader under his belt, the musician in his mid-20s was a rising star not only in Detroit, but internationally, and this appearance was his first at the festival as a leader. By the time he reached the peak of his first solo, he had much of the audience standing. By the time the performance ended, he had mesmerized the crowd with solos that reached back to the honking tenor of Gene Ammons, the seductive balladic undertow of Ben Webster, the cascades of John Coltrane, the angularity and tonal nuance of Roscoe Mitchell, all put in relentlessly swinging motion.  
  In the year to come, Carter repeated that feat around much of the world, becoming the most heralded young saxophonist of the '90s, sweeping jazz polls, landing a major American label deal, appearing in Robert Altman's movie "Kansas City," and never forgetting his Detroit musical roots.  
  His ascension is one reflection of the 12 years since Herb Boyd surveyed the Detroit jazz scene in "Black Bottom and Beyond." In Detroit, the jazz life remains a struggle, characterized by too little work for too much talent. But as in the '50s, a generation of musicians has found fortune in New York. And those fortunes that reflect deep roots in jazz traditions, the lessons learned from the elders of the Detroit jazz scene. The cultural warriors we can call them, to extend a term coined for pianist Kenn Cox. Kenny Cox tribute
Kenny Cox
  Let's take stock of some of the names in Boyd's essay.  
  Bird-Trane-Sco-Now: Not all the members of the group mentored by saxophonist Donald Washington have remained in music. Of those who did, we've already noted Carter's rise to fame. Bassist Rodney Whitaker has toured the world and recorded extensively with trumpeter Roy Hargrove among others. His own recording as a leader, "Children of the Light" (available on the DIW and Koch labels), features Carter and yet another BTSN alum, alto saxophonist Cassius Richmond, plus up-and-coming former Detroiters Alex Harding on baritone and Andrew Daniels on percussion.  
  Venus: Drummer Gayelynn McKinney and bassist Marion Hayden now anchor Straight Ahead, an all-women jazz group that has released its fourth record ("Straight Ahead's Greatest Hits" on Atlantic), and in early '97 was working on a fifth.  
Marcus Belgrave album cover
Marcus Belgrave
A number of musicians mentioned in Boyd's essay have passed away (Shoo-Bee-Doo, Ali Muhammad) or moved away (Miche Braden, Sam Sanders). Most continue to perform at least sporadically and some are better known outside of Detroit than they were in the '80s. Marcus Belgrave, for instance, received a career boost through recording with two former students -- pianist Geri Allen and bassist Robert Hurst -- and work with the Wynton Marsalis-led Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.  
  Of course, what has happened in Detroit reflects the national trend in jazz. The triumph of Marsalis brothers in the mid-'80s heralded a burgeoning market for youngish, relatively traditional jazz artists; the rising tide lifted a great many boats. Yet it was far from happenstance that so many Detroiters were able to gain prominence. Thanks to the cultural warriors, they were well-prepared for the opportunity.  
 
 
  W. Kim Heron is the host of "Destination Out" on WDET-FM, assistant managing editor of the Detroit Sunday Journal and curator of "Swinging Through Time: the Graystone Museum and Detroit Jazz."  
 
 

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