Swinging Through Time

About the Graystone by
Donna Gloff

The Graystone International Jazz Museum entered its 20s in 1994. Unlike most twenty-odd-year-olds, however, the GIJM is as concerned with the past as it is with the future. It’s dedicated to the preciousness – and great cultural value – of education, renewal and, ultimately, of memory. And in Detroit, when it comes to jazz, there is a great deal to remember.

Graystone exterior
In the first half of this century jazz flourished here. There were dozens of nightclubs and dance halls in Paradise Valley, the famed black entertainment district, that today lies buried beneath the Chrysler expressway. Every night, all night – and quite often well into the next morning – Detroit musicians and out-of-town jazz stars played and jammed together. Many ballrooms dotted the city; but, of all of them, the most beautiful and elegant stood on the corner of Woodward and Canfield – the Graystone Ballroom. Graystone interior
Elegant inside
Under bandleader and entrepreneur Jean Goldkette’s leadership, the Graystone became one of the best-known ballrooms in the country. In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s the likes of the Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford orchestras "battled" Detroit bands such as McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and Goldkette’s own group, to the delight of dancers and listeners who nightly packed the exciting, romantic place.
Graystone exterior before demolition
Nearing the end
But, as the saying goes, "Those were different times." The Graystone eventually was closed down and began a long, sad, slow decline. When the terribly neglected building was finally demolished in 1980, the dastardly act could have erased the fine old memories within its walls forever.
But, before the dusts of destruction had even settled, a retired Detroit bus driver named James Jenkins and a hardy group of fellow rememberers began searching the rubble for artifacts. It was something Jenkins simply had to do to keep his heart from breaking: Since 1974 this man had worked very hard at his dream of someday reopening the Graystone and restoring it to its full glory. So he refused to see the demolition as losing the war – to him it was only one lost battle.
Part of his vision included a museum on one of the huge old building’s upper floors that would memorialize the genius and soul of the people who created and loved jazz. In particular, he hoped to pay tribute to Duke Ellington. The few pieces Jenkins and his cohorts were able to rescue have become part of the Graystone International Jazz Museum’s permanent collection.
For 20 years, Mr.Jenkins devoted himself to building the GIJM. He enthralled all who listened to his stories about jazz. His intense personal devotion to and vision for the Graystone were so great that he often first inspired, and then even upset, those who shared his passion. With single-minded determination, he somehow always kept the Museum growing.
Mr. Jenkins died in his sleep in May 1994 after a weekend of overseeing gallery tours and a concert at the Graystone.
The Museum has an important job to do. Jazz is one of the world’s cultural assets – a true and uniquely American art form. Worldwide,jazz is viewed as a quintessentially American music – with its origin in the common person and its performance a celebration of both the individual and the community.
Jazz has also had a profound political impact. The jazz spirit, largely the creation of African Americans, has woven its way into this country’s struggle against racial oppression and for civil rights. And jazz was also a morale booster and a welcome taste of home for millions of GI’s during World War II. Today the music is extremely popular and highly respected throughout Eastern and Western Europe, Japan and all of the Americas.
This is what makes the Graystone so precious: It is one of the very few institutions of the world that is devoted to the study of jazz. The Graystone presents, explains, and interprets the history and evolution of this music. It maintains artifacts and memorabilia; it provides opportunities for performance, education and research. It is a resource for Detroit – and the world.
Come visit, support the Museum, become actively involved. It is located in the Book Building, 1249 Washington Blvd., south of Grand Circus Park. Tours are available; call 313/963-3813.

Donna Gloff is the former executive director of the Graystone Museum.

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