Swinging Through Time

The Beginning Black Music in Detroit, 1850-1920 by
Herb Boyd

  There is no way to determine just when and where jazz began – or when it came to Detroit. For many years it was commonly believed that jazz was born in New Orleans and then moved north via the Mississippi River. This conclusion is slowly being toppled and much more evidence is now available to show that the roots of jazz are as widespread as Black culture itself.  
  But the general history of jazz is not our task here. While this and other vital aspects of jazz will be discussed, our main concern is to show the dynamic relationship between jazz and the city of Detroit. There are several ways in which the history of Black Detroit can be told and our use of a jazz motif will include material that should give the reader some impression of the general environment from which the music emerges.  
  In 1810, after this country’s Third Census, the population of Detroit had 96 nonwhites, including 17 Indians and 17 slaves(1). And, of course, jazz was still a century or so away. As in many northern cities, Detroit’s Black community showed no appreciable gain in size until the black codes were rigidly enforced after the 1830s(2).  
  By 1840, some three years after slavery was forbidden by the state’s first constitution, Detroit’s Black community had swollen to nearly 200(3). This small and industrious community, though diverse, was fairly cohesive and organized.  
  Among the population were all kinds of skilled artisans and Blacks ran every conceivable business – clothing stores, bakeries, barber shops, catering companies and many other vital services. Comparatively, during this same period, the Black section of New York City "had the most dismal slum area in America; its only rival for vice and filth in that day was Basin Street in New Orleans.(4)"  
  Therefore, if it is true that jazz sprang from amid refuse and illicit activity, then Detroit’s Black community was hardly an incubator. In fact, during this pre-Civil War phase, "Detroit’s Black criminal element were few in number" and the civil response of Blacks "was characterized by the active and energetic building of community institutions(5).  
  When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850 and the runaway slaves were no longer safe in northern states, the Black populace of Detroit had already established a permanent pattern of residency. Though a great number of southern Blacks who came to Detroit kept moving toward Canada, a sizeable percentage remained in the city. The majority of these new residents were clustered on Detroit’s near east side, an expanding neighborhood that would later be known as "Black Bottom."  
  With the intensification of racism and the failure to gain suffrage, nationalism and emigration were topics of much discussion in Detroit’s Black community, as it was all across the country. But yet another widespread phenomenon, the minstrel show, apparently never reached Detroit. This is best explained, perhaps, by Detroit’s relatively small Black population and the northern location. For if the numerous Virginians and Kentuckians who migrated to Detroit knew anything about this popular folk form they left little evidence of it. According to the census of 1850, there was only one musician among the 140 Blacks working in Detroit.  
  Of course, such a statistical breakdown is based on occupation and cannot fully measure Black Detroit’s musical activity. It is difficult to determine the number of singers and musicians that developed through the fast- rising churches of the city. And who knows how many banjos and fiddles came out after the sun went down.  
  Five years after the Civil War jazz was still nowhere to be seen or heard. Detroit’s Black population was now well over 2,000 and had managed to come quite a way since the destructive race riot of 1863. With the increase in population there were naturally more musicians in the Black community. Theodore Finney, who had come to Detroit in 1857 from Columbus, Ohio, was one of these musicians who was beginning to make a name for himself.  
  For Finney, a violinist and bandleader, the year 1870 was both a year of celebration and heartbeat. The ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment was a source of cheer for all Black Americans, but only a few would suffer with him the loss of his good friend and partner, John Bailey. The Bailey and Finney Orchestra had become extremely successful and was among the first bands to feature syncopated music(6). After Bailey’s death, Finney reorganized the orchestra and for several years it performed on the old steamer, Frank Kirby, that plied the river between Detroit and Sandusky, Ohio.  
  Finney was a gifted and versatile man with interests in music, business and a host of civic affairs. For the next 20 years his orchestra would be an important institution and a training ground for some of Detroit’s finest musicians. Fred Stone and Ben Shook, later to lead their own bands, were two members of Finney’s Orchestra who were to gain considerable recognition.  
  Whether or not syncopation, or that music typified by placing the rhythmic accent on the weak beat, was heard first in Detroit through the arrangements of Finney’s Orchestra is debatable. This use of syncopated arrangements by Finney and others made them direct antecedents to the jazz-related brass bands which were to become so popular in the next decade.  
  Groups like Finney’s were essentially concert bands that were capable of playing an assortment of "occasional" music. Their repertories included march music for parades and political rallies and concert numbers for picnics and social functions.  
  On the other hand, by the 1880s, many "…musicians could find employment only in disorderly houses, many of which hired exclusively Black service staffs(7)."  
  The true profileration of brass bands was well under way by the time John W. Johnson settled in Detroit. Born in 1865 in Ontario, Canada, Johnson had been trained as a cabinet maker, but his interest and subsequent proficiency on the cornet gradually led him deeper and deeper into the world of music. In 1884 he joined "Dr. Carver’s Wild West Show" and toured the whole of Canada. After several years of performing around this country, Johnson arrived in Detroit in 189O(8).  
  For a while Johnson was a member of Finney’s Orchestra from which he learned much about music and how to develop his own organization. Before long, with the assistance of his wife Katie, the Johnson household was a center of musical activity. Johnson soon had his own band and began performing from one end of the city to the other. His performances at Belle Isle, and his Sunday afternoon concerts at old Germania Turner Hall, were always the talk of the town. It was through these performances that many aspiring musicians in Detroit improved both their musical abilities and opportunities.  
  Johnson’s brass band, like the brass bands led by John Robichaux in New Orleans, was a small but powerful aggregation. Similar to the acclaim earned by the previous decade’s concert bands, Johnson’s band was in great demand and it performed for various social groups. His band consisted of 12 to 15 players. "The usual instrumentation of the brass bands was three cornets, one e-flat, two valve trombones, alto horn, baritone horn, tuba, one or two clarinets, ususally e-flat, snare drum and bass drum(9)."  
  There is still much argument about the relationship between these early brass bands and jazz. Later, even in Detroit, this discussion would expand to include further argument on the separateness of jazz, dixieland, blues, ragtime and the music of the brass bands. Whatever the versatility of the brass bands and its obvious use of syncopation, many musicians and critics remained unconvinced that this music was related to jazz.  
  Beyond the issue of brass bands and jazz, ragtime brought its own special problems. Again, there were many who claimed that there was no connection between ragtime and the evolution of jazz. This is not an argument that we can thoroughly examine at this time, but it should be noted that there was one Detroiter who believed ragtime started in Detroit.  
  This claim, made by Harry P. Guy, yet another musician who migrated from Ohio to Detroit and who spent some time with Finney’s Orchestra, might have been far-fetched, but there was no doubt in Guy’s musical genius. Guy, an organist and pianist, was an important bridge to both classical music and the music of the Black church. Not only was he an organist at the famed St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, but he was also an accompanist for the internationally known Fisk Jubilee Singers.  
  In addition, Guy was a fine composer, and his music reeked with syncopation His stylish arrangements were used by such show-stoppers as Eddie Cantor Bert Williams and Sophie Tucker(10). It may have been Guy, along with Fred Stone and Ben Shook, who were responsible for giving the Finney Orchestra and the later derivative groups that unique drive that would, by the 1890s, attract to Detroit such an innovator as W.C. Handy.  
  Actually, it was after attending a rehearsal of the Fred Stone Orchestra that Handy, who had traveled all over the country as a cornetist with a circus band, first heard the moving syncopation of a Detroit band. Handy, from his autobiography, Father of the Blues, recalls this visitation: "… I had a secret plan to include a stirring ragtime number, ‘My Ragtime Baby,’which our minstrel band had featured. It was written by a Detroit Negro, Fred Stone. I rewrote the highstepper and programmed it ‘Greetings to Toussaint L’Overture’ so that the manuscript sheets would create the impression of classical music without changing a note of the original(11)." Perhaps the claims of Mr. Guy should be reconsidered!  
  Even the blues, the most basic of AfroAmerican musical expression, was not without controversy. However, in Detroit, the blues would not have any real consequence until after the heavy flow of Southern Black migrants settled in the city after World War 1. And, perhaps much of the discussion about which came first, jazz or the blues, could have been avoided if the differing views had heeded the advice of an old fiddler from New Orleans who declared "The Blues? Ain’t no first blues! The blues always been(12)."  
  If the blues can be defined as part attitude, feeling and tonality, then its presence in the repertoire of most brass bands was indeed negligible. The bands under the leadership of Johnson from Detroit and Robichaux from New Orleans were practically devoid of the blues and more often than not would rely on the arrangements of John Phillip Sousa and Arthur Pryor. We must remember, of course, that the brass bands were constricted by written arrangements and this alone was enough to nullify the possible usage of blues- related material. Such stack arrangements also allowed little room for soloists and improvisation, two important ingredients in the overall development of jazz.  
  As Black Detroit approached the twentieth century, the cramped living conditions and the tight confinement of the caste system continued unabated. The same blatant discrimination that, for example, had denied hotel accommodations to the visiting Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1882, were still very evident around the city of Detroit. By the late 1890s only the theatres of the city were free of discrimination(13).  
  It was the era of disfranchisement and Jim Crow in America and Detroit was not exempt. The parade of inequities that marched on Black Detroit was unending, and to make matters worse, employment opportunities were practically nonexistent. Even the jobs which had been normally consigned to Black workers, such as longshoremen and barbers, were gradually being taken over by whites, and especially by the recent immigrants from Europe. And this process of negation appeared complete when the racist newspapers of the city characterized the Black community as a mere "city plantation."  
  In many ways Black Detroit can be compared to Black New York: "Most of the Negro population in the 1890s worked at varieties of unskilled and lowpaid jobs. The Negro middle- class was quite small. The larger number, some 450 were clerks, followed, in descending order by actors and actresses, musicians and music teachers, and small businessmen(14).” Of course, the particular nature of New York and its vast entertainment complex, even of this day, would give performers and people in the music business a count that would in no way compare to similar folks in Detroit. Though there were far less professional musicians in Detroit than in New York, their conditions were the same.  
  The brass bands that flowered in Detroit in the 1880s were still fairly active but they, too, felt the awesome effects of the caste system and discrimination. The jobs playing on the ferries and river steamers were no longer as plentiful as in the former decade. And, if Detroit had a counterpart to the "red-light" district of Storyville in New Orleans, it was small and insignificant. In fact, this lack of ballrooms, brothels, saloons and the presence of a vibrant, wide open underworld may have been the factors that worked against the growth of jazz in Detroit.  
  For that matter, if we are to allow supposition, money could have been earned playing on the TOBA (Theatre Owners Booking Association) circuit, but the tour seldom stopped in Detroit. The only relief in this depressing situation was the now and then opportunities to play when the social clubs put on an affair(15). And with the death of Theodore Finney, the band master, in 1899, the city’s musicians all but surrendered whatever optimism that remained.  
  To be sure, the Finney group was disheartened, but they were not about to let this musical institution crumble. Ben Shook, who had come to Detroit from Ohio after learning of the greater demand for trained musicians, stepped in and guided the orchestra quite capably for several years. However, even his able leadership could not hold the orchestra together and its members slowly left to join other bands. Shook, like another alumnus of Finney’s Orchestra, Fred Stone, was soon fronting his own band and the Finney tradition and its continuance was assured(16).  
  With the dawn of a new century, as you can see, things were mightly bleak in Detroit. Ironically, through all this misfortune, Black Detroit enjoyed an unusual amount of electoral successes but this was small compensation for the unrelenting misery the community faced. Once more, it was to the church that the Black community turned, and St. Matthew’s, where Harry Guy was often the organist, opened its doors and offered some solace, as the church itself continued in its leadership role.  
  Now, as in former times, Black Detroiters began to look to their own institutions for support and survival. The Gay 90s, a period set in motion by the music of the Black composer, James Bland was coming to a close and no citizens were as happy as Black people when it finally ended.  
  The birth of Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, in New Orleans in 1900, meant nothing to the more than 4,000 people of Black Detroit. The end of one age and the arrival of another, did not change the employment picture for Black workers. Black men constituted less than 1.5 percent of the male servants in the city(17). More significantly, the Twelfth Census, under Occupational Structure, no longer had a category listing of musician. A fact which, by itself, illuminates but a portion of the musical scene.  
  Elsewhere, the cultural scene was rapidly expanding, and becoming more and more sophisticated. The various styles of music – blues, ragtime, minstrel tunes, the early Broadway melodies, and the music of the brass bands continued to gain in popularity as the proponents of each became more conscious of the differing sounds around them. As the chrysalis of jazz began to take shape in many urban centers, Detroit, with but a few society and brass bands consistently able to find work, was at least a decade behind in this move toward jazz. Only a street, St. Antoine, that would later be a quick conduit from "Black Bottom" to the night life excesses of Pradise Valley, was actually being readied for that frantic pace of the ’20s.  
  One group, fortunately, not only was able to find work, but later went on to establish quite a reputation for itself both in Detroit and in Chicago. This was the band of Charles "Doc" Cook. It is not exactly clear just when and where Cook’s music career began, although by the time he was 18, he was living in Detroit. Also, according to Albert McCarthy, from his highly resourceful book Big Band Jazz, as early as 1909 Cook(e) was already active as a composer-arranger in Detroit(18).  
  Cook was an excellent musician who was one of the few Afro-Americans in this country with a doctorate from the American conservatory(19). Before leaving for Chicago, Cook led several bands in Detroit. "Cookie and His Ginger Snaps" was one of the more memorable bands. Though Chicago became his home, Cook still ventured to Detroit for many of the engagements that carried him all over the Midwest. Cook, as well as his band, are important bridges that firmly connect the music of the society/brass bands and the first identifiable jazz in Detroit.  
  Cook was a solid extension of Finney’s orchestra having played with "Fred Stone’s Orchestra and, later in Ben Shook’s Band(20)." Billy Butler, Freddie Keppard, Jimmie Noone and Johnny St. Cyr are a few of the outstanding musicians that worked under Cook. Like so many bands, Cook’s folded under the crunch of the Great Depression. The ’30s would find Cook on his way to do some arranging for the legendary Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and into obscurity.  
  For those Black folks whose survival was linked to the fraternal order of musicians, the closing of Storyville in 1917 was as momentous as W.E.B. DuBois’ "Close Ranks" editorial which encouraged Black participation in World War I. Of course, for the many Black migrants from Alabama and Mississippi who had settled in the city of Detroit, Mr. Ford’s promise to pay five dollars a day, made three years before, was still the biggest news around. The influx of Black Southerners that would swell "Black Bottom"to 120,000 people by 1930 was well under way. By now, in some parts of the world, two musical giants, Satchmo and Duke Ellington, were 17 and 18, respectively.  
  It was about this time that Detrot began to experience its own special brand of urban blues as disillusioned wanderers, living virtually atop one another, vented their frustration and despair in song. Charlie Spand, whose blues piano often accompanied Blind Blake, was just one of these blues people from the South who found Detroit to be something less than the other side of Jordan. The blues in Detroit, which deserves its own book, grew from here to include some important artists as Little Eddie Kirkland Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport, and John Lee Hooker(21).
McKinney's Cotton Pickers
McKinney’s Cotton Pickers
Along with the proliferation of the blues, the arrival of an authentic jazz sound neared. A young man, Don Redman, who like Armstrong and Ellington, was in his twenties in the ’20s began to hear more and more about Detroit. But this composer-arranger- instrumentalist, to whom the world of jazz would owe a tremendous debt, was still some seven years away. Now, without a doubt, that thing called jazz was definitely on the horizon. The many years since Finney, Johnson, Stone, Shook and Cook had witnessed the slow but persistent development of jazz in Detroit. It had been a steady evolution that ended, and began anew, with the arrival of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.  
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.

  1. Third Census 1810, p. 88.
  2. David M. Katzman, "Black Slavery in Michigan," American Midcontinent Studies Journal, Xl (Fall,1970), p. 56-66.
  3. David M. Katzman, Before the Chetto: Black Detroit in the Nineteenth Century (University of Illinois Press, 1973), p. 13.
  4. Roi Ottley and William J. Weatherby (Eds.) The Negro in New York: An Informal Social History, 1626-1940, (Praeger Publishers, 1967), p. 76.
  5. Katzman, Before the Chetto, p. 13.
  6. "Thedore Finney," in Fred Hart Williams and Hoyt Fuller, "Detroit Heritage," typewritten MS in Fred Hart Williams Paper, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.
  7. Katzman, Belore the Ghetto, p. 171.
  8. "John W. Johnson, " Fred Hart Williams Papers.
  9. Samuel R. Charters, Jazz: New Orleans 1885- 1963, (Oak Publications, 1963), p. 2.
  10. "Harry P. Cuy," in Fred Hart Williams Papers.
  11. W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues (Macmillan, 1941), p. 64. It is believed that Handy’s "St. Louis Blues" was inspired by Fred Stone and Theodore Finney.
  12. Eileen Southern, The Music o~ Black Americans: A History (W.W. Norton and Co., 1971), p. 333.
  13. Katzman, Before the Ghetto, p. 94.
  14. Gilbert Osofsky, The Making of a Ghetto, (Harper and Row, 1966), p. 4.
  15. Detroit Post and Tribune, Nov.7, 1831, p. 2.
  16. "Theodore Finney," in Fred ! lart Williams Papers.
  17. Katzman, Before the Glletto, p. 108.
  18. Albert McCarthy, BigBandJazz (Berkeley Publishing Corp., 1974), p. 22.
  19. Cene Fernett, Singout!! Great Negro Dance Bands, (Pendell’ Publishing Co., 1970), p.25. John Chilton, from his Who ‘s Who of Jazz: Storyr)ille to Swing Street (Chilton Book Co., 1978), offers some different facts about Cook’s life. For example, he contends that Cook obtained hls doctorate from the Chicago College of Music.
  20. Fernett, ibid, p. 27.
  21. Eileen Orr, "Study in Black and Blues," a typewritten MS at the Detroit Hlstorical Museum. This document contains no footnotes or sources for findings.

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