The Independent Ear

Sarah Elizabeth Charles: Free of Form

Several years ago, on assignment to write a magazine piece on the burgeoning crop of players and subsequent influence on the jazz scene from arriving young Caribbean musicians. Initial investigation turned up a number of exceptional and vital musicians… but completely male-centric, no women. Subsequent interview conversations recommended investigating a young woman vocalist of Haitian descent, who at that time was new to the scene. Introducing Sarah Elizabeth Charles.

My research revealed a refreshing vocalist of lovely, clear timbre with a healthy respect for delivering potent lyrics. Then I caught her at the venue below renowned Ethiopian-Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson’s chic Red Rooster restaurant, just up the street from one of the legendary crossroads of black America, 125th & Lennox. That particular evening Sarah Elizabeth Charles was singing with keyboardist Jesse Fischer‘s potent unit. I determined to introduce Sarah to DC audiences at the 2016 DC Jazz Festival. Sarah’s latest release is Free of Form, an evocative, socially-conscious album full of penetrating, original lyrics. Clearly some questions for Sarah Elizabeth Charles were in order.

Would it be fair to characterize this release as a bit of a shift in direction for your artistry? And if so, how would you characterize that artistic shift?
I would say that Free of Form represents more of a natural progression in my artistry as opposed to a shift in direction. My band SCOPE’s first two records, Red and Inner Dialogue, were snapshots of where we were as a band in those moments. On both of these projects, there are more covered/arranged content in addition to some original music. I feel that as the evolution of these albums commenced, so too did the process of slowly moving in the direction of what Free of Form was to become. We had started playing with vocal layers as early as 2011 with the recording of the song “Easy” on Red and began improvising in live performance and in the studio, playing with textures, rhythms and instrumental layers in 2012/2013 leading up to our beginning to record Inner Dialogue. I guess what I’m pointing to is what has felt like a very seamless transition from my songwriting/arranging space, to rehearsals, to live performance, to the studio and then circling back around to the songwriting/arranging space. This journey has all taken place in a cyclical manner and with the revolution of each project, we’ve been able to slowly evolve to where we find ourselves now as artists and as a band.

One thing I was struck by with Free of Form is your use of extended forms on an otherwise fairly quiet landscape. What were you going for in that regard?
This is a really interesting observation and I think it speaks to our main characteristics as a band which are grounded in remaining adventurous and fluid. The thing that I would say we are going for here is to allow enough space for freedom of expression. Each of those sections in the extended forms that you’re pointing to are moments that can manifest and develop differently each time we play the song. They’re meant as spaces where the song can take on a different meaning depending on where each person is energetically at the time that they are playing it. As the bandleader and the songwriter, I’ve grown to see the value of leaving this space for whichever members of SCOPE happen to be playing at any given moment. The music is able to take on its most true identity when the through composed and improvisatory sections are properly balanced. It’s also just more fun for us.

Clearly you’ve engaged a lot of creative electronics here, including multi-tracked voicings, etc. Thankfully none of that comes as a result of your engaging false narratives like the dreaded harmonizer, but you have certainly extended the vocal textures here electronically. Talk about your process for engaging those tools and why you felt and planned that sensibility with this release.
I love voices and playing with them in the studio. One of my favorite parts of tracking is to be able to record something, listen back to it and then head back into the booth and react to what is there right in the moment. It’s almost like a form of improvisation for me that is super specific to the studio and that has slightly delayed action. Many of the multi-track voice moments were either done in this fashion or live on my looper while we were tracking. I love to able to play not only in response to others, but in response to myself and to push the limits of what the voice can be texturally at any given time in the music. In today’s world, the studio and technology allow for really amazing opportunities for recorded sound and I enjoy playing with those limits and boundaries in ways that I feel serve the music that we are recording.

Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is one of your key collaborators on this release. Talk about his contributions and what they meant to the overall ideas you had with this release.
I’ve been working with Christian since 2013 and consider him to be a collaborator, a mentor and a friend. His evolution as an artist led us to meet prior to the recording and release of Inner Dialogue and I am so grateful that he saw enough similarities in the directions that we were both moving in to want to work together. I remember when I asked him to produce Inner Dialogue. His initial response was “no” and I remember being silent on the end of the line and not knowing what to say. He then quickly followed up by saying that I was already producing my own material and that he’d only be interested in being involved if he were able to co-produce with me. This is one of the many moments that I’ve had working with Christian when I’ve realized how great our creative partnership could be. Since then, he has co-produced and played on both Inner Dialogue and Free of Form (which was the very first Stretch Music release not by Christian himself), I have guested and co-written songs on his most recent and upcoming 2020 releases and we continue to stay very closely connected, planning for SCOPE’s fourth album to be released on Stretch Music in 2020. As a mentor, he’s given me encouragement to push the boundaries of the music and to trust my gut and I am endlessly grateful for this. I see our creative collaboration as a continuous exchange and look forward to the work we’ll be doing together in the future.

The tracks on this record are for the most part your originals, none of which I would characterize as being of the “baby I love you” canon. What were you going for with the themes and the lyrics of these songs?
This question is really great. I often joke with those closest to me that even my love songs sound intense and don’t have the classic “baby I love you” type canon. I love that canon too, but it just hasn’t really come out of me in that way yet. Maybe some day…
Many of the songs on Free of Form are meant to communicate a reaction and view point of occurrences in the outside world. The commentary of the lyrical content ranges from topics around police brutality (“Change to Come”) and poverty (“Learn How To Love”) to addiction (“Another Cloudy Memory”) and the strength of the feminine spirit in all human beings (“Taller”). The overall theme points to being free of any pre-conceived notion as to what lyrical or musical content can or needs to be and letting myself react to the outside world in relationship to my own personal experience. I was writing this music in 2015-2016 and there were therefore many things happening in the world to inspire me. At this time, my teaching artist work in various settings (including with teens and at Sing Sing Correctional Facility as a part of Carnegie Hall’s outreach division, at The New School forming new curriculum around Jazz and Gender and in Haiti with Rise2Shine) also inspired me to use my platform to tell my truth related to these topics and others. Our first album Red is a documentation of where we’d been, Inner Dialogue is a reflection of who I was internally at that time and Free of Form is a representation of where I want to go and what artistic space I want to occupy at this point in my journey.

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TK Blue: The (African) Rhythm Continues

The joyous alto and saxophone and flute sound of T.K. Blue (aka Talib Kibwe) has been part of my consciousness for many moons. Before we even met his sound was a subliminal presence. The first time I actually encountered his passionate horns was an 80s era duo performance with Randy Weston at Sweet Basil. Back in 1990 Suzan and I traveled to Trinidad to cover the annual Pan Jazz Festival, a celebration of the melding of Trinidad & Tobago’s vibrant steel pan tradition with jazz. That was a particularly memorable trip, not only for the music but also for my first trip to Trinidad and a homecoming for Suzan, who spent some of her early childhood days living in Port of Spain. Among the musicians was T.K., who as it turned out roomed right next door at the festival hotel, Port of Spain’s landmark upside down Hilton Hotel, a hotel literally perched on a hillside with it’s first floor at the top descending down the hill. Each morning our wake-up call was the incessant saxophone and flute practice of our neighbor. Who was this thoroughly dedicated artist? Suzan’s curiosity got the best of her and we soon met T.K. Blue, who has become a true brother, stemming from that Trinidad introduction to his decades as music director of the great Randy Weston‘s African Rhythms bands. In fact it was Talib who encouraged me to pursue writing Randy’s autobiography, African Rhythms (Duke University Press).

T.K. Blue’s latest recording is The Rhythms Continue, an equal parts lovely and vibrant remembrance honoring Randy Weston’s powerful impact on his and so many other of our lives. The record includes contributions from members of Randy’s African Rhythms band, including bassist Alex Blake, African drummer Baba Neil Clarke, drummer Vince Ector, and frequent Weston collaborator Min Xao Fen, a master of the Chinese stringed instrument known as the pipa, plus an apropos rotating cast of pianists. The music is a successful blend of Weston compositions and T.K. Blue originals. The results are so striking that clearly some Independent Ear questions were in order.

The title of your latest recording is The Rhythms Continue. Would it be correct to assume that’s an obvious reference to your many years with Randy Weston’s African Rhythms bands and the continuum of that spirit?
Your assessment on the name of my new recording entitled The Rhythms Continue on JAJA Records is absolutely correct. Dr. Weston’s spirit and influence has touched the hearts of many people in such a positive fashion. I was quite fortunate to have had an in-depth and profound relationship with Baba Randy, and I am quite sure he would want all of us to continue on our journey, following our dreams and aspirations. He always preached it’s more important to tell a story than take a solo.

From the repertoire, your eloquent liner notes on the master, and the CD booklet photograph, this record is clearly your response to the loss of Randy Weston. How did your decades-long odyssey with Randy Weston begin, what were the circumstances behind your becoming a member of his band?
I followed an interesting route in becoming a member of African Rhythms. First was hearing Dr. Weston and his son Azzedin perform at the East in Brooklyn. Next was Baba Randy hearing me perform as a member of pianist’s Abdullah Ibrahim’s ensemble. Finally was an opportunity to sit in with Dr. Weston for a fundraiser to benefit the abolishment of Apartheid. This led to my first official concert as part of the African Rhythms at the House Of The Lord Church in Brooklyn in 1980. Moving to Paris solidified our wonderful relationship as Baba Randy also lived in Annecy, France.

Clearly you were also feeling the presence of Randy’s longtime collaborator Melba Liston when you made this record as well. Talk about what Melba, who was to Randy’s music what Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington‘s music, meant to your tenure with Randy’s band as his music director.
I had the delightful experience of knowing Melba Liston quite well. My first encounter with Maestro Liston was at the home of saxophonist Billy Mitchell in Lakeview, Long Island. I was still in high school and lived one block away. The next opportunity was while performing at the United Nations in NYC with pianist Patti Bown. “Auntie” Melba wrote her arrangements. Of course the icing on the cake was when Melba and Randy reunited to perform and record in several big band, medium size, and small ensemble settings. I had the opportunity to visit Melba’s home in Harlem on a myriad of occasions and saw first-hand the enormous volume of work she arranged and composed. In Randy’s amazing biography “African Rhythms”, I mentioned how Melba came to me in a dream and helped me rectify an issue while arranging music for Randy’s Ancient Future Suite for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Melba Liston, as well as many extraordinary female performers, deserves a huge slice of recognition in Jazz History!

The selections on this record are a combination of Randy and your writing. What went into your selection of this program, particularly considering the depth of Randy’s songbook?
Dr. Randy Weston passed away September 1, 2018. I was in his presence for the last time on Saturday August 18th. His passing left a huge void in my life and I felt the best way to express it was through music. It was also the most precise way to heal one’s soul experiencing the mourning of a close elder and mentor. I went into the recording studio near my home in Jersey City right away and simply played songs in a solo framework that manifested the tremendous influence of Baba Randy, who had recently become an ancestor. Later on I started fleshing out some original compositions that I wanted to record with the alumni African Rhythms band. I always retained the idea of telling a story in a suite format that depicts my “contemplative memoir” regarding such a prolific figure in Jazz. The precise songs and their sequence for this tribute began to take shape. Those that did not make the cut may very well surface on a subsequent recording.

Two of the tracks, “Night in Medina” and “Ifrane” – ironically each represent his frequent reflections on Morocco and both appeared on Randy’s record Blue Moses – you play largely as solo saxophone selections. What made you determine to play them largely solo?
Two of the alto sax solo tracks on this recording are Night In Medina and Ifrane, both from the recording Blue Moses on CTI Records. This is by far one of my favorite recordings of all time. It features an array of iconic figures in Jazz and it was Baba Randy’s greatest selling album. My maiden voyage to Morocco was in the mid 1980’s. Randy’s band just finished a concert for the International Jazz Festival in Sevilla, Spain. He asked me to accompany him to Morocco, which I happily accepted. We drove from Sevilla to southern Spain and took the ferry to Morocco. We then drove to Tangiers and Rabat. Needless to say this voyage was quite overwhelming, complete with seeing the building that housed his African Rhythms Club, meeting his extended family in Tangiers, a traditional Moroccan dinner at the minister of finance’s home in Rabat, and experiencing the traditional Moroccan hamam, or hot bath. I decided to record these two songs in solo fashion to denote this special journey to the Motherland.

One thing I noticed – and appreciated as a radio programmer – is that the 19 tracks on The Rhythms Continue – are almost continuous suite-like in that none of them is over 6 mins. long. Was that a conscious effort on your part when you were planning and recording this session, to keep the tracks at a modest length?
From the inception of this recording project I wanted to convey a suite, something continuous and connected that paints a picture. I did not entertain very long improvisations for this CD, but rather shorter pieces or vignettes that serve as connecting points between longer compositions. I was more concerned with telling a story while choosing a more economical approach to improvisation. I will always remember what Frank Wess once told me: “Make your statement and get out of there. When you finish a solo chorus and your mind says go for another one, don’t listen!!! Leave them wanting more”

The musicians in the band on The Rhythms Continue are members of Randy’s African Rhythms bands, as well as the Chinese pipa master Min Xiao Fen, a great friend and frequent musical collaborator with Randy. And you use a rotating cast of pianists – Sharp Radway, Keith Brown, Mike King, and Kelly Green. What was your thinking in terms of representing Randy’s spirit and influence at the piano with these musicians?
Choosing the pianist(s) for this project required some reflection. You can obviously go in many directions, which could include many master and established artists. In the end I decided to examine how Randy’s influence and legacy would be in the hands of extremely talented young pianists and nourish their opportunity to display their craft. Sharp Radway, Kelly Green, Mike King, and Keith Brown each demonstrated wonderful charisma and creativity in their vision of Dr. Weston’s legacy. In addition all pianists mentioned are exceptionally creative and humble. I feel quite blessed they were available and they exuded so much love and joy. Honoring Melba Liston as well was also a priority.

How ultimately would you like the public to view the legacy of Randy Weston, and your place in that legacy?
I can only hope that the public will remember Dr. Randy Weston as a pioneer in Jazz, infusing the sounds of Africa in his music. In addition he was a warrior for the elevation of the African aesthetic via its music, art, culture, and philosophy. His yearning to uplift the condition and status of the African-American during a strident era of adversity should always be acknowledged and appreciated. I feel immensely fortunate to have been an integral part of his journey and his wisdom has propelled me to continue the rhythms of life through music. It is also my intense pleasure to pass along this dynamic legacy to the next generation. Lastly I would like for future generations to know that Baba Randy was extremely kind and generous. He exuded altruism in all situations and the “Chief” had the utmost respect for his band members and all artists. He regularly paid his band way above union scale. He exemplified class and dignity. I will strive to continue on this path and I give thanks for all of his guidance.

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Dressed to Thrill vol. 2

This is the second in an occasional Independent Ear feature focusing on jazz musicians’ various “looks” on the bandstand. Just in case you missed our premise, from the vol. 1 installment: Historically, jazz musicians have for generations been among music’s most fashion-forward exponents. Frequently jazz musicians have been featured in occasional jazz-centric fashion spreads in general interest periodicals, notably in GQ magazine. A cursory review of jazz magazine covers provides additional evidence of the sartorial splendor of many of our finest jazz practitioners. To some we seem to have lost that element as succeeding generations appear to take a decidedly more casual approach to how they present themselves onstage sartorially. For whatever reason it seems many modern musicians have adopted the attitude that the audience came purely to hear them play well, and if they deliver on that promise there’s no need to carefully consider their onstage appearance, much less address their audience to provide some sense of what they’re playing and why they’ve made their choices.

However there remains a school of thought that your onstage appearance is a positive (or negative) reflection on whether you’ve arrived onstage to truly take care of serious business. Some musicians seem to forget, overlook, or outright dismiss any sense that their onstage appearance makes any difference in their audience’s perception and ultimate appreciation of their work. In my experience observing and developing audiences as a presenter, journalist, and educator I can tell you that without question a musician’s onstage appearance does make a difference. With that in mind we introduce the second installment in an occasional Independent Ear feature we’ll call Dressed to Thrill. The forever fashion forward Miles Davis, apropos the current buzz generated by Stanley Nelson’s superb new documentary film, was featured in vol. 1 of Dressed to Thrill. Vol. 2 is a potpourri of largely bandstand “looks” from various and sundry jazz instrumentalists and vocalists, and take note of the fact that the great majority of these artists were captured looking & wearing their best on the bandstand. See how many of these sartorially aware artists you can identify:

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Jazz From Detroit

One of the most rewarding books I’ve read this year, and certainly a surefire nominee for the annual Jazz Journalist Association award for best book has to be Mark Stryker’s Jazz From Detroit. The Motor City is known from a musical perspective first and foremost for being the birthplace of the legendary Motown Records. But even a closer examination of that vaunted touchstone of pop music history reveals that Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy, built that voice dominated tradition on a foundation of jazz instrumentalists.

Detroit is both birthplace and incubator of some of jazz music’s finest talent, including many jazz masters and hall of famers. Journalist Mark Stryker has written a book loaded with insights on the city’s vibrant jazz history, including the each-one-teach-one mentality of several notable musicians who contributed not only their fine skills to the scene and eventually the world stage, but also recognized the value of mentoring succeeding generations of jazz musicians following in their footsteps. Jazz From Detroit is such an exceptionally informative read that we recently reached out to its author Mark Stryker with a few questions. Here are his expansive and informative responses to our Independent Ear inquiry.

What was your original motivation for writing this book?
Even before arriving in Detroit in 1995, I knew in a general sense about Detroit’s reputation for producing great jazz musicians. But it was only after I got here — as an arts reporter and music critic with the Detroit Free Press — that I began to realize just how deep the tradition ran. For one thing, I learned that for every musician who left Detroit and got famous, another one stayed behind who played almost as well, occasionally just as well. Then I realized that beyond Hank, Thad, and Elvin Jones, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Yusef Lateef, Louis Hayes, and other high-profile hard bop players, there were a huge number of “name” musicians who came from Detroit or spent significant time here that most folks don’t always associate with the city — Howard McGhee, Lucky Thompson, Gerald Wilson, Eddie Locke, Major Holley, Doug Hammond, and many others.

Over time, I also began to understand the fundamental role that the Detroit Public Schools’ peerless music programs played in seeding the jazz scene and the outsized influence that community mentors, particularly Barry Harris and Marcus Belgrave, had in perpetuating the tradition. Then one night at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in 2005, I heard the pianist Kenn Cox give a between-tune de facto sermon to the audience in which he said, “Jazz wouldn’t be the same without Detroit.” That was the catalyst.

I realized there was a larger story to tell about the profound influence of the Detroit Diaspora on the course of modern and contemporary jazz. No one had put all these pieces today and chronicled that impact in a comprehensive way, explained how and why Detroit became such an important center for the music at midcentury, and then how the city sustained its influence decade after decade, even as its economic might and population declined. Detroit’s jazz legacy was not a historical fluke. It grew out of a particular set of economic, social, and cultural factors, and the talents of specific musicians. It continued because enough of the infrastructure — schools, mentors, engaged and nurturing audiences — remained in place to regenerate the scene.

I also felt that many of Detroit’s greatest musicians hadn’t been written about with the depth that they deserved. I wanted to produce profiles that explored their lives and music — to create a sense of who they were as people off the bandstand, while also digging into the marrow of their art with substantive analysis and criticism. I was a reporter and music critic at the Free Press, and I grew up as alto saxophone player and took an influential jazz history seminar at the University of Illinois with the seminal scholar Larry Gushee, who preached meticulous scholarship. I tried to honor all of those facets of my background in writing the book. A shorter way of saying all of this is that I wanted to give Detroit
its due.

How did you determine which artists to interview, and given the wealth of contributing musicians from Detroit, what was your process for determining which musicians to feature?
Deciding who to include and who to leave out was painful! I have an appendix in the book that lists Detroit musicians by instrument and there are about 175 names, and I could have listed scores of others. So many significant players came of age in the 1940s and ‘50s alone that it would have been easy to fill the book only with them. But it was critical to me to bring the story up the present day. Detroit jazz is an ongoing, living tradition. That meant from the get-go some big names from the past weren’t going to make the cut. One way I made choices was that if a musician was already the subject of a full- length biography (or one in progress), of if there was already a substantial journalistic or scholarly account of their lives, I felt I could leave them out in good conscience. I know that’s a dubious rationalization, but it allowed me to sleep better at night by justifying the exclusion of Paul Chambers, Betty Carter, Pepper Adams, Frank Rosolino, Sonny Red, Roy Brooks, and Faruq Z. Bey. About half the chapters started as pieces of various kinds for the Free Press (profiles, reviews, obituaries, short features), though they were extensively revised and expanded for the book. Some of the fundamental interviews go back to my earliest days at the paper — Kenny Burrell and Joe Henderson, for example, were both interviewed in 1996, and many other interviews were done in the course of my tenure at the paper from 1995-2016. Particularly valuable were those pieces that grew out of reporting trips that allowed me to spend significant time with a subject, such as spending a couple days in New York hanging around Barry Harris and watching him teach, or traveling to Atlantic City with Louis Hayes for a gig, or visiting Hank Jones at his home in upstate New York. Some subjects were interviewed multiple times through the years, during and after my time at the paper. Having said all that, there were musicians that I interviewed in person who still didn’t make it into the book – Bennie Maupin and Alice Coltrane among them.

Some musicians died before I was even writing professionally (Thad Jones) and others I never got a chance to talk to for one reason or another (Milt Jackson, Elvin Jones, Donald Byrd, Roland Hanna). In these cases, I felt they were simply too important to leave out, and I relied on archival interviews and secondary sources. (I should add that I interviewed colleagues, friends, family, etc. for all of the musicians profiled in the book.)

In the end, I tried to balance issues of importance and influence, generation, whether I had something unique to say, whether I had interviewed a subject, whether there were other books or materials of quality already in circulation, and my own subjective favorites. For what it’s worth, the four musicians whom I’m most sorry I did not find room for are bassists Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers, the underrated pianist Terry Pollard and trumpeter Howard McGhee. For reasons of space, I also had to cut at the 11th hour what I thought was an entertaining chapter about Soupy Sales, the TV personality, who played an important role as an advocate for jazz in Detroit in the 1950s.

The interviews and profiles aside, the hardest part of writing the book was creating a cohesive organizational structure and writing the thematic chapters that connected the dots between individual musicians and styles across the generations and the complex history of Detroit since 1940. I toggle back and forth between the Diaspora and keeping up with what’s happened on the ground back in Detroit. My editors and I talked a lot about the overall arc of the book and making sure that we were creating a gestalt rather than just a collection of individual profiles — balancing the big picture with the close-ups.

When I was at Arts Midwest in the mid-late ’80s developing their former regional jazz service program, which included interviewing a number of Detroit’s prominent resident musicians and subsequently producing technical assistance workshops for musicians there, I was constantly impressed at the number of activist musicians in Detroit. There was always a sense that Detroit musicians were often self-starters when it came to developing opportunities for themselves and finding means of supporting their and others’ work. Why has Detroit in particular been a place of more than a few activist DIY jazz musicians?
Good question. I think there are three basic reasons. First, no American city declined further from its midcentury peak in terms of economic power and population than Detroit in the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s. So, if you were a jazz musician here, the shifting economic and demographic landscape of the city and declining traditional opportunities for club and recording session work —particularly after the bloody summer of 1967 and Motown’s departure for Los Angeles in the early ‘70s — demanded that you do it yourself or perish. Second, Detroit, going back to at least the 1930s, was a locus of black achievement, ambition, and aspiration, and that helped create a culture of activism and self-reliance. Thanks to the combined impact of the auto industry and the Great Migration, Detroit was on leading edge of creating a black working and middle class in America. In 1950, the city was the 5th largest in country with 1.85 million people. More than 300,000 of those residents, about 16%, were black. In his essential book Black Detroit, Herb Boyd writes that, “Whether from the pulpit, the foundry, or the political arena, Detroit’s black community has always been active and highly volatile”. Worth noting too is that the Nation of Islam was founded in Detroit in 1930.

Third, as far back as 1953, when Kenny Burrell formed a prescient organization in Detroit called the New Music Society, there was a tradition of self-determination among Detroit jazz musicians. I devote an entire section of my book to the flowering of cooperatives and self-determination efforts in Detroit in the 1960s and ‘70s — important but little-known organizations such as the Detroit Artists Workshop, Detroit Creative Musicians Association, Strata Corporation, and Tribe,and bands like the Contemporary Jazz Quintet and Focus Novii.

While Strata, Tribe, and CJQ register a bit today with aficionados because they left recordings, the full scope of their activities and influence is still a secret. The Detroit Creative Musicians Association and its signature group, Focus Novii, which included guitarist James Blood Ulmer and drummer Doug Hammond, is completely off the radar. Like my former professor Larry Gushee often said: The history of jazz and the history of jazz on record are different things. I’m happy to have been able to bring this hidden Detroit history to light. Self-determination is by now part of the historical legacy of Detroit jazz.

There’s also always been a sense among Detroit musicians of passing on the knowledge to future generations, whether that was in formal or informal education settings. Do you find Detroit rather unusual in that respect, where mentoring and teaching have always been available to the next generations?
You find people in every city who are “the teachers,” but I think Detroit is unique in that the culture of mentorship is so deeply embedded into the DNA of the jazz scene. In the book, Regina Carter says: “This community raised us.” In many ways, the two biggest heroes in the book are Barry Harris, who taught practically everybody in Detroit in the 1950s, and Marcus Belgrave, who nurtured countless musicians from the early ‘70s until his death in 2015. Barry is the progenitor. At nearly 90, he’s still teaching in New York at salon-style workshops that he runs in basically the same fashion as the Socratic dialogues held at his house in Detroit. I title my chapter about Barry “Professor of Bebop,” and his influential theories have found their way into the wider course of jazz education. But Barry remains a lone wolf: a school of one. He was only about 20 when he took a leadership role in Detroit, teaching Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Doug Watkins, Curtis Fuller, Pepper Adams, Yusef Lateef, and then later Joe Henderson, Charles McPherson, Roy Brooks, Lonnie Hillyer, and many others.

Barry Harris, the Professor of Bebop

When folks like Trane, Cannonball and Sonny Rollins were in town, they also fell by Barry’s pad to see what he was up to. Barry was only about 20 around 1950, when he took a leadership role in the jazz community, and he didn’t leave until 1960 — that long tenure magnified his influence. He didn’t need to leave because there was so much work. I titled an entire section of my book “Marcus Belgrave and his Children” — his children being the many stars he taught, including Geri Allen, Kenny Garrett, Regina Carter, Gerald Cleaver, Robert Hurst, Rodney Whitaker, and Karriem Riggins, as well as James Carter, who didn’t spend as much time with Marcus as the others but still benefited from his influence. (James’ primary mentor was a public-school teacher [and saxophonist] named Donald Washington.) Marcus came up with Ray Charles in the ‘50s and early ‘60s and there were important associations and recordings with everybody from Mingus to Wynton Marsalis. He was born inPennsylvania but from 1963 forward was based in Detroit and a direct link to the jazz aristocracy. Marcus strongly rooted all of his proteges within the tradition — bebop, swing, blues, telling a story when you improvise — but his students all found their own voices within myriad idioms. Marcus was not the only important mentor in Detroit over the last 30 or 40 years. Kenn Cox, Harold McKinney, Donald Walden, Jack Pierson, Donald Washington, and a few others made an impact; but Marcus was the defining example.

Trumpet master Marcus Belgrave was a powerful mentor for a legion of Detroit’s finest

Many of Marcus’ former students are important teachers themselves. Rodney Whitaker runs the jazz program at Michigan State University, Bob Hurst teaches at the University of Michigan, Geri Allen was running the program at Pittsburgh when she died and had just take on the role of artistic director of an arts organization in Detroit called the Carr Center. That’s all because of the legacy of Marcus.

What has the Detroit Jazz Festival meant in terms of further developing the Detroit jazz scene?
The festival — the largest free jazz festival in the world — is an important annual showcase, an opportunity for the city to celebrate its remarkable jazz heritage and remind itself of what is has created. The festival has always been devoted to the core of the art form, and it has always been an event that honored not only the homegrown icons who ascended to stardom but also the everyday heroes of the current Detroit scene. A long time ago, the festival’s former director Jim Dulzo told me that a jazz festival isn’t just a collection of musical performances or a street fair with a jazz soundtrack; it should hold up a mirror to the city’s culture and tell us something about the unique place where we live. That’s what the Detroit festival does. It’s also free, which is critical, because that infuses the event and its audiences with a beautiful democratic spirit and diversity. Detroit audiences are so incredibly knowledgeable about the music, and even folks who come to the festival who aren’t jazz aficionados are still music fans. Detroiters revere music of all types. People are so respectful. I heard Ron Carter and Pat Metheny play duets for an hour a couple weeks ago at this year’s festival — maybe 7,500 people were listening at a free outdoor festival and you could hear a pin drop during the ballads. That doesn’t happen everywhere.

In some communities there is a bit of resentment – subtle or otherwise – towards the big annual jazz festival among those who endeavor to present jazz year-round. Has there been any of that kind of reaction to the Detroit Jazz Festival?
Not really. Perhaps because the festival is free, it isn’t viewed as competition. I suppose there have been little tensions here and there, but the festival does collaborate with other institutions in town.

Obviously a book like Jazz from Detroit is heavy on the history. What is your sense of the contemporary Detroit jazz scene, and does the city continue to produce world class jazz musicians?
As I said earlier, it was important to me to bring the book up to the present day because Detroit remains a vital hone for jazz and is still an important breeding ground. The famous players who came up under Marcus Belgrave are now in their 40s and 50s and at the peak of their careers. Tenor saxophonist JD Allen, who isn’t featured in the book but could be, is another Detroiter who is a major figure on today’s scene.

The last section of the book, “Tradition and Transition in the 21st Century,” is devoted to contemporary currents in the city. I talk about the continuing importance of mentorship in the community and the increasing role that nonprofits are playing in the city in terms of jazz education. I focus on two veteran bassists — Ralphe Armstrong and Marion Hayden — who have had major-league associations but have always chosen to live in Detroit and have now also become important mentors; and two superb young musicians who are about 30, saxophonist Marcus Elliot and pianist Michael Malis. They are Marcus Belgrave’s grandchildren, because they studied with Marcus’ students like Geri Allen and Rodney Whitaker and they also played with Marcus for a few years before he died.

James Carter’s current trio includes two fellow Detroiters, Gerard Gibbs on organ and Alex White on drums. Robert Hurst leads a tremendous band stocked with mostly young Detroiters, including pianist Ian Finkelstein, saxophonist Rafael Statin, and drummer Nate Winn. They all played great. Check out Bob’s exceptional CD from last year called “Black Currant Jam.” Hell, I heard Nate playing drums with Danilo Perez’s large ensemble at the Detroit Jazz Festival [three] weeks ago and he sounded as creative and authoritative as any of his peers in New York or anywhere else. The point is: The legacy continues.

Saxophonist Donald Washington, currently based in the Twin Cities, was another of the exceptional mentors during his time in Detroit, including mentoring James Carter, and Rodney Whitaker, both of who played in Washington’s youth ensemble Bird-Trane-Sco-Now

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Dressed to Thrill vol.1

Certain jazz musicians have for generations been some of music’s most fashion-forward exponents. For years jazz musicians have been featured in occasional jazz-centric fashion spreads in general interest periodicals, notably in GQ magazine. A cursory review of jazz magazine covers provides additional evidence of the sartorial splendor of many of our finest jazz practitioners. To some we seem to have lost that element as succeeding generations appear to take a decidedly more casual approach to how they present themselves onstage sartorially. For whatever reason it seems many modern musicians have adopted the attitude that the audience came purely to hear them play well, and if they deliver on that promise there’s no need to carefully consider their onstage appearance, much less address their audience to provide some sense of what they’re playing and why they’ve made their choices.

However there remains a school of thought that your onstage appearance is a positive (or negative) reflection on whether you’ve arrived onstage to truly take care of serious business. Some musicians seem to forget, overlook, or outright dismiss any sense that their onstage appearance makes any difference in their audience’s perception and ultimate appreciation of their work. In my experience observing and developing audiences as a presenter, journalist, and educator I can tell you that without question a musician’s onstage appearance does make a difference. With that in mind we introduce an occasional Independent Ear feature we’ll call Dressed to Thrill. Apropos the release of Stanley Nelson’s warmly received new Miles Davis documentary film “Birth of the Cool,” we begin our Dress to Thrill features with one of jazz music’s all-time fashion forward musicians, Miles himself. And speaking of general interest magazine coverage of jazz musicians, dig the Jet magazine cover at the bottom.

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