When jazz was king in Detroit

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
"Jazz from Detroit" will be released Monday by the University of Michgian Press.

A new book on the local jazz scene reminds us that long before Motown, the city was already a musical giant, looming over lesser lights like Cleveland and St. Louis. 

"You can't really tell the story of jazz in America," said Mark Stryker -- author of "Jazz From Detroit" to be released Monday by the University of Michigan Press -- "without also telling the story of jazz in Detroit."

That's the task that consumed Stryker, a former arts reporter and music critic for the Detroit Free Press, for about seven years. A year ago he turned in 110,000 words with chapters devoted to individual musicians, from trumpeter Gerald Wilson, who died in 2014, to drummer Karriem Riggins today. 

Like all good histories, "Jazz From Detroit" casts light on broader issues of culture and society, not least the role of the Detroit Public Schools in training generations of musicians.

Stryker also highlights the vigorous tradition of jazz mentorship in the city, and the mid-century rise of a prosperous black middle class that supplied Detroit's jazz clubs -- whether Klein's Show Bar, the Blue Bird Inn or Baker's Keyboard Lounge -- with audiences of unusual sophistication.

Stryker quotes drummer Elvin Jones on how audiences in the 1950s at Hamtramck's renowned World Stage club treated musicians "with a reverence akin to Carnegie Hall."

But woe betide the musician who tried to fake it in Detroit.

"You had to have your stuff together," the legendary tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson told the author in 1996. "The audiences around Detroit were like musicians. I mean, they knew. No way to come up on the bandstand jiving. That could be injurious to one's ego." 

Detroit musicians were early bebop adopters, the sophisticated reinterpretation of swing pioneered by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other New York greats, which coincided with the Motor City's 1950s explosion in wealth and population.

Mark Stryker looks over his large collection of music LPs and CDs, Thursday, June 20, 2019, in Plymouth, Mich.

"Bebop gets adopted here very quickly," Stryker said. "Our musicians were so well trained, they immediately understood what Charlie Parker was doing." 

For anyone who knows jazz, the talent that issued from Detroit is dazzling. 

"The honor roll is amazing," Stryker said, checking off just a few of the luminaries -- trumpeter Wilson, pianists Barry Harris and Roland Hanna, vocalist Regina Carter, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, and the astonishing multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef.

"You just keep going: Holy cow, he's from Detroit? And him, too?"

Stryker insists this isn't just another tale of the Detroit's ascent and decline. While he pegs 1940-60 as the city's golden age of jazz, "even today," he said, "the city continues to punch above its weight class." 

For the biographical chapter portraits, Stryker -- who's got 3,800 jazz LP's and 5,000 jazz CD's  meticulously organized in his basement -- interviewed those musicians still alive, listened to their complete recorded works, watched them rehearse and perform if possible, and tried to visit them at home. 

"So I spent an evening watching Barry Harris," whom Stryker called one of the book's heroes, "teaching from 6:30 p.m. to after midnight. The singers came in first, the pianist at 8:30, and the horn players at 10:30. And that became a narrative spine for that chapter." 

One of the most interesting themes coursing through "Jazz From Detroit" is the pivotal role of the public schools, and the celebrated DPS music program - once the envy of other cities around the country. 

Cass Technical High School, of course, was the gold standard, but Stryker says there were great programs at Miller, Northwestern and other high schools.

"You had theory classes and individual instrument instruction," he said, noting that kids were pushed to broaden their skills. "If you played wind, you had to learn a stringed instrument," Stryker said. "So everybody could really play."  

Nor did this instructional quality completely collapse right after 1967.

"It's complicated," he said, "but the schools actually continue quality music programs up into the 1990s. The true decimation doesn't really happen till the arrival of the emergency manager."

Lamentably, the role of jazz across American life has contracted since its mid-century high point, as true in Detroit as Kansas City. 

But if Detroit no longer enjoys what Stryker called "the roaring African-American nightlife" of 60 years ago, it's still richer in jazz options than you might think. He attributes this in large part to the decades trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who died in 2015, spent tutoring those just coming up in the art form.  

"Look - we're never going to have the 1950s again," Stryker said, conceding that jazz once dominated popular culture in a way it simply doesn't today. 

"But we still have a damned good scene here," he added, arguing that you can take in quality jazz almost any night of the week at Baker's Keyboard Lounge or Cliff Bell's in Detroit, or the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in Grosse Pte. Farms. 

"This is a living, breathing tradition," Stryker said. "And while we had glory days and a golden age, the tradition did not die out. In many cities, like St. Louis and Cleveland," he added, "it did. But here we keep producing."

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

'Jazz From Detroit' 

University of Michigan Press, 2019

$39.95 (40 percent discount available - promo code "UMSTRYKER")

Michigan Jazz Festival author signing 

Noon - 9 p.m. July 21 - Schoolcraft College, 18600 Haggerty, Livonia 

Launch party:

7 p.m., July 30 - Cliff Bell's, Detroit - no admission charge; music by Rodney Whitaker Quartet