Detroit jazz icon Marcus Belgrave dies
Friends report that Marcus Belgrave, a Detroit jazz icon famous for his copper trumpet and for playing with Ray Charles and other greats, died Saturday night. Musician R.J. Spangler, was among the friends Belgrave’s wife Joan texted with the message, “We lost our friend Marcus.”
Belgrave, 78, had suffered from heart and pulmonary issues for some time, and had been hospitalized at the University of Michigan in late April, suffering from pneumonia.
“Marcus was a jazz icon in Detroit, but also an international jazz treasure,” said Spangler. “He mentored Regina Carter, Kenny Garrett, Robert Hurst and many others, but he also played with Charles Mingus, Wynton Marsalis, Horace Tapscott and even sat in with the Tonight Show Band.
“For most of my life, he was a fellow eastsider. He was a beautiful man.”
Belgrave wasn’t born in Detroit, but the native Pennsylvanian chose the Motor City as his home when he came off the road with Ray Charles’ band in 1963.
Belgrave was attracted to the steady work in Motown’s hit factory on W. Grand Blvd., but Detroit’s tightly-knit jazz community was also part of the draw.
He soon bonded with Detroit jazz great Harold McKinney, who was active as an educator and mentor, apart from his own music. Detroit’s jazz musicians thrived during the Motown years, when many were employed playing sessions on W. Grand Blvd. But in the ‘70s, when the label had moved west, it fell to elders such as McKinney and Belgrave to help keep the music alive.
“Harold is basically responsible for me staying here as long as I have,” Belgrave told The Detroit News in 1991. “He inspired me to work with young people. I owe the first 10 or 12 years of my existence here to Harold. He's been one of my fathers; Ray Charles has been the other one.”
Like McKinney, Belgrave believed passionately in mentoring younger musicians, and the list of those he taught or influenced is staggering.Pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst, saxophonists Kenny Garrett and James Carter; violinist Regina Carter and bassist Rodney Whitaker are just some of the many who learned from Belgrave.
Born June 12, 1936, he was one of 12 children in a musically gifted family, the son of a steel mill worker in Chester, Pennsylvania. Belgrave received his first trumpet at age 5, and thrived at school, studying classical music both at school and in private lessons. He was always first chair or soloist in Chester High School’s band and orchestra.
Belgrave took off on the road with Ray Charles’ tight show band at the age of 21, and professionally, never looked back.
Over the years, his raspy voice and rich trumpet tone, brought Louis Armstrong to mind, and while he did loved Armstrong, it was another trumpet player, bebop master Dizzy Gillespie, who was perhaps his biggest influence.
Belgrave first heard Dizzy on record when he was three years old.
“He's the cause of me playing trumpet,” Belgrave said, in 1993. “His was the first trumpet I heard on a recording. He was father to an entire generation of trumpet players.”
Over the years Belgrave performed with Charles Mingus, Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Aretha Franklin
Even after Motown left, and venues for live jazz started vanishing in the 1970’s, Belgrave rededicated himself to living in Detroit.
“Detroit is no worse off than a lot of other cities, with all of the unemployment and all of the factories closing,” he said in 1992. “It puts a damper on our way of life. But I can't think of a better place to raise my children. If they can make it here, they can make it anywhere.
“You can't run away. You might run into something even worse. At least here you know what you are up against.”