‘Jazz from Detroit’ Excerpt: Author Mark Stryker Tells Why Stages Here Feel Like ‘Hallowed Ground’

July 08, 2019, 7:31 AM

Second of two parts. This excerpt is from the five-page preface to "Jazz from Detroit," released today by the University of Michigan Press. Part 1 about the book is here

By Mark Stryker

Detroit has been indispensable to the history of modern and contemporary jazz. From the mid-20th century until the present day, the city has been one of the primary feeders of talent to the national scene, graduating scores of musicians to the front lines and a striking number of innovators into the pantheon. 

Elvin Jones, whose chapter is titled "Philosopher King," is on the jacket. Francis Wolff's photo is from a Blue Note studio session in 1967 for McCoy Tyner's "The Real McCoy."

The explosion of Detroit talent reached a peak during the hard-bop era from about 1955 to 1965, when the city's influence arguably outpaced perennial hotbeds like Chicago and Philadelphia. It’s almost impossible to pick up a recording made on the East Coast in those years and not encounter one, two, three, sometimes four of more musicians from the Motor City.

Even after 1970, as Detroit's population fell sharply and its economic might waned, the city continued to export significant talent to the major leagues. . . . Detroit continued punching above its weight class.

"Jazz from Detroit" tells the story of the city's profound influence on jazz over the last eight decades. The bulk of the book focuses on more than two dozen of the most important musicians to emerge from the city since the 1940s. . . .

'A distinctly Detroit approach'

At the same time, the book connects the dots between musicians and eras. It explores how Detroit became a center for modern jazz and sustained its influence over decades, and it identifies stylistic traits and attitudes that define a distinctly Detroit approach to the music that transcends idioms and generations.

Ralphe Armstrong, shown at Baker's in 2017, is among four artists featured in the book's closing section. (Photo: Facebook)

It's a multilayered story, starting with the Great Migration that brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans to Detroit from the South in the first half of the 20th Century. The rise of the auto industry helped create a large black working and middle class in Detroit, and the economic and social conditions that allowed jazz to grow.

The combination of exceptional music education in the public schools, thriving nightlife and influential mentors in the community, most notably Barry Harris, transformed the city into a jazz juggernaut in the 1940s and '50s. . . .

Common lineage and shared musical values link Detroit musicians into an extended family. From the 1950s until the present day, partnerships initially forged in Detroit later flourished in recording studios and bandstands in New York and around the world.

Cultivating relationships

Kenny Garrett is profiled in a chapter titled "Sound and Spirit." (Photo: His site)

The city's integrated school system and musicians' union . . . helped cultivate productive relationships between black and white musicians, even as segregation remained in force elsewhere in Detroit. At the same time, Detroit musicians have always been nurtured by unusually knowledgeable jazz audiences – another manifestation of the familial bonds that strengthen and regenerate the scene. . . .

In the last 15 years, a new generation of teachers and mentors have picked up the baton. Meanwhile, nonprofits and major universities are planting musical seeds and helping fill gaps left by the widespread disappearance of music from Detroit’s troubled schools.

The city’s finances reached their nadir with municipal bankruptcy in 2013-14, but the resilience of Detroit's jazz legacy provides a powerful symbol of the city's lasting cultural influence and a metaphor for Detroit’s nascent renaissance. . . .

Living 'among my heroes'

When I arrived at the Detroit Free Press in 1995 as an arts reporter and music critic, I knew that I was living on hallowed ground. I grew up as an alto saxophonist, and the Jones brothers, Joe Henderson, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan and other Detroiters were among my heroes.

But it wasn't until I began working for the Free Press that I came to fully understand the extent of the city’s extraordinary jazz legacy.

During more than two decades at the newspaper, I wrote extensively about jazz musicians – those who had left the city and become famous and the everyday heroes who populated the local scene. About half the profiles in the book started life as pieces for the Free Press, though they have been extensively revised and expanded.

© 2019, Mark Stryker

Mark Stryker: "Living on hallowed ground." (Photo: Donald Dietz)

Author appearances

  • July 21, Livonia: Book sales and signings at 25th annual Michigan Jazz Festival, noon-9 p.m., Schoolcraft College, 18600 Haggerty Rd.
  • July 30, Detroit: Launch party at Cliff Bell's, 7 p.m., 2030 Park Ave., followed by bassist Rodney Whitaker (8-10:30 p.m., no cover).

Where to get 'Jazz from Detroit'

  • Pages Bookshop, 19560 Grand River Ave., Detroit: $39.95 in store or via mail ($1.99 shipping).
  • Amazon: $26.19, plus shipping; $24.88 for Kindle.
  • Barnes & Noble: $27.97, plus shipping; $22.49 for Nook.

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