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Before Motown û A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-1960 by Lars Bjorn with Jim Gallert

This scholarly look at the history of Detroit jazz is the work of college professor Bjorn and influential disc jockey Gallert, who 30 years ago was influential in shaping my love of the music with his Jazz Yesterday radio show on WDET-FM. In the course of a bit over 200 pages, the authors offer a well conceived and executed overview of a 40-year period that was arguably the most developmentally fertile in pre-Motown Detroit. Throughout these riveting pages, the reader is introduced to both well-known and obscure musicians who shaped jazz in Detroit -- and in many cases the rest of the world. Though the relevance of the subject to non-Detroiters might be called into question, the reader is asked to consider the wealth of world-class players who developed their proficiency and ultimately their reputations in this fruitful environment.

The authors provide foundational facts relative to historical race relations in the city, geographic boundaries and important landmarks before launching into the subject at hand. Early black society bands, like those of Theodore Finney and Leroy Smith, are examined, as are some nascent attempts at the forming of jazz bands. The second chapter begins to make a case for the importance of Detroit-bred jazz on a broader national stage with the introduction of McKinney's Cotton Pickers and the Jean Goldkette Orchestra (home to Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Joe Venuti), in the 1920s. While the Cotton Pickers boasted the arranging talents of Don Redman, formerly of the Fletcher Henderson band, they were certainly a band up to the task and deserving of the accolades. When Redman left, Benny Carter took over the chief arranging duties. (It was here the saxophonist added trumpet to his repertoire). Consequently, the Detroit-based big band was briefly one of the most popular in the land.

By the 1930s, the Black community in Detroit called Paradise Valley home. This was reportedly a bustling city-within-a-city that boasted theatres such as the Greystone and the Paradise (which saw 40,000 come out in one 1942 week to see Cab Calloway), along with a slew of hoppin' nightspots dotting the landscape. Places like Sportree's, the Forest Club, the Bandbox, Club Plantation and the Palm Garden Caf? were alive with this new music. Drummer J.C. Heard got his start here, as did blues singer Alberta Adams. Pianist Milt Buckner (later with Lionel Hampton and others) played the Valley as a teenager.

More familiar names are introduced in the chapter entitled "Detroit and the Birth of Bop". The authors write, "Milt Jackson and Lucky Thompson grew up on the East Side of Detroit, where they played together as teenagers in the King's Aces big band. By 1945 they were back together again playing with the two major innovators of bop: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie." There is further discussion of generally poor race relations, entrenched in the citizenry more than in most big cities. Still, the growing hip and interracial audience for jazz would continue to swell. Teddy Edwards and Howard McGhee (who would later work with Bird and Coleman Hawkins) were in residence at the Club Congo along with Wardell Gray (later with Earl Hines, Charlie Parker and Hawkins) and Al McKibbon. Frank Roslino, Art Mardigan and Art Pepper, minority white players on the scene, offered proof that jazz artists were able to transcended the social realities of the city, at least while sharing stages in the clubs. In was this environment that Tommy Flanagan, Willie Anderson, Kenny Burrell, Billy Mitchell, Julius Watkins, Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef, Curtis Fuller, Louis Hayes, brothers Oliver 'Bops Jr.' and Ali Muhammad Jackson, Hugh Lawson, Abe Woodley, Major 'Mule' Holley, Barry Harris, Frank Gant, Terry Pollard, Bess Bonnier, Lonnie Hillyer, Charles McPherson and Kirk Lightsey came up. Hillyer and McPherson were teenagers when they played with Miles at the Bluebird. Frank Foster first gained significant exposure during the year he played the same club. By the mid-1950s he and many other locals were being noticed around the country. Detroit wasn't just getting on the musical map, it was beginning to dominate the terrain. When these brilliant Detroit jazz musicians landed in New York, almost en masse, they were more than prepared. "Tommy Flanagan's first year in New York," they write, "is a case in point. During 1956 he played with bassist Oscar Pettiford, subbed for Bud Powell at Birdland, toured with Miles Davis and J.J. Johnson and recorded now classic albums with Miles Davis ("Collector's Items") and Sonny Rollins ("Saxophone Colossus")."

Roy Brooks, who gained fame with Horace Silver, remembers seeing Bird in Detroit as a 15 year old. Elvin, Thad and Hank Jones, up the road in Pontiac, hosted legendary jam sessions. Betty Carter was coming down from Flint. Bird and Diz were in residence for a couple of months in 1947. Sonny Stitt was an on and off citizen for years. Miles spent six months and spoke highly of the musicians he shared bandstands with. The Bluebird would be one of the first dates his quintet with Coltrane and Paul Chambers would play in 1955. Miles said, "Paul Chambers was from Detroit and I had lived there and so for us it was like a homecoming."

Detroit was most decidedly happening. Not just with the "name" players but for the McKinney brothers (Bassist Ray, pianist Harold and Bernard on euphonium), Sonny Red Kyner, Joe Brazil, Bert Myrick, Claire Roquemore, Ernie Farrow (whose sister Alice would marry John Coltrane), Lamonte Hamilton, Will Austin, T.J. Fowler, Todd Rhodes, Candy Johnson, Dezi McCullers, and so many others.

How the city spawned so many players of remarkable consequence in jazz history in such short order is rhetorically posed. The authors speculate that the greatest contributing factor in the jazz talent that came out of Detroit in the 1940s and 1950s, from Milt Jackson to Yusef Lateff to Kenny Burrell to Donald Byrd, was the presence of an actively promoted music program in the public schools. Sadly, music programs have all but left public schools nationally.

Space is dedicated to jump and urban blues players active in the 1940s and 1950s, from John Lee Hooker to Alberta Adams. The action at the Flame Show Bar, from which Johnny Ray, Della Reese and Jackie Wilson can claim a springboard, is discussed, as well.

To bring the book full circle, there is some discussion of the importance of Detroit jazz musicians in the creation and propagation of the Motown sound. It's accurately pointed out that the core of world-class jazz musicians responsible were never adequately credited. There is some discussion, too, of various record labels that rose and fell in Detroit before Motown. Had a local record label taken hold, the shape of jazz might have been significantly different. Maybe James Carter and his cousin Regina would be based in "Jazz Mecca" Detroit, rather than New York. Either way, Detroit developed some of the most important jazz musicians in the history of the genre. Those of us who live here are proud of that fact. Lars Bjorn and his collaborator Jim Gallert have written a book equal to the music they chronicle so superbly. Give this one 10 stars.From McKinneys Cotton Pickers to Milt Jackson Kenny Burrell and Yusef Lateef Detroit's rich jazz history rivals that of any city in the world as Lars Bjorn and his collaborator Jim Gallert make clear in this brilliant overview.'

Additional Info

  • Book Title: Before Motown û A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-1960
  • Author: Lars Bjorn with Jim Gallert
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Year Published: 2001
  • Book Type:: Non-Fiction
  • ISBN: 472067656
  • Rating: Five Stars
  • Number of Pages: 239
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