Joan Bow Belgrave is from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Joan began her musical career singing in the choir of the Baptist church. Her musical education continued while studying classical voice. Her versatility as a musical stylist allowed her to perform as a vocalist in various genres of music including jazz, soul, and R&B. Joan is also featured on the CD: A Tribute to New Orleans, Ray Charles and The Great Ladies of Song. Together they make up the band The Louis Armstrong Tradition, along with band members Bill Meyer on piano, Marion Hayden on bass and Gayelynn McKinney on drums.
JazzReview: I am delighted to be joined by these stellar Detroit based musicians who have taken some time out to speak with us about the state of jazz, music, life and anything else that may come up in the next little while. Thank you so much for being here today, Marcus, Charlie and Joan. How did you folks come to form a band?
Joan Bow Belgrave: It is all Charlie's fault.
Charlie Gabriel: No, it's Marcus.
Marcus Belgrave: I'll leave this to Ms. Belgrave.
JazzReview: I see, nobody wants to take the blame for starting the band.
Joan Bow Belgrave: Charlie said, "You want to eat, or you want to play bebop?" Really, it has a lot to do with bebop.
Charlie Gabriel: Well that's true. I'll take responsibility for that part. You see, Marcus was playing so many notes, you know up and down the horn, so many notes, and he had no money. I said, "Marcus, why don't you come and play with me?" You see, I'm from New Orleans. I come from a family that has always played traditional music. I've always played and I've always had a job since I was 14-years old. I'm a fourth generation New Orleans musician. So Marcus is still runnin' up and down, playing so many notes so I tricked him. I told him I was playing in Europe and got working over in Asia and they needed a band, they needed a replacement and I recommended some cats in Detroit, Earl Van Riper and I'll let Marcus take it from there.
Marcus Belgrave: He sent us down to Indonesia, Jakarta.
JazzReview: When was this?
Marcus Belgrave: 1989.
JazzReview: Wow, Jakarta to play some bebop!
Marcus Belgrave:When we got there, he had us advertised on the marquis as Earl Van Riper Quartet featuring Marcus Belgrave and the band from New Orleans. Well, here we were all from Detroit so of course, we took the gig.
We played in the lobby of the hotel, it was a great stage. I've never played a stage in a hotel lobby before. People came from all over the world to do business with the Indonesians so we were playing in that lobby for the people who came visiting from all over the world, and the music they really wanted to hear was traditional music. That traditional music was mostly from New Orleans. At the same time, there was another band with Charlie Gabriel and a bunch of guys from New Orleans.
The place wanted those guys to stay for six months, but they couldn't stay that long. So Charlie talked us into playing the gig [and] we were talked into staying three months. We were expected to play traditional music, [but] we were bebop players from Detroit. That made me have to go learn this traditional music. That wasn't very difficult for me, you see I played in Philadelphia. I got a chance to play in the last Dixieland club in Philadelphia in the late sixties, '65 through '67. I was just sitting in this club and the guy who was playing recognized me and asked, "Is that Marcus Belgrave?" He asked if I could step in and take over because he was fixin' to leave. So I said, "What? I can't play here. I don't know nothing about that kind of music." "Well," he says, "it's just like bebop."
Charlie Gabriel: That's a good term - "It's just like bebop." He decided he'd step in and be doing something that he'd never done before.
Marcus Belgrave: He was leaving to go on with some other band. So I joined the band and I was the last trumpeter to play there. Louis Armstrong played there. Every traditional musician in the country played there--a little, small joint on Mole Street. I had a reputation of closing up joints.
Joan Bow Belgrave: And I think, to this date, he's still the last one to leave the club.
Charlie Gabriel: Marcus says that when cats stop playing, jazz closed up all the clubs. So what really happened up there in Indonesia [is] the people kept requesting some songs that Louis Armstrong use to sing like, "Someday You'll Be Sorry," and those old songs. They were the repertoire of the New Orleans jazz musician, a musical tradition, which goes back to my training, being a fourth generation New Orleans musician.
Marcus Belgrave: During my education...(laughing)
Charlie Gabriel: During this time, the people keep bugging him [Marcus] to sing "What A Wonderful World," a Louis Armstrong song that was a hit at that time, popular all over the world. So Marcus decided to open his mouth up and give the world a blessing. I told Marcus, "You're a natural." So from that time on, Marcus sings.
Joan Bow Belgrave: The thing is, that is Marcus' natural voice. It's not that he's trying to sound like Louis, it's just that he sounds that way, so wonderful and warm. It's the way he talks, that same raspy sound.
Charlie Gabriel: It's just a blessing that Marcus plays the trumpet as well, and had the concept of what he was speaking about through the horn. Louis sang through the horn.
Marcus Belgrave: I guess if Miles Davis had sung, he'd sound like that too.
Joan Bow Belgrave: Sometimes Marcus says Louis visits him during the show...it's so obvious, the sound, the voice, the horn, all of it.
Marcus Belgrave: It scares me sometimes.
JazzReview: The first time I heard you guys was at the Pilot in Toronto. I knew Marcus only as a trumpeter. I had no idea he did the vocal thing. Then I saw the show and I couldn't believe it! Wow this is Louis Armstrong, this is the incarnation of Satchmo!
Joan Bow Belgrave: You know, the first album, A tribute to Ray Charles, New Orleans and the Great Ladies of Song, was the first time Marcus recorded his vocals. He had been in the studio many, many times, but that was the first time he recorded his vocals. How fabulous it came off, too, and of course, he was nervous. That's the funny part, this is a seasoned musician, but he was nervous that first time, sitting in front of microphone.
Marcus Belgrave: The worst part was remembering the words.
Jazz Review: What does "in the tradition" mean to you Marcus?
Marcus Belgrave: In the tradition takes me back to really how you feel about what you do. When I play, I'm trying to imitate Louis, but I still play what I feel, and I feel Dizzy, and Clifford Brown, and Fats Navarro and all those guys. Well evidently, Louis projected himself through all those guys at one point in their lives. I feel all those guys were touched by Louis.
When I first heard Louis I was about nine or ten-years old, and he made me cry at that age. When I was young, I used to go to an Italian restaurant, a sandwich shop around the corner from my house, and this guy there, Mike, used to play the trumpet. He played all the Louis Armstrong songs. This was an Italian guy! He'd sit there and play his trumpet sounding like Louis. So this white guy picked up on this. You don't have to be a black guy. "In the tradition" means to me, life...life as we know it through music.
Growing up in my neighborhood, all the little bars...the real bars had food and they had musicians [who] mostly played it traditional or popular music, popular songs played in a New Orleans style. Well, we called it New Orleans, but nowadays, everything is so high-falutin', you can't tell where it's coming from. The traditional things are standard songs that the musicians improvised on, but they played it in such a way as you could enjoy it. They didn't play a whole lot of notes, but they played all the right notes.
Charlie Gabriel: Well, you know, I have a different perspective. The word "traditional" means if something is done in one given period of time, a certain way at a certain time, say 1922. Then if a young man born in 1956 plays that same song, his spirit comes out in that period of time that he lives in.
I got to take you back so you really understand this. Before it was called jazz, it was called Rattedy music, music that has been played by black people, by common people, and it wasn't played over the airwaves. Then they change the name to Ragtime, and then later to jazz. The whole purpose of all of that is it's in the spirit of the music because music is colorless--only in the spirit of the music and you feel it. It's heard not just in sound, but in spirit. The feel of it is through the body and then taken through to the brain. Then the music is heard in that sense. When Marcus plays "Home in Indiana" or "Donna Lee," he's playing it traditional, not how it was played before, but in his spirit at that given time, and it lives on. It breathes everytime it's played again, and it lives on. It's the spirit of the music that's traditional.
Joan Bow Belgrave: I think what Charlie is saying about feeling, it comes out in our show. They feel the spirit when we do our show. People say that to us a lot after the show. We have a really tight group that feels each other. We have a good time and we love the music that we do. When we play, we play because we love it, not because it's a job. When we do our show, we get people coming up to us and saying, "Oh my gosh, that was so beautiful, you made me cry." How beautiful is that?
Marcus Belgrave: That's what I like about it. You hit the stage and you feel the audience. You give to them and they respond and give back to you. You know, I played with Ray Charles for five or six years. Everywhere we went, the people loved the music. And, it didn't matter whether we were in Jamaica or LA, or France or Germany. We got the same reaction from each song. Here we are in France, [and] they don't speak English, in Germany, [and] they don't speak English, but we get the same reaction every place we play.
Charlie Gabriel: I toured with Aretha Franklin all through Europe and I witnessed that as well. When we did the shows, there was an Aretha sound alike that would come on first and do all the songs in the home language. Then we'd come out with Aretha, and even though the people don't know the language, they love it. It's in the spirit of the music. It's like I like to say, "Musical conversations cancel out complications."
JazzReview: Is it fair to say music has always been in your lives? If so, are there other family members who influenced you musically or came before you? I know Charlie, being a fourth generation New Orleans musician, has had music in his blood forever. What about you, Joan?
Joan Bow Belgrave: Absolutely! I've been singing since I could open my mouth. My mother was a vocalist and she started singing to me early on. I have memories, I don't even know how old I would have been, [but] I must have been about four or five and I'm standing on this little step-stool singing songs for all my mother's friends. In our town, my mother's friends didn't go to bars or clubs. Everybody would go to each other's house...one week it would be a get together at one person's house, and another week it would be at someone else's house, and the kids would all come along so everybody stayed together. All the kids would be playing in one room and the adults would be in the dinning room playing cards or drinking or whatever, just having a good time. I remember my mom coming to get me from the playroom and bring me to where the grown ups were so I could sing with her. To this day, it's so funny, you know in '06 I lost my mom, actually it was after we left Toronto. We were in the studio the following year and one of the tunes on the project "Drown In My Own Tears," it's my mom's voice. I didn't realize it at the time, but I let my uncle hear it and he said, "That's Joanne, that is your mom's voice." So, you know, for me it is wonderful that my mother is living through me musically.
Charlie Gabriel: It's a continuation, the music lives on and on,. It never dies.
Marcus Belgrave: The new project we are working on right now, Joan calls it For the Masters to the Mentors. I was trying to absorb this. I thought it should be "From the Masters to the Mentors," but Joan said, "No, 'For' is better." The music is "for" the people who influenced us.
The biggest influence for me was my cousin Cecil Payne; he had a tremendous influence on me when I was a kid. I guess I was about four-years old. I had my first hearing of Dizzy Gillespie's band. My cousin Cecil was in the horn section of the Dizzy Gillespie band--saxophone player with Dizzy's band--and they had band practice at his house. So I was, you could say, I was born into bebop. The first song he taught me at about age six was "Chasing The Bird." When I was six, my father bought me a trumpet. He taught me all the bugle calls though when I was four. So at six, I was prepared to play the horn. Cecil sat me down in front of the Victrola and he played some Miles. I said I liked Dizzy and he said, "What? I want you to listen to Miles because he's got this style." So that was my first music and that pretty well made me turn into a musician. So we are going to do some of his music, as he was a mentor of mine, and we will do some other music that influenced us as well.
Charlie Gabriel: On this project, there is a song that Joan wrote. Joan called me an sang this song to me and I said, "Oh Joan, this is beautiful! We've got to use this," but I'll let Joan tell you about this.
Joan Bow Belgrave: Well, hopefully this will be on the new project. Marcus and I are out one Sunday and we're sitting outside a coffee shop one day last summer, and we were watching these four small birds pulling this piece of bread. Marcus went back into the coffee shop and when he came back out, I had written a song on these yellow Post Its. When he came back, I told him to take me home so I could get this down. So this is my song to Marcus, it's called "Excitable." It tells the story of the music, of the love, of life, an inspiration for me, and it is my song "for the masters to the mentors."
Charlie Gabriel: My favorite song on the project, an I'm most touched by it, is "Violets For Your Furs." Marcus puts a stamp on this one. He does it so simple [and] he expresses so much emotion--each syllable is pronounced. It's like you're sitting at an ocean somewhere watching the waves go out and roll in. It's so nice...tells a story with so much emotion, that's all I'm saying.
Joan Bow Belgrave: The new project should be finished in late fall. We'll probably do a few of the songs in Huntsville.
Marcus Belgrave: Everytime we go in the studio, a certain type of magic happens. We don't rehearse before we go in the studio. We are going to have it done by July so you can have a listen when we play the Huntsville Jazz Festival.
JazzReview: I think all you folks are master educators; I found a statement from one of your students that I would like to read for you: "Marcus and Charlie taught me to take the music off the paper and play it, not read it. They took me under their wings and taught me how to play, arrange and present this music, giving me the benefit of their over 60+ years of experience. Concepts that I could imagine, but could not articulate, were solidified under their direction, i.e., simultaneous improvisation and the New Orleans parade beat." From Taslimah Bey, in regards to her CD featuring both Marcus and Charlie, Taslimah Bey, Live (Independent Release 2001).
Doesn't that speak volumes about the teaching? You can't learn that in schools. Well, I guess you can now since Marcus is actually teaching at Oberlin. That is something you can only learn by doing, from real world teachers.
Marcus Belgrave: That's right, that's what I try to create in my teaching. As a teacher, I don't feel like I'm teaching, I just feel like I'm opening a door and letting the student teach me. When you have a strong desire, you open a door to your heart. All we can do is put into your heart what we have experienced. Jazz is not a text book kind of music, it's a street type of music, and it has to come from the heart. If your heart is in it [jazz], you're going to learn all there is to it. You have to really love it.
I have some kids who say, "Well, teach me how to do this part here." I tell students there are only four colors in music: major, minor, augmented and diminished--also twelve tones and eleven different kind of chords that relate to these four colors, so in expanding yourself, that should teach you how to listen. I can't really teach you what I know, but I can play for you what I feel, so I want you to listen to all different kinds of things and you have to learn from that.
Joan Bow Belgrave: You can never know where you are going unless you know where you've been. You have to find out where this music has been. My favorite vocalist is Billy Holiday, and what I love about her music is the songs that she chose were sung the way she felt them--not the way somebody told her. This is how you are supposed to sing this. If she wasn't feeling particularly happy, then she didn't sing the song happy. It's not marching band music, it's music from the spirit and how you feel. You can't do the song the same way every night because you don't feel the same way every night.
Charlie Gabriel: For me it's a little different. Like Marcus, playing when he was six, I was actually a professional musician by the time I was eleven. The first job I had done was to play a funeral at these funerals; they go way before me though. Mahalia Jackson would follow King Oliver to play these funerals way before my time, but this led up to my playing in funerals.
Marcus Belgrave: We just played a funeral last Saturday for Donald Walden, a great saxophonist and a great teacher, but he didn't get the recognition that he deserved. He loved Thelonious Monks music and Mingus, and on one of his albums, he called it There's a Mingus Among Us. Someone else said, "There may be a Mingus among us, but there's a Walden in all of us." Charlie and I coordinated the music for his going home arrangements. I got calls from different musicians and people saying that it was the best funeral [they] have ever been to.
Joan Bow Belgrave: The music was from the heart. Everybody loved Donald and you know, that was a 40 or 50-year friendship. Everything was from deep down inside.
Charlie Gabriel: I really admired his tenor playing. He had a unique way of playing the horn, and he had a sneaky way of coming in and out of those chord changes like a little snake.
Joan Bow Belgrave: You know, we had one of those guys fly in from New York, one of Donald's and Marcus's students, and we were listening to rough tracks of the new project and the song that I love--I can't stop listening to it, it's called "Violets For Your Furs"--and this guy asks Marcus, "How do you do that?" And Marcus just looks at him and I just look at him, and I say, "You know, he just does." You know you can't tell someone how you do that, he just does. After 65 years of letting the music live through you, it just comes to you.
JazzReview: I did an interview with some young musicians recently and one was mentioning that some guys don't get the recognition they deserve, he's talking about some old guy in Detroit who taught Kenny Garrett and nobody knows who he is. I'm thinking this is probably Marcus Belgrave he's talking about. So there is recognition in playing and recognition in teaching. I believe that you, Marcus, are definitely one of the main guys that should be given a jazz educators award--teaching for over 30 years and such names as Gerry Allen, Kenny Garrett.
Marcus Belgrave: I never thought of it that way. You know, one time I was in Canada and I got really sick, back in 1969. I was working in Montreal and it was my first bout with pneumonia, really bad though, and actually it was a thyroid breakdown. I was with this group, Buddy Lamp and the Lamp Sisters. The background group was some guys, well, I had to teach these background guys by rote. I had to teach them some music, it was so sad; I was killing myself at the time, teaching these guys some music. So I was taking amphetamines to keep myself up. I was trying to stay up and teach these guys before we get to Montreal. So for about weeks and weeks I was getting maybe two hours of sleep. I didn't realize I was wearing out my body. I just wanted to get the music prepared. I ended up in the hospital for six weeks and when I got back from that, the doctor said, "You know, you should stay off the trumpet for six months. I know you're not going to do that, but lay off it for as long as possible." So I stayed off it for three months while I recuperated with Charlie's family.
JazzReview: You stayed with Charlie's family? Oh, that's nice. That must have been tough, staying away from your trumpet. What did you do, air trumpet? Is that possible, you know, just pretending you're playing?
Marcus Belgrave: No, I picked up the cello. I started playing the cello.
Charlie Gabriel: That's the truth. I would come home from a gig and there was Marcus playing the cello, and he would play the cello all night long. You know what? Marcus plays really nice, he really do play nice on drums, just like J.C. Heard.
Charlie Gabriel: Oh yeah, he plays the drums really nice. You know J.C. Heard?
JazzReview: Yeah, I've heard the name. I saw a discography of Marcus and I noticed Marcus plays on a J.C. Heard album.
Charlie Gabriel: Marcus is on a J.C. Heard album? Well you know what, Marcus plays drums like J. Marcus--a little genius within himself. He is a wonderful person, a beautiful human being, put it that way. He has a certain spirit. He knows how to deal with people and he knows how to deal with kids. He makes it easy for you and he makes you understand what he's talking about.
JazzReview: When I look at the discography of Marcus, somewhere in the '50-'60 album range, I notice that many of the players on these albums are the same personnel so there is some loyalty there, even to the point of the offspring of some of these players. You have second generation musicians playing with you.
Joan Bow Belgrave: Harold McKinney's daughter, Gayelynn, is in our band. She's our drummer.
Marcus Belgrave: That's part of the tradition, the passing it down through the generations. Music has to come through that way. It came through us that way and we have to pass it on to the next generation the same way.
Joan Bow Belgrave: We went to see a young fellow, a B-3 organist named Gerard Gibbs. He was telling us at Donald's celebration that all the masters, the mentors that we learned from, are all leaving us. Well, I said, you know, what that means [is] you have to step up and take over. You have to pass on what you were given...what gift they have imparted to you. He [Gibbs]was talking about a jam session and how when you go up there and do your little thing, you don't go up there and take over. You sit back and watch the masters. You listen and you pay respect, but you just don't go up there and take over.
JazzReview: Yeah, it's about respect. I think that's part of what you guys talk about when you talk about "in the tradition."
During the recent IAJE convention in Toronto, I happened to be speaking to some younger musicians and they were telling me they are very concerned with how jazz music is being presented. The show part is missing from many of the young groups; the musicians are playing for themselves and forgetting about the audience.
Marcus Belgrave: That is a problem, you know. Roy Brooks, a fabulous drummer from Detroit, always use to say, "Don't take the entertainment out of the business. It's a music business, but don't take the entertainment out of the business." By keeping the entertainment in it you keep the people in it. If you are just doing it for yourself, you're not entertaining the people. You practice in a practice room. That's why jazz clubs are not staying open; there is no entertainment there any more. The clubs for the most part are just a forum for students to practice, that's what it is.
Joan Bow Belgrave: Was it Fathead or Ray that said this, "You have to leave the people with something to feel." Leave them with something to feel, that's so important.
Marcus Belgrave: You are supposed to feel good when you go to see a show. You know I hate to say this, but it's probably John Coltrane who is responsible for this. I actually saw Coltrane in a club in my home town; he chased the people out of the club. The people used to come to this club to party on Fridays; they would cash their checks, you know cashing checks they were having a good time. Well, the band that usually played there played for the spirit of the people. They played so the people could have a good time. Coltrane played that club. Trane was up there playing all this wild music and the club was empty in fifteen minutes. His music should have been played in an auditorium. You know I love John Coltrane, but what he did in the sixties caused a whole transition and that's alright, but he made people want to go to auditoriums.
I heard John Coltrane with Earl Bostick and I heard him with a fellow named Cotes Johannes. This was live and he played so differently with those people. He learned from all these different people, learned from all the great saxophone players, and learned all those styles. One of his favorite players was Dexter Gordon, and another was Coleman Hawkins. When he came in wanting to play his own music, it was a whole different thing. He shouldn't have been doing it in bars. I love what he was doing; the music that he was creating, but he shouldn't have been playing the clubs.
JazzReview: What are your plans for the future? I know you will be performing at the Huntsville Jazz Festival. I will be covering that event for jazzreview.com. Are there any individual projects you will be working on?
Marcus Belgrave: Always. We are always working on individual projects. That is always uppermost in our minds. Because we are always inspired from the past, the great era of jazz that has already happened, in order for us to continue, we have to go to the past for the future. The future is in the past and that's almost limitless. The world is going so fast that, you know, where do we get off, how do we get off? We have to find some reality in this thing, otherwise I think we're going to explode.
That's one thing that I always want to keep in our show. I want our music to touch all different people, people of all different aspects of life. I think I learned this from my time with Ray. It doesn't matter where you come from; it touches the people in the same way. Music is so universal, people have the sense, you know, when you play music, you touch the world. My father told me that when I was a kid. He told me when you play music, you go places that the President of the United States can't go. When I was with Ray we went to the iron curtain. I said, "Wow, my daddy told me this!"
Charlie Gabriel: My dad told me the same thing. He said, "Son, you play this horn [and]you will go places that presidents can't go. Son, if you play this horn and learn this horn well, it will take you around the world." And, I've been around this universe three or four times playing this horn. I've played for kings and queens and gone places where I could never have afforded to go.
JazzReview: Are you ever worried that young folks think about that, how easy this business is? There are so many educational institutes with so many big name musicians teaching. Oberlin has a big line up of master musicians teaching. Are you worried that these kids are going to be disillusioned when they get out into the real world?
Marcus Belgrave: Right, and the thing about the students that come out of there is, they're great, they're all over the country now and they are great. They credit these teachers and their mentors as the inner reason as to why they are playing and what they're doing. I think that is the key to their success. One of my students, a great trumpeter from Ann Arbor, Michigan, said to me, "You know, after I graduate I am going to stick around here and teach in the public school system." That's great, because that's what we need in order to keep this music. We need people who are learning it to pass it on to the youngsters. In so doing, I believe we will continue the legacy of this great American music and teach people how to live.
Joan Bow Belgrave: Well, that being said, Charlie's got to get out of here.
Jazz Review: O.K. We went over the five minute break a little. I really want to thank you so much for taking the time, as you do each time we see each other. It is really appreciated. Take good care of each other and I look forward to seeing and hearing the show in Huntsville.
Marcus Belgrave, Joan Bow Belgrave and Charlie Gabriel will be performing Thursday July 31, 2008 at The Algonquin Theatre, Huntsville, On. Canada, as part of the 2nd Annual Huntsville Jazz Festival July 30 - August 3, 2008.