Sunday, November 20, 2016

Cass Tech

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

This post marks the return of my weekly Pepper Adams blog after one full year of forced inactivity. The lay off was due to a day job that I began on November 2, 2015 and resulting compliance issues that controlled what I did apart from work. Happily, those restrictions have been lifted. For the next year or so I will be posting mostly pieces here about the music culture of Detroit and Pepper's place within it. It's that part of the forthcoming Adams biography that I'm working on through 2017. 

Today, my interest is Cass Technical High School, the renowned Detroit institution that spawned so many great jazz musicians. Pepper Adams didn't attend Cass, nor attend any school in Detroit, for that matter, until he enrolled at Wayne (now Wayne State) University in 1948. Many of his mentors and colleagues, however, did attend Cass and the school exerted a strong influence on Detroit's musical culture that invariably shaped Adams. There's reasons why Detroit produced so many great musicians and Cass Tech is one of them.

For context, here's a list of notable jazz musicians (from before Adams' time up through his generation) that attended Cass: Gerald Wilson, J.C. Heard, Al McKibbon, Howard McGhee, Lucky Thompson, Wardell Gray, Billy Mitchell, Major Holley, Doug Watkins, Paul Chambers, Donald Byrd, Hugh Lawson and Ron Carter. Yes, that certainly leaves out a large number of great Detroit musicians--Kenny Burrell, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan and Yusef Lateef, to name but a few--who attended other schools, such as Miller, Northeastern, Northwestern or McKenzie High. And admittedly each of these schools had very good instrumental programs, at least up through Adams time in Detroit (1947-55). Nevertheless, Cass was different.
Cass has a long pedigree as an experimental secondary school. It first began in 1860 on the third floor of the Cass Union School. It was named for General Lewis Cass, who donated the land where the building was erected. Cass served as Territorial Governor of Michigan, Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, U.S. Minister to France and also made an unsuccessful run for President in 1848. In 1908, Cass' Principal, Benjamin Comfort, expressed concern that only 35% of Detroit high schoolers were graduating and 10% were attending college. He felt that graduation rates would increase if students were given vocational training so they could acquire jobs in Detroit's quickly expanding industrial base. Acting on that impulse, Detroit School Superintendent Wales Martindale visited Europe to study its technical schools. Impressed with what he saw, upon his return he decided to establish Cass as Detroit's first technical school. Enrollment soon increased to such an extent that a new school was built in 1912 on the site of the old Cass Union School. It was renamed Cass Technical High School. Enrollment continued to swell, commensurate with Detroit's population explosion that was expanding to service the consolidating American auto industry based in the city. In response to the growing need for more classroom space, a brand new eight-story, 831,000 square-foot Cass Tech was dedicated in 1922, with 50 classrooms serving almost 4,400 students. The structure was incredibly ambitious, one of the largest high schools in the U.S. at the time. With its brick and limestone exterior, and marble-lined hallways with "light courts" to flood natural light inside it, the school boasted a gymnasium with an indoor running track, several swimming pools, a teacher's lounge with fireplace, and a magnificent auditorium with superb acoustics. The school had it all: a pharmacy, a foundry, machine shops, chemistry and physics labs, mechanical drawing rooms and a cafeteria able to feed 1,000 students at one sitting.

                                        (c) Sean Doerr. Cass Tech in 2005.

                            (c) Sean Doerr. Cass Tech's acoustically brilliant auditorium.

As Dan Austin wrote in his book Lost Detroit (p. 33), "From its humble beginnings with classes in pattern-making and drafting, Cass would grow to offer everything from bacteriology to chemical biology to metallurgy to nuclear physics. As technology changed, so did the school's curricula. When airplanes seemed the limit, Cass added aeronautics." Cass became "an institution virtually unparalleled in American secondary education, wrote the Detroit News in 1962. As one Cass graduate, Marshall Weingarden put it, "Cass Tech has a history of being an engine that drove this city. It stand for the highest level of achievement." Weingarden was involved in the effort save Cass' magnificent 1922 building from demolition. Unfortunately, the school was razed in 2011, six years after a brand new Cass Tech was built directly across the street. 

                              (c) Sean Doerr. Cass Tech classrooms before demolition.

Cass was a magnet school, quite unique for its time. "In its early years," as described in an unattributed piece at, "Cass Tech trained students for skilled industrial jobs. But in the years after World War II, it was the premier high school for the city and its graduates increasingly went to colleges for advance training." According to pianist Clarence Beasley, "You had to have excellent grades to get into Cass." Moreover, you had to pass difficult entrance exams. As a magnet school, it drew many of the best and brightest students from metropolitan Detroit, some who traveled as much as 90 minutes by bus to get there. 

As bassist Al McKibbon told me in 1988, "Cass was downtown, in the heart of town. It really wasn't where I lived. I had to go all the way cross-town to go there. I used to go back Saturdays for the all-city orchestra. I also belonged to a select group from that orchestra that all the teachers played in." McKibbon chose to go from junior high to Cass, "a school," said McKibbon to Anthony Brown in 1993, "that teaches 'finished courses' in Music or Business or whatever you choose--Arts and Crafts." McKibbon began at Cass at age 15, in 1934. "I was taking String Bass and Piano, and Music History and Geometry and English," he said. "As long as you were in the school, until you graduated you had to play piano. You had to have your own instrument--your major--and a minor had to be another instrument from another instrumental group. . . . They always stressed classical music," said McKibbon. "The horn player from the school played with the Symphony, Mr. Hellstein." In fact, many if not all of the first chair players from the Detroit Symphony were teaching at Cass, at least in the 1930s. J.C. Heard, Wardell Gray and Gerald Wilson were in McKibbon's class. Another schoolmate was Flourney Hocker, who was studying bass since he was eight. He showed McKibbon that the instrument was more than just for rhythm. He was tremendously adept before Jimmy Blanton emerged on the scene with Ellington, but committed suicide as a young adult. McKibbon said Hocker would have been a sensation in New York. At that time, too, there were no black musicians in the symphony orchestra to emulate. 

"At Cass Technical High School," McKibbon told me in 1988, "you could take a music course, but that meant that you also had to take academics along with music. The guy that headed the Music Department, Mr. Byrne, taught brass so well that people passing through town would go to him for counseling. His son, Bobby, left high school and went to play with Jimmy Dorsey. He played trombone, harp and cello. You had to take your own instrument and you should take an instrument from each of the choirs. I played bass, so I played tuba. You had to have piano and you had to have Harmony and Music History, along with Math. I had Geometry I and II. It was that kind of school. The only way I could afford that school, they furnished instruments. My people couldn't afford to buy an instrument for me in the Depression. It was a godsend to me." 

As bassist Paul Chambers told Valerie Wilmer in 1961 (see Before Motown, p. 150): "The curriculum took up a whole day of music. That's why it took a few more years to graduate. For example, we'd have the first period Chamber Music; second period Full Orchestra, third either Harmony or Counterpoint and Rudiments; then came Piano and the academic classes." While a student at Cass, Chambers used to play during rest periods with Donald Byrd, Hugh Lawson or his cousin, Doug Watkins, and was gigging at night with Yusef Lateef and Kenny Burrell. Chambers' high school experience was the kind of total immersion in music that others have described in postwar Detroit of the 1940s and '50s. More next week . . .