Monday, December 5, 2016

Heaven Was Detroit, Part 3

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

I hope everyone is getting in the holiday mood. This will be my last post in 2016. I'm heading out of town for a few weeks. To all my readers out there, a very merry Christmas to you (or whatever it is you celebrate), and a healthy and very happy New Year!

The fourth jazz piece included in Heaven Was Detroit is about pianist and arranger Teddy Harris. Harris, for me, was the glue of the great Butterfield Blues Band ensemble (with a horn section) that I saw do several exciting concerts in New York City when I was a teenager. It was Harris' charts, his thing. What a great fusion of jazz and blues! I knew nothing about Harris until I read the piece by Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert. It turns out that Harris, apart from his jazz roots, was the Music Director of the Supremes for more than a decade. The authors point out that Harris functioned as an elder to younger musicians, continuing the longstanding Detroit practice of mentorship:

"Nurturing musicians essentially forfeited their chances for national exposure and recognition. A city's reputation is made by those musicians who leave; it is sustained by those who remain. Musicians who remain are special, and they form the backbone of our jazz community. Louis Cabrera, Barry Harris and Marcus Belgrave were among their number."

Born in 1934, Teddy Harris went to Northern High School, another Detroit secondary school with a great music program. The program was run by Orvis Lawrence, who played with the Dorsey Brothers and Glenn Miller big bands. Also at Northern at that time was Tommy Flanagan, Sonny Red and Donald Byrd (before he transferred to Cass Tech).

In c. 1950, before Frank Foster joined the U.S. Army, said Harris, Foster would meet with the budding Northern High musicians:

"Frank Foster used to help me. . . . He was becoming a pretty astute arranger. He would come over to [Northern]. We got out of school at 2:30. He would get Donald Byrd, Sonny Red, and myself and Claude Black and take us to his house where he would teach us how to read his arrangements."

                             (Teddy Harris, 1970)

Bill Harris' short piece on drummer Roy Brooks mentions that Brooks attended Northwestern High School. Brooks and alto saxophonist Charles McPherson were regular listeners at the back door of the Blue Bird Inn. Too young to be admitted, they listened to Elvin Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Pepper Adams and all the other greats that were playing there nightly. In late 1959, Brooks replaced Louis Hayes in Horace Silver's group.

Though outside the purview of this blog, those interested in post-1950 Detroit developments, should read Farooq Bey article and Larry Gabriel's two pieces.

As a sprawling anthology covering the entire breadth of jazz and vernacular music in Twentieth Century Detroit, much of the work will not excite Pepper Adams listeners who are narrowly focused in jazz up to 1956. Nevertheless, three other tidbits that caught my attention: R.J. Spangler's piece discusses the 1940s, around the time when Pepper Adams came back to town: 

"Clubs like the Flame Showbar, the Club 666, and the Club Congo all had house bands, chorus lines, shake dancers, ballad singers, blues singers, and more. These were big productions. The auto plants were humming round the clock. People had a few bucks to spend and clubs were full. There was work for musicians and entertainers."

John Sinclair's piece on bluesman Johnnie Bassett includes a surprising blurb about the great after hours jam sessions that took place at the West End Hotel:

"My sister was a waitress there in Delray--Louise, she was a waitress out there at the West End Hotel for a long time. Those guys used to have that session out there every weekend. It started at two o'clock in the morning and it'd go from two to seven a.m. Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers, Yusef Lateef, all the guys used to come through that was playin' down at the Flame [Show Bar], and the Rouge Lounge, used to come out to the sessions."

Lastly, in John Sinclair's piece on blues in Detroit, he describes the Hastings Street scene:

"Except for a couple of raggedy blocks straggling south from East Grand Boulevard, Detroit's Hastings Street is gone now. The Motor City's major African American entertainment thoroughfare was gouged out in the late 1950s to make way for the Walter P. Chrysler Freeway. . . . But for twenty years before that, Hastings Street swung all the way from Paradise Valley downtown for fifty or sixty blocks north. . . . In its prime years, Hastings Street throbbed with music, from the elemental blues of John Lee Hooker [and others,] to the swinging jazz of the Teddy Wilson Trio [with drummer J.C. Heard), Maurice King and His Wolverines (with vocalist LaVerne "Bea" Baker), Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams, T.J. Fowler, Todd Rhodes and His Toddlers, and the Mathew Rucker Orchestra. Jazz stars like Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, and Cootie Williams played the Forest Club or the Flame Show Bar as well as the Paradise Theatre on Woodward Avenue, sharing the stage with rhythm and blues recording stars like Dinah Washington, Wynonie Harris, Amos Milburn, B.B. King, and T-Bone Walker."

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet (1958-61)

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

Here's the piece I contributed to the Heaven Was Detroit anthology. It can also be found at The book version added one paragraph about Donald Byrd's early history, probably for the sake of balance. Otherwise, it's the same piece. I offer it here to give more exposure to this great and undervalued quintet.

Although they seldom performed together in Detroit as teenagers, trumpeter Donald Byrd and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams established an enduring musical partnership in their late twenties that coalesced a few years after both had moved to New York City. Their first New York gig was probably at the Cafe Bohemia in early February, 1958. Later that month, they were paired as the front line for a Thelonious Monk studio recording, just as they began a residency at the Five Spot that lasted until June. Already in demand as a dynamic front-line duo, their four-month run (with Detroiters Doug Watkins and Elvin Jones) gave them the opportunity to launch the Byrd-Adams Quintet as a working group. Riverside Records recorded them live in April. Six months later the band would record Off to the Races, its first of a series of recordings for Blue Note Records that cemented the band’s place in jazz history.

In the Summer of 1958, however, directly after the lengthy Five Spot engagement, Donald Byrd toured Europe with Watkins and Belgian tenor saxophonist Bobby Jaspar. Adams, for his part, accepted a six-week engagement with Benny Goodman. Again, in early 1959 the Byrd-Adams Quintet would be shelved in favor of Byrd and Adams’ four-month commitment to the Thelonious Monk Big Band (culminating with the influential Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall date for Riverside). This on-again/off-again schedule would characterize the early history of the Quintet, from mid-1958 well into 1960. Because steady work wasn’t available for the group’s first two-and-a-half years as a unit, Byrd and Adams continued to take gigs as sidemen while also maintaining active careers as solo artists.

From 1958-1961, Byrd and Adams were busy indeed, working and recording in many settings. Besides their membership in Monk’s orchestra in early 1959, Adams did two tours with Benny Goodman and another with Chet Baker before May, 1959, when the Byrd-Adams Quintet recorded Byrd in Hand, their second date for Blue Note. By then the Quintet had already worked two weeks at New York’s Village Vanguard. In October, 1959 the band was touring again, this time playing gigs in Toronto and Pittsburgh.

In the Spring of 1960 the Byrd-Adams Quintet (including Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones) recorded three tunes for a stereophonic sampler project for Warwick Records. Before that, Byrd without Adams had worked his way from New York to San Francisco and back while Adams formed a short-lived quintet with tenor saxophonist J.R. Monterose. But by July, 1960 the Quintet’s superb rhythm section of Duke Pearson, Laymon Jackson and Lex Humphries had coalesced. And with Adams back in the group, the Quintet began its incarnation as a steadily working ensemble. A three month tour took the band to Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, then back to Chicago and Detroit before returning to New York in late October.

During the group’s two-month stint in Chicago (that would extend into January, 1961), pianist Herbie Hancock was hired to replace Duke Pearson. This was Hancock’s first gig outside of Chicago with a touring band. Hancock moved from Chicago to New York to join the group.

Back in New York, the Quintet recorded again for Warwick, then toured for most of the year before disbanding in October. In February and March, 1961 the group gigged throughout the Eastern United States and Canada, working at the New Showboat in Philadelphia, then Montreal and Toronto and back to the Bird House in Chicago before working in Indianapolis and Rochester, New York. Returning to New York in April, the group recorded two more dates for Blue Note (Chant and The Cat Walk) within a two week period

Looking back at the group’s history, there seems to be a direct relationship between the amount of recordings the Byrd-Adams duo made and the frequency of Quintet gigs. Stated another way, the more recordings Byrd-Adams made, the more they created demand for their Quintet to be heard live in performance. Their first recording, 10 to 4 at the Five Spot, released in mid-1958, was followed by the release of the Quintet’s first two Blue Note recordings in 1959, Off to the Races and Byrd in Hand. Those were followed in turn by a double-LP recorded in November, 1960 (Live at the Half Note) and five studio sessions (Motor City Scene, Out of This World, Chant, The Cat Walk and Royal Flush) all recorded before October, 1961. This upward arc of activity in the studios was equally true for their dense club-date calendar. Band itineraries, magazine articles and advertisements in the jazz and lay press all demonstrate that 1960 and 1961 were, indeed, the glory days for the working quintet, when the band was performing regularly and functioning at its peak. This is the main reason why I find the Quintet’s cluster of six recordings made in less than a year’s time to be their finest work. Working steadily for only a year also explains why the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet remains to this day not nearly as well-known as some of other similarly constituted great small bands of its time, such as those led by Max Roach, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Horace Silver or Cannonball Adderley.

What other conclusions can we make about the Quintet’s three early recordings leading up to their great body of work done in late 1960 and 1961? First, it’s clear that Byrd and Adams favored Detroit musicians in their group whenever possible. The live 1958 Riverside date, for example, was an all-Detroit group except for pianist Bobby Timmons, though I suspect they tried to hire Tommy Flanagan.

For their second and third dates—the Quintet’s first two for Blue Note—commercial pressures dictated that Byrd, as leader, feature some of the musicians in Blue Note’s stable. It also necessitated expanding the front line to three horns. These all-star sessions would soon be phased out in favor of showcasing the working Quintet. That’s because the group started touring steadily in mid-1960, congealing as a unit, and attracting attention as a unique band with its own sound.

Two other things that characterize the Quintet’s recordings is their inclusion of original compositions and the use of the ballad feature. Both Byrd and pianist Duke Pearson used these recording dates as opportunities to write original tunes and arrangements for small group. The ballad feature—a convention of jazz performance, and something Byrd would’ve been asked to perform as a member of Art Blakey’s band a la trumpeter Clifford Brown—is something Byrd and Adams would always do in club dates and also on several of their recordings. They used ballads as solo features for either Byrd or Adams, typically undergirded by the rhythm section, and as a way to affect variety within each set of music. Additionally, having one of the horn players drop out on a slow-tempo number was sensible in another way. It would by necessity abbreviate the duration of the tune and not unduly disrupt the set’s momentum.

Taking the entire sweep of their work into consideration, it’s clear to me that Byrd’s exclusive recording contract with Blue Note catalyzed the Byrd-Adams Quintet. Their increasing popularity, due to the wide distribution and overall excellence of their first two Blue Note recordings, also led to them eventually being picked up by the Shaw Agency, who booked tours for the group throughout North America.

Fortuitously, too, a brief lapse in Byrd’s Blue Note contract allowed Byrd and Adams the opportunity to fit in two additional recording dates. One, Out of This World for Warwick, was for the working group. The other, Motor City Scene (under Adams’ leadership for Bethlehem), was for sextet, with the addition of Detroiter Kenny Burrell on guitar. 

                (Pepper Adams and Donald Byrd at the Half Note, 11 November 1960)

For all their recordings, steady work on the road, and critical acclaim, the Shaw Agency’s predilection for booking the Quintet on very long road trips still spelled disaster for the band. Exhausting car rides (Minneapolis to Dallas, Salt Lake City, Denver, then Detroit, for example) were already booked by Shaw in October, 1960. In July and August, 1961 the group was back at it, driving from New York to Cleveland, then St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit, leading up to Royal Flush, their last New York studio date in September. In October the band returned to St. Louis, then played Kansas City, where the club folded and the group wasn’t paid. Years later Adams cited transportation costs relative to what they were earning as the main reason for ending the four year collaboration. But the Kansas City experience must have functioned as a telling metaphor and as an embodiment of the group’s pent-up frustrations. It was the Quintet’s final gig.

Despite their all-too brief time together, three outstanding recordings were made in the late 1950s and six superb dates were made in a ten-month stretch beginning on November 11, 1960 with the Blue Note double-LP Live at the Half Note. The Half Note date is the only Quintet recording to have never gone out of print in the U.S., some measure of its enduring value. From it, Duke Pearson’s composition “Jeanine” is the Quintet’s only tune that has became a standard in the jazz repertoire. Live at the Half Note reveals the band at the height of its power and remains the best example of what the band sounded like at the time.

Just after the Half Note recording, the Quintet, in a burst of activity, recorded four more dates in New York. First was the Bethlehem session, led by Adams, that returned to the favored all-Detroit formula (with Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers and Louis Hayes). A January date for Warwick, Out of This World, featured the working group, now with young Herbie Hancock on his very first record session, but with drummer Jimmy Cobb in place of Lex Humphries. In April and early May, the Quintet’s two Blue Note studio dates used other drummers entirely: Philly Joe Jones on The Cat Walk, because they couldn’t locate Humphries, and Teddy Robinson on Chant because he was already touring with the band at the time. One final Quintet date, Royal Flush, was done in September, 1961. It’s just as excellent as the others. It features Byrd, Adams and Hancock, with bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins.

Summing up the totality of the band’s output, what is it about this group that made it unique? First and foremost, of course, the Quintet featured two great instrumental stylists backed by a terrific, interactive, hard-swinging rhythm section. Their repertoire was fresh and compelling, comprised of a blend of unusual standards, interesting originals, and cleverly adapted tunes, such as an uptempo version of “I’m an Old Cowhand” or Henry Mancini’s “Theme from Mr. Lucky.”

Sonically, trumpet with baritone sax is an exquisite pairing, even more aurally spread than the customary trumpet/tenor sax pairing of its time. A trumpet/baritone front line was still rather unusual in 1958, especially one playing this brand of intense post-Charlie Parker small group jazz. But, more than that, Byrd and Adams meshed so well because their styles were so complementary. Byrd, at root, was a very melodic, soulful, lyrical player who used nuance, space and blues inflections in his solos. Adams did too, though he was more of a rhapsodic player, who delighted in double-time playing and exhibiting other technical flourishes. Byrd, it could be said, was more of a “horizontal” soloist, Adams more “vertical.” What a perfect counterbalance! And when Byrd and Adams stated each tune’s theme, their phrasing—often using impressive dynamics or provocative counterpoint lines—was always so beautifully rendered.

All told, during the four year stretch that reached its apotheosis in 1960-61, the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet recorded eleven dates—seven studio albums, one sampler, and three live LPs—assuring their place as one of the great jazz groups of its time. The band launched the career of Herbie Hancock and it gave Byrd, Duke Pearson and, to a lesser extent, Adams and Hancock, a forum to write original compositions. Some of the tunes in their book (“Curro’s,” “Bird House” and “Jorgie’s”) immortalized jazz clubs. The Quintet surely helped Adams’ career too. He was heard widely in clubs throughout North America and the Blue Note dates in particular were well distributed in the U.S. and abroad during his lifetime.


With the exception of Live at the Half Note, all of the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet’s Blue Note recordings have been collected in a Mosaic Records box set. 10 to 4 at the Five Spot and Motor City Scene have been reissued on CD. Out of This World has been reissued on CD too, but beware of cannibalized recordings from bootlegs that cut and paste some of the tunes almost beyond recognition. Most of the Quintet sessions were under Byrd’s name because Blue Note’s contract was with him. The dates on other labels fall under Pepper Adams’ leadership or Adams-Byrd. 

No film or videotape footage of the Byrd-Adams Quintet has been uncovered as yet but a terrific clip from the 1958 Cannes Jazz Festival, featuring the Bobby Jaspar-Donald Byrd Quintet is listed below. Each member of that rhythm section (Walter Davis Jr., Doug Watkins and Arthur Taylor) recorded with the Byrd-Adams Quintet on Blue Note.  

Pepper Adams, Motor City Scene, Bethlehem BCP-6056.
____________, 10 to 4 at the 5 Spot, Original Jazz Classics CD: OJCCD-031-2.
Pepper Adams-Donald Byrd, Out of This World, Fresh Sound CD: FSR-335.
Donald Byrd, At the Half Note Cafe (Vol. 1), Blue Note CD: CDP-7-46539-2.
____________, At the Half Note Cafe (Vol. 2), Blue Note CD: CDP-7-46540-2.                                        
Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams, The Complete Blue Note Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams Studio Sessions, Mosaic CD: CDBN-7-46540-2. 
Bobby Jaspar-Donald Byrd, INA videotape (France),
Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall, Original Jazz Classics CD: OJCCD-135-2.


Who wrote all those great tunes for the Byrd-Adams Quintet? I always knew Donald Byrd wrote a bunch and that Duke Pearson wrote a few. When I began assessing their repertoire I was surprised to see the degree to which Byrd’s writing dominated the amount of original material written for 1958-61 band. 33 original compositions were written to perform during that period. Of that, 70% of the oeuvre was written by Donald Byrd or (in the case of “Each Time I Think of You”) co-written by Byrd and Duke Pearson.

Nine of the tunes were written by various pianists in the band: Walter Davis Jr., Duke Pearson and Herbie Hancock. Pepper Adams wrote his two compositions for Motor City Scene, the 1960 Bethlehem date under his leadership. It seems doubtful that either of Adams’ tunes were ever played by the Quintet in club dates. Herbie Hancock’s first recorded composition, “Requiem,” can be heard on Royal Flush, the Quintet’s last studio date while still a touring band.

“Jeannine,”* written by Duke Pearson, was recorded by Cannonball Adderley about six months before the November, 1960 Live at the Half Note date. Although not written for the Byrd-Adams Quintet, it’s included below, albeit an outlier, because Byrd-Adams helped make the tune part of the standard jazz repertoire. That’s in part due to the fact that their seminal Blue Note recording never went out of print in the U.S.

What about the rest of the book? Judging from the data, 28 other tunes were either recorded or performed in clubs. A few of these tunes were standards but most were tunes that few performed. Even some of the standards were modified in creative ways, such as the ballad “That’s All” and the novelty number “I’m an Old Cowhand” being made into uptempo flag-wavers. See the Byrd-Adams repertoire list below.

Pepper Adams:

Donald Byrd:
Bird House
The Cat Walk
Devil Whip
Down Tempo
Great God
Here Am I
The Injuns
The Long Two/Four (= Off to the Races)
Pure D. Funk
Soulful Kiddy
Sudwest Funk
When Your Love Has Gone
You’re Next

Donald Byrd-Duke Pearson:
Each Time I Think of You

Walter Davis Jr.:
Bronze Dance
Clarion Calls

Herbie Hancock:

Duke Pearson:
Child's Play
Duke’s Mixture
Hello Bright Sunflower
My Girl Shirl
Say You’re Mine

Other Tunes Recorded and Performed by Byrd-Adams:
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Harold Arlen)
Bitty Ditty (Thad Jones)
Cute (Neal Hefti)
Day Dream (Billy Strayhorn)
Hastings Street Bounce (traditional)
I’m a Fool to Want You (Jack Wolf-Joel Herron-Frank Sinatra)
I’m an Old Cowhand (Johnny Mercer)
I Remember Clifford (Benny Golson)
It’s a Beautiful Evening (Raymond Rasch)
Like Someone in Love (Jimmy Van Heusen)
Little Girl Blue (Richard Rodgers)
Lover Come Back to Me (Richard Rodgers)
Mr. Lucky (Henry Mancini)
One More for the Road (Harold Arlen) 
Out of This World (Harold Arlen)
Paul’s Pal (Sonny Rollins)
A Portrait of Jennie (J. Russel Robinson)
Sophisticated Lady (Duke Ellington)
Stardust (Hoagy Carmichael)
Stuffy (Coleman Hawkins)
That’s All (Bob Haymes-Alan Brandt)
’Tis (Thad Jones)
Trio (Errol Garner)
When Sunny Gets Blue (Marvin Fisher-Jack Segal)
You’re My Thrill (Jay Gorney)
Witchcraft (Cy Coleman)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Heaven Was Detroit

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

Several weeks ago, an anthology of articles mostly about Detroit's popular music culture was published in paperback by Wayne State University Press. Edited by poet and long-time Wayne professor M.L. Liebler, the collection covers a lot of terrain as suggested by its subtitle From Jazz to Hip-Hop and Beyond. The nearly 500 page book--the first of its kind to address the great breadth of Detroit's jazz and vernacular music history--is divided into nine chapters. Eight articles in Chapter 1 are about Detroit jazz. Chapter 2 covers Detroit blues; 3 and 4: Early Soul and Motown; 5 and 6: Rock and Punk; 7 and 8: Hip-Hop and Country; 9 is "Detroit Music Miscellanea." Despite the book's breadth, there are surprising jazz anecdotes sprinkled throughout the collection. That's because Detroit's versatile jazz musicians played in jump bands, worked at Motown Records, and cross-pollinated in other ways.

The anthology is beautifully packaged, with a groovy cover and very attractive typesetting. Black and white photos grace the work instead of color ones, keeping the book affordable. The book weighs a ton, giving it an even more commanding authority that belies its $34.95 list price. "And, if you act now" . . . Yes, you can even save 40%! Buy the book before January 14, 2017 and use the order code here:

Dave Marsh's foreword lays the groundwork, integrating Detroit's disparate musical genres in a compelling way. I especially like his evocative opening two paragraphs about Detroit's auto industry. In the way he describes its many tentacles, his piece provides a welcome context for all that follows. Marsh even elicited a sense of nostalgic longing in me when he mentions hearing the J. Geils Band for the first time at the Eastown Theatre. (Hailing from Worcester, Massachusetts, the ensemble nonetheless considered Detroit their second home.) I heard them nearly steal the show from the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East in New York City when I was a kid.

Heaven Was Detroit's opening article is poet Al Young's memoir of his days growing up in Detroit. As a teenage friend of drummer Louis Hayes, Young was first getting involved with jazz in the 1950s. At fifteen, the author was underage, not able to experience the extraordinarily vibrant Detroit club scene. Instead, he had the good fortune of attending Sunday matinees at the World Stage.Young  then got involved  with the production of the venue's periodical. This allowed him to write about many of his local heroes--Sonny Stitt, Tommy Flanagan, Pepper Adams and so many others--that were jamming weekly there on Woodward Avenue and who went on to international prominence.

The anthology's second piece, "Bebop in Detroit: Nights at the Blue Bird Inn," is written by Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert. This overview of the jazz club's history is written by the noted authors who in 2001 published the pioneering study Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960. Their contribution provides a real sense of place, something invaluable to me as Adams' biographer.

Although the Blue Bird presented jazz intermittently from the 1930s until after the war, it didn't become a haven for bebop until 1948, when pianist Phil Hill organized a house band with vibist Abe Woodley and drummer Art Mardigan. Typically, Hill's group supported soloists such as tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray who were passing through town. A few years later, the Hill band was replaced by the Billy Mitchell Quintet. That superb group included both Thad and Elvin Jones. Obviously, the level of musicianship remained just as intense. The custom of supporting itinerant guest soloists also remained in place.

"The Blue Bird Inn," write Bjorn and Gallert, "was the hippest modern jazz nightspot during the city's bebop heyday."

It was a neighborhood bar that welcomed jazz lovers. The late Detroit baritone    
       saxophonist Pepper Adams once recalled its "great atmosphere": "Nothing phony
about it in any way. . . no pretensions and great swinging music." Musicians not
only graced the bandstand, they were an important part of the audience. As
bassist James "Beans" Richardson points out, "The majority of people in there
played an instrument, so, musicwise, they were very 'up,' you know? When
there was a lousy record on the jukebox, even the bartenders would say, 'Get
that record off!'"

Part of the appeal of playing at the Blue Bird was the ability within the idiom to play whatever one cared to play. As Tommy Flanagan noted about the club, "It had all the support a jazz club needed. Everyone who loved jazz in Detroit came. We were always able to play what we wanted to play and the people liked what they heard." Part of the appeal of the club was its atmosphere. Marketed as "the West Side's most beautiful and exclusive bar," said the authors,

it attracted a mainly black audience from both the immediate neighborhood
and the city at large. Those who visited the place were first struck by its
distinctive exterior--a pure blue facade accented with a New York City-style
awning that ran across the sidewalk and right up to the curb. It was just as
attractive inside. The acoustics were excellent, and the small, understated
semicircular bandstand could hold a quintet with something close to comfort. . .
Besides its music policy, the Blue Bird became nationally known for its friendly
but fierce jam sessions and its penchant for attracting visits from national stars
when they were in town for concerts at larger venues.

In 1953, before he was a household name, Miles Davis lived in Detroit and often played with Mitchell's band at the Blue Bird. In the summer of '54, Miles returned to the Blue Bird as a guest soloist. By then, the house band included Pepper Adams.

Next week I'll continue my review of Heaven Was Detroit, revealing still more Detroit jazz lore.

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 . . .