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.

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