Tuesday, March 3, 2020

A Peek at Jazz from Detroit

This is a selective review of Mark Stryker’s eagerly awaited Jazz from
Detroit. I’m reminded of my undergraduate sociology professor, who
marked down one of my term papers, claiming that I was “intellectually
dishonest” because I did a book report but didn’t read the entire work.
It was 800 pages long, its last few sections seemed extraneous, and it
was the end of the semester. Nevertheless, the lesson was learned.

Only about half of Stryker’s fascinating book covers the period
before 1956, after which Pepper Adams left Detroit for New
York. (Parts Four, Five and Six of Jazz from Detroit cover the
Detroit scene after Pepper relocated.) Even some of the author’s
portraits from the first half of his book (Louis Hayes, Milt Jackson,
Ron Carter, Sheila Jordan, Joe Henderson, Charles McPherson),
seemingly related to Pepper’s time in Detroit, are of peripheral
interest to me, despite Pepper’s friendship and recordings with them.
Gerald Wilson, for his part, never worked with Pepper at all, though a
gig with his big band, with Adams as the featured soloist, was
scheduled at the very end of Pepper’s life. As things turned out,
Adams was too sick to make the gig. This leaves Stryker’s historical
overviews, the entire section about the Jones Brothers, and the
author’s portraits of Byrd, Harris, Burrell, Lateef, Fuller, Hanna
and Flanagan as my particular focus.

In Stryker’s Preface, the author lays out his rationale. His overarching
aim is to demonstrate how the jazz history of Detroit was fundamental
to the larger history of jazz in the U.S. Certainly, the author, to his
credit, has in many ways laid the important groundwork for such an
assessment. Ultimately, it may be the job of a Ph.D. candidate (WINK,
WINK!) to tear into this topic over the course of many years and finally
assess Detroit jazz in its entirety, or even era by era. As I wrote in my
forthcoming Pepper Adams biography about Adams’ postwar circle of
astounding musicians, “More than sixty years later, jazz historiography is
still devoid of a thorough assessment of how these Detroiters washed over
and revitalized jazz. As a consequence, this marvelous circle of musicians
is still overlooked as an important mid 20th Century American music

Part One of Stryker’s book is comprised of one eight-page chapter that
discusses early jazz antecedents in the city, and how Detroit’s economy
was fundamental to the city and its musical culture’s growth. Part Two
discusses the “Golden Age of Jazz” in Detroit, 1940-1960. With an opening
five-page salvo, it’s followed by profiles of Wilson, Lateef, Jackson, Jordan,
and ten others who were much closer compadres of Pepper Adams (Barry
Harris, Flanagan, Burrell, Byrd, Roland, Curtis, Louis Hayes, Ron Carter,
Joe Henderson and McPherson). 

I enjoyed reading the Wilson, Lateef, Jackson and Jordan pieces. It allowed
me to, in a sense, reconnect with old friends. I shared a panel at the Detroit
Jazz Festival with Gerald Wilson, and interviewed the other three. Lateef
and Jordan were especially kind, just as Stryker rendered them. Of the three,
only Lateef worked steadily in Detroit with Pepper -- at Klein’s Showbar in
1955 for a spell. Pepper did work with Bags in 1953, after he returned to
Detroit from Korea, but rather sporadically. Jordan, for her part, didn’t get
to know Pepper until they met up in New York City. “Bags” was irritable in
my phone interview with him, as if I was somehow intruding on Pepper’s
good name after his death -- that is, until I repeated that I worked closely
with Pepper on his memoirs. That chip on his shoulder, that testiness, was
well captured by the author in his anecdote about Gary Burton. 

I approached the Barry Harris section with alacrity. Harris had a central role
in Detroit among Pepper and his peers. Pepper worked often with Harris, and
studied with him at his salon. “His teaching was a critical component in the
city becoming a world-class factory for modern-jazz musicians,” wrote the
author. Stryker does a great job discussing Harris’ history as a pedagogue,
especially his work in New York City. Like Whitney Balliett, Martin
Williams and Gary Giddins before him, Stryker has a knack for explaining
jazz in clear, breezy, sometimes eloquent prose. Unlike them, though, Stryker
has musical chops. He ventures into musical concepts, using terminology to
explain his points, in an organic, non-pretentious way.

Several interesting points emerged in his portraits that came as a surprise to
me. One was Donald Byrd’s possible Bell’s Palsy condition, and how it
affected his trumpet playing beginning in the 1960s. In fact, the author’s Byrd
portrait is one of the book’s highlights, principally because he plumbs the
depth of Byrd’s interesting life, in this way getting more deeply into his
biography than seen elsewhere, where the work is the main focus. The
Roland Hanna portrait is equally gripping in this way. In the latter, I was
surprised to learn that Hanna graduated from Cass. It’s not mentioned
anywhere else. Really fine research on the author’s part! Stryker’s assessment
of Roland Hanna is one that I agree with wholeheartedly: Hanna “remains the
most elusive and underrated of the great jazz pianists to emerge from Detroit at
mid-century.” Had I written that, I might have deleted “at mid-century.” That’s
the level of esteem that I hold for Hanna after admiring his body of work with
the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra all these years. 

The Curtis Fuller portrait is very good too, interlaced with interview material
that the author conducted. I took two quotes from it and placed them directly
into my Pepper bio. The same goes for the Joe Henderson chapter. Equally
excellent. Henderson’s last few years of popularity harken back to Charles
Mingus’ and Zoot Sims’ similar experience, and makes me wonder if Pepper
Adams would have benefited from the same fate, had he lived another few
years. Henderson was one of Pepper’s favorite tenor players, but I did have
to skim part of the portrait. The same goes for the Hank Jones section, even
though he appeared on several important Pepper Adams recordings.
Again, it’s somewhat peripheral for me at this juncture. The Thad and
Elvin Jones pieces, however, I read carefully, even though much of the
author’s superb Thad piece was serialized about a year ago in the Free Press.
I read it then with much admiration. 

The seven-page portrait of Elvin Jones has some wonderful parts. I
especially like the following, uttered by the tenor saxophonist Bobby Jasper,
since it helps explain why the New York critics had so much trouble grasping
Elvin’s style, and why Pepper Adams endured so much heat for retaining
him in his Five Spot band in 1958:

“Detractors said he was loud and confusing, and it took a while for many
musicians to feel comfortable with him. ‘He played so many strange
overlapping rhythms that I found it hard to hear the basic tempo,’
saxophonist Bobby Jaspar wrote in the Jazz Review in 1959. ‘I thought
that he was in poor form and just couldn’t keep time. . . Then, little
by little, I began to understand the mysteries of Elvin’s playing.’”

Mark Stryker has spent the better part of his career as a reporter and arts
writer for the Detroit Free Press. Now retired, I certainly hope that he stays
involved with jazz, particularly Detroit’s. As a sage, he could shepherd
the next two or three generations of research on Detroit’s extraordinary jazz
history. Wayne State, Michigan State, the University of Michigan: Are you
listening? It’s high time for a major research university within the state of
Michigan to finally establish the Detroit Institute of Jazz Studies, with
someone of Mark Stryker’s pedigree guiding it.