By Mark Stryker

University of Michigan Press. 342 pages. £33.95. ISBN 978-0-472-07426-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It’s inevitable, I suppose, that mentioning music from Detroit will cause most people to think of Tamla-Motown and its associated singers. But prior to the so-called Tamla Motown Sound the city had a well-established jazz scene. It’s “golden age” was, according to Mark Stryker, between 1940 and 1960. It’s a classification I’d be inclined to agree with and, in fact, I’d propose that it was a particularly fertile period generally for modern jazz. This isn’t to suggest that jazz hadn’t attracted a degree of popularity before that – many of the swing era big-bands of the 1930s blended jazz and dance music – but from the point of view of invention and experimentation the 1940s and 1950s seem to have been especially active. What happened after 1960 is a matter for debate, but there was a decline in interest in jazz. Jazz musicians had a hard time surviving as pop music came to the fore. In Warren Leight’s play, Side Man, a small group of New York musicians gather in front of a TV to watch Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. As the singer gyrates with his guitar, one of them remarks: “That kid will do to horn players what talkies did to Buster Keaton”.

There was an earlier book about jazz in Detroit (Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960, by Lars Bjorn with Jim Gallert, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2001), and Stryker is keen to point out that his narrative takes a different direction: “This book is not meant to account for every significant jazz musician from Detroit…….it carries the story of Detroit jazz from the 1940s into the 21st century, digging deeper into the lives of key musicians and the influence of the Detroit diaspora, while also keeping up with the action on the home front”. The diaspora” referred to is the fact that most musicians, once they had established a reputation in Detroit, moved on to New York. This seems to have been impressively true in “the hard bop era from about 1955 to 1965”. Detroit was a hard-working industrial city and the music played predominantly by black musicians reflected the tough times that many of them experienced as they grew up in an atmosphere of segregation, police harassment, and violence.

Detroit’s population had expanded rapidly as the automobile industry developed, and there was a continual demand for labour. Along with the growth in the numbers of people, both black and white, there was a corresponding increase in the demand for entertainment. Clubs, theatres and bars flourished, and offered work for musicians and entertainers. They could hone their skills playing in such premises, but it’s also of importance to note that Detroit had a programme of “exceptional music education in the public school”. There were, too, influential individuals who helped train many younger jazzmen to become more proficient in their chosen art form. Stryker singles out the fine pianist, Barry Harris, for praise, and it’s notable that his name runs throughout the book. Harris was always keen to carry forward the message of bebop, a jazz form that made its mark on the city: “Beyond New York, Detroit was one of the first cities where bebop took root”. And it’s further pointed out that, as the 1960s got underway, the “free jazz” movement never really established a firm foothold among Detroit’s jazz community.

It’s difficult to know how advanced some of the local musicians in Detroit were in terms of their allegiance to bebop. Certainly a musician like the vibraphone-player, Milt Jackson, born in Detroit in 1923, was proficient enough to work in the clubs of New York and record with Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-1940s. There is an interesting small-group session for the short-lived Detroit-based record label, Sensation in 1948. Led by saxophonist Sonny Stitt (listed as “Lord Nelson”, presumably for contractual reasons), the group included trumpeter Willie Wells, Jackson, pianist Will Davis, bassist Jimmy Glover, and drummer Dave Heard. Wells, Davis, Glover, and Heard were all Detroit jazzmen. It’s perhaps of interest to note that, as an indication of how difficult it was to earn a living playing jazz alone, Wells can be heard on several tracks by Gene Nero’s Sextet (featuring vocalist Tina Dixon) recorded in Detroit around 1947/48. Nero’s group, if the scant recorded evidence is anything to go by, leaned more to rhythm and blues than jazz, which was probably a necessity when performing for a broad audience. Titles such as “Blow Mr Bebop” and “Parrot Bar Boogie” give an indication of the sort of music Nero’s group played. The Parrot Lounge was a popular club in Detroit.  

If most of the others, excluding Stitt, never established reputations in the jazz world outside Detroit, Milt Jackson, of course, went on to become a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet, a group in which pianist John Lewis was the dominant voice in terms of its overall approach. But in my experience of hearing it at concerts and on records, it only really came alive when Jackson soloed. And even then he often appeared constrained by the format of the music, polite and tightly-arranged as it was. To gain a true picture of the vibraphonist at his most scintillating and forceful, I’d suggest that it’s best to turn to the recordings he made with his own groups. There are some splendid collaborations with the tenor-saxophonist Lucky Thompson from the 1950s that have stood the test of time.

One of the most prolific jazzmen to step out of the Detroit scene was trumpeter Donald Byrd, though some people might challenge the view that the material he recorded later in his career can truthfully be called jazz.  I very much preferred the records that Byrd made in the 1950s. A concert in Detroit in 1955 had him alongside local jazzmen like tenorman Yusef Lateef and pianist Barry Harris, and playing in a bright boppish manner. He had a good tone and a fund of ideas. There are so many albums from the late-1950s and early-1960s that it’s difficult to select some to recommend, but a personal choice would include sides with Hank Mobley and Gigi Gryce. And the gritty tracks he recorded with someone else from the testing ground of the Detroit jazz scene, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams.

I think it’s true to say that the Detroit jazz scene was predominantly black, but there were several white jazzmen who, when they left the city, achieved some prominence on a national level. I mentioned Pepper Adams, and trombonist Frank Rosolino also spent his early days in Detroit. Like many Detroit musicians he was musically educated at Cass Technical High School. The city’s schools had been racially integrated for many years, and it’s worth noting that the Musician’ Union in Detroit was one of the few in the country to be fully integrated in the 1950s. Rosolino is often linked to West Coast jazz, and he did indeed work and record a great deal in Los Angeles. But before that he  had played in Gene Krupa’s band in the late-1940s (he can be heard chanting an amusing bebop “vocal” and playing a solo on the drummer’s 1949 recording of “Lemon Drop”), and he was a featured soloist with Stan Kenton’s  orchestra in the early-1950s. I recall seeing him playing agile and inventive solos at a 1953 Kenton concert in Dublin. Among his earliest appearances on records were the four tracks recorded for the Dee Gee label in 1953, with Barry Harris on piano.

I should perhaps draw attention to drummer Art Mardigan, described by Stryker as “the top bebop jazz drummer in Detroit”. Mardigan had made the New York jazz scene and recorded with Dexter Gordon in 1946. He was the drummer with Georgie Auld’s big-band in the mid-1940s, and along the way worked and/or recorded with Charlie Parker, Allen Eager, Wardell Gray, Fats Navarro, Nick Travis, and others. He clearly had impeccable bebop credentials, but seems to have fallen victim to the problem that affected so many of the pioneer bop musicians – heroin addiction. He was in the group that Parker took to Montreal in October 1953 for an ill-fated appearance at the Latin Quarter club. Supposedly for seven nights, the booking was terminated after the first night because of the general condition of the musicians. Mardigan had arrived without his drum kit, the pianist Harry Biss was said to be “always in a fog”, and the way they generally conducted themselves on stage was questioned.

There are so many other musicians with a Detroit connection that Stryker discusses that I can’t do much more than mention them in this review. Trombonist Curtis Fuller, saxophonist Yusef Lateef, drummer Louis Hayes, altoist Charles McPherson, guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpeter and arranger Gerald Wilson. And the Jones Brothers – Hank, Thad, and Elvin. All three of them became stalwarts of the 1950s jazz scene. Hank Jones appeared on numerous record sessions, both as a soloist and as an accompanist to many of the leading jazz performers. Thad Jones was also a prolific recording artist, both with his own groups and as a member of other units. And he had a featured solo role with Count Basie’s band (I caught it a couple of times just after I came out of the army in 1957, and I’m certain Jones, Frank Foster, and Joe Newman were all there), and, later, formed the exuberant Thad Jones-Mel Lewis orchestra. Elvin Jones became famous for his role in the John Coltrane group of the early-1960s. It was around that time I saw him in concert in London with Coltrane. I have to admit that, having grown up with bebop and cool jazz ringing in my ears (I started collecting jazz records around 1950), it took me a little time to adjust to the music that Coltrane played. A saxophonist such as Hank Mobley was more to my taste.

I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve focused on the “Golden Era” 1940-1960 that Stryker writes about. It’s my own favourite period for my listening pleasure. But it’s only fair to point out that he does give a fair amount of space to what happened in Detroit in after1960. The city itself went into decline as the automobile industry virtually collapsed. Poverty and crime increased. People left Detroit to search for work elsewhere.

When it came to music, there was an effect in terms of a reduction in the number of jobs available in clubs and theatres. The rise of pop music affected jazz musicians, in particular, though some adjusted enough to obtain work backing singers and in the recording studios. There was an impact, too, on what had been a fertile musical education programme in schools. Cutbacks meant that many music departments were closed.

It wasn’t all bad, and musicians carried on getting together. I was quite intrigued when I read what Stryker writes about the Detroit Artists Workshop and John Sinclair. I was in touch with him in the 1960s and had poems in a couple of issues of a magazine called Work that Sinclair edited. Stryker doesn’t mention it, but he does refer to another of Sinclair’s publications, the jazz-oriented Change. I have a vague memory that I may have also contributed to it, though I don’t think that I did more than pick up some notes from jazz magazines about developments in Britain and pass them to Sinclair. I still have my copies of Work, but not of Change. Stryker says that John Sinclair was harassed by the Detroit police and went to prison on drugs charges. I recall that he sent me the envelope from one of my letters to him to show me that it had been opened by the U.S. Postal Service because it was believed to contain subversive material, or something like that. It’s not easy to remember exactly what happened more than fifty years ago.

Jazz From Detroit provided me with a great deal of reading pleasure, as well as an opportunity to dig out a variety of records by some of the jazzmen it refers to. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the music. The fact that it is often about jazz located somewhere other than New York or Los Angeles gives it added value. I don’t think Mark Stryker will be offended if I suggest that it could be useful to read it alongside the book I mentioned earlier – Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-1960. Taken together, the two books offer a vivid portrait of a city, and the lives and music of the jazz musicians who were born, or were resident there at one time or another.