Detroit Bop City

IN DETROIT,” Pepper Adams once said, “the standards were so high that to compete for local gigs you had to really play awful goddamn good! If you were good enough to be competitive in Detroit, you were ahead of what the rest of the world’s standards were.” Adams was talking about the music scene in his hometown, the one that pre-dated Motown, The Stooges and the MC5, Detroit techno or Eminem. He was talking about a sound that prowled Detroit’s streets with grace, speed and menace. Pepper Adams, saxophonist, was discussing Detroit in its golden age of jazz, from the end of the swing era, through the heady days of bebop and hard bop, and on into the wild and woolly days of free jazz. It was at once instrumental in shaping Detroit and unquestionably shaped by the city; a spiritual ancestor to the dapper swagger of Motown, the anger of Detroit proto-punk, the precision of the city’s techno scene, and the enormous power of a finely tuned V-8 fresh off the assembly line. There is a current which runs through all of Detroit’s cultural products; a confidence like the purr of an engine. It was probably always there, but it first showed up on records by Detroit-based jazz musicians.

Five Dollars a Day

In 1914, Henry Ford announced that he would pay the workers in his auto plants no less than five dollars a day, a generous wage by the standards of the day. Ford’s announcement came at the very moment that two factors were conspiring to limit the American labour pool: the onset of the First World War brought about a halt to the influx of European immigrants to the United States, a traditional source of skilled labour, just as that same conflict spelled an increase in industrial production. The result was a massive northerly migration by thousands of Southern blacks. Ford put them to work on his assembly lines. The flood of new workers resulted in nothing less than a new city, boundaries pushed outward, traditional neighbourhood lines redrawn.

It was a mirror image of what was happening all across the industrial centres of the North — Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia — only exaggerated in the case of Detroit. By the end of the mass migration Detroit was a major metropolitan area with a large, gainfully employed population of African-Americans.

More than simply jobs, the appeal of the North, the new promised land, was a new way of life, a break from the crushing agricultural labour led by Southern black men, a good number of whom must have felt that they were free men in name only, their lives not all that dissimilar from those of their enslaved grandparents. “Jobs, Houses, Dignity,” promised one prominent African-American newspaper, and there was some truth to it. A careful family might aspire to join the middle class.

There were also plenty of places to spend those newly earned wages. The nightlife prospered and expanded with the city. Palatial clubs like the Greystone Ballroom opened, and business was good. Swing was still the sound of the day: in 1941 Louis Armstrong played the grand opening of the Paradise Theatre on Woodward Avenue. Soon Cab Calloway had played there, as had Jimmie Lunceford, and Duke Ellington. It was a top flight establishment that would later host Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Art Blakey. Jazz had found a home in Detroit, and Detroit a sound in jazz. Touring bands like those of Calloway and Lunceford routinely made extended stops in Detroit, and local bands found plenty of places to play. It all came together to provide a hothouse musical education for Detroit musicians.

A Hot Day in June

From Detroit’s Belle Isle Park you can throw a stone and hit Windsor, Ontario. The island sits like a yacht anchored in the middle of the Detroit River, and its beaches have long been a favourite spot for Detroit’s workers to escape the heat. In June of 1943, Belle Isle Park was the scene of a disagreement which became a fight, which in turn became a riot that exposed the truth of racial tension in Detroit. By the end of it 43 people were dead and federal troops had been called to intervene.

It was a stark reminder for many that, though jobs were abundant and allowed them to afford their own homes and a bit of diversion, they had not yet reached their Jordan. It was a very obvious manifestation of a sense that all that promise had nevertheless failed to deliver Americans, especially African-Americans, into total freedom. The war raged on and men were dying; life was underlined with despair. The optimism and abandon of swing no longer seemed the perfect soundtrack. Enter Charlie Parker.

At its heart bebop was protest music, a cry for freedom from the formal restrictions of swing, with its precision, its relative order, and its desire to please, as well as from the tyranny imposed on the body and the soul in the “land of the free.” It was an assertion of individuality, of power, and of militancy. It was a self-consciously modern statement.

It began in New York in the early 1940s, where a small group of working musicians — Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell, Charlie Christian and others — would gather for late night jam sessions. They soon began to push the boundaries of swing’s musical vocabulary. A complex, harmonically dense, usually fast style emerged, which the musicians called simply “modern,” while journalists soon adopted the “bebop” label. Whatever the name, a pair of Detroit players had early contact with the style — vibraphonist Milt Jackson and saxophonist Lucky Thompson both played with Parker and Gillespie in the ‘40s — and it seems likely that they had a hand in spreading news of bop’s creation to their hometown. Whatever the particulars, bop proved for Detroit, as for other American cities, the perfect soundtrack to their very anxious age.

The Blue Bird Inn

Try and imagine a night in Detroit in about 1950: snap-brimmed hats bob and dip beneath buzzing lights as men stand and smoke cigarettes between sets on a hot summer night. The streets hum with the cars made just a few miles away, cars many of these men helped build, cars that are paying for this evening’s admission and the drinks the men are putting back. They stand outside the Blue Bird Inn at 5021 Tireman Blvd. Inside the instruments are picked up again after a short break, a few test notes blown, calling the patrons back inside. Phil Hill’s house band is about to start their second set. It’s midnight, maybe one o’clock. Things are just getting good.

The Blue Bird Inn was ground zero for modern jazz in Detroit. Phil Hill’s house band was, from 1948 until the early ‘50s, the most visible example of the new style of jazz, and a steady stream of trained and accomplished swing musicians made their way to the Blue Bird to sit in with them and play bop.

The list of Detroit-based musicians (either native to the city or newly relocated there) playing in the style by the mid-to-late 1950s forms an impressive modern jazz roll call: trumpeters Donald Byrd and Thad Jones, saxophonists Sonny Stitt, Pepper Adams, Joe Henderson and, briefly, Wardell Gray, pianists Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan and Alice McLeod (who would become John Coltrane’s second wife in 1965), bassists Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, drummer Elvin Jones (brother of Thad and pianist Hank), trombonist Curtis Fuller, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef (born William Evans, saxophones and flute) and many others all plied their trade in the many nightclubs, theatres and halls that had sprung up to satisfy Detroiters’ taste for entertainment.

On a Friday night, his wallet fat with new pay, a man could choose to take himself to the Blue Bird, or he might opt to head to the Bizerte, or Lee’s Sensation, or Club Zombie, the Royal Blue Bar, the Double V, Club Deliese (later Club El-Morocco), The Bowl-O-Drome (a bowling alley with a bar inside), or any other number of places.

In every venue there were bands, and those bands were full of guys cutting their teeth on bop and, soon, on the sound that was to replace it as the musical lingua franca of African-American communities throughout the United States: a harder, bluesier, less technical but more soulful variant of bebop.

“Pathos, Irony and Rage”

Some called it “hard bop;” critic David H. Rosenthal calls it “a universe where hip street attitudes and ‘a tragic sense of life’ intersect,” a sound composed of “pathos, irony and rage.” Those elements existed in abundance in Detroit.

“Jazz in the 1950s was a good way to make a living and a lousy way to get rich,” says Rosenthal. “The concentration of independent labels in New York (Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside and Savoy were the big four) also made it difficult for musicians to get a hearing elsewhere and acted as a magnet, sucking young jazzmen out of cities like Detroit and Philadelphia that had no recording industries to speak of.” And so it was. A musician might eke out a living playing the numerous nightclubs of Detroit, but the absence of a viable recording industry in the Motor City spelled a constant flow of musicians to other cities, most notably New York.

This accounts for the fact that nearly every significant recording by a Detroit jazz musician finds him in an ensemble with Philadelphians, or New Yorkers, or Bostonians. Kenny Burrell is a prime example of a Detroiter, specifically a guitarist, whose career was spent recording elsewhere with virtual All-Star bands, notably Blue Note session men drafted by label heads Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf. The Blue Note stable was stocked with a staggering amount of talented jazz musicians from around the country, who were combined and recombined to find lasting groups (or often based simply on who was available). So it was that Burrell found himself on stage at the Five Spot in New York in 1959, with a band that included the criminally under-recorded Tina Brooks on tenor, Bobby Timmons on piano, and the great Art Blakey on drums — and the tape rolling.

Burrell cut a lot of great records, but if you want a document of prototypical hard bop that’s looser and more candid than the majority of studio recordings, start with On View at the Five Spot Cafe. On it, Burrell plays in a style that is at once ferocious and laid back.

For a rare all-Detroit lineup from the same period, seek out trumpeter Donald Byrd’s First Flight (Delmark, 1956), which has also been made available on CD as The Complete Recordings with Yusef Lateef and Barry Harris. It chronicles a local concert in 1955, a spirited blowing session featuring a young Byrd in his debut as a leader, long before his turn to soul and fusion. Lateef’s in top form, anticipating all the great records he would go on to make under his own name. Barry Harris’ hard comping shows off what was sometimes called the “Detroit Style” on piano, while Bernard McKinney joins in on euphonium. Alvin Jackson (brother of Milt) and Frank Gant form the rhythm section.

On both recordings the listener is met with the sound of hard bop: at once full of life and of anger, the musicians locked in and passionate, and completely unaware of the changes to both the city and the music that would come down in the next decade or so.

The Shape of Jazz to Come and Everything After

In 1959, of course, a Texan with a plastic alto horn changed everything, and in no time the fresh, modern sound of hard bop felt rote and dated. Ornette Coleman, first with The Shape of Jazz to Come and then, maybe more significantly, with Free Jazz, presented music characterized by open, free improvisation without deference to chord structure, and often little regard for melody. It was unlike anything that had come before, and it sent a nation of players scrambling to anticipate what would come next. Detroit’s jazzmen were no different.

They adapted, and many thrived. Elvin Jones made perhaps the most significant contribution to jazz drumming since Max Roach through his work with John Coltrane’s quartet. During his five years with Coltrane, Jones developed an intense rhythmic approach that can feel like shifting sand beneath the listener’s feet, especially when paired with pianist McCoy Tyner’s flurries of cascading notes.

Alice Coltrane played with her husband as well as on her own recordings, developing a sound heavily reliant on Eastern motifs and instrumentation. Her 1968 Impulse! album, A Monastic Trio, on which she plays both harp and piano, is a successful study in melding the feel and structure of the blues to Eastern colouration.

Yusef Lateef, too, continued down the Eastern path he began in the late ‘50s, adding numerous instruments to his repertoire and incorporating Indian, Asian and African musical styles, while maintaining the expressive bluesy phrasing he first developed on the saxophone.

Other Detroit free jazz musicians, following the example of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) and St. Louis’s Black Artists’ Group (BAG), formed the collective support group known as the Detroit Creative Musicians Association and, in the ‘70s, The Tribe, which served similar functions for Detroit’s avant-garde jazz community.

And while some players went further out, others applied their skills to more popular music. The rise of Motown Records (“The Sound of Young America”) in the ‘60s arguably wouldn’t have been possible without the abundant supply of both skilled jazzmen and eager local audiences. The legendary Funk Brothers, whose instrumentation appeared on all Motown discs, all got their starts as jazz players. Founder Berry Gordy once owned his own jazz record shop.

Detroit has fallen a long way since all of that. Motown has come and gone. The city burned in 1968, the site of brutal rioting that tore the racial mosaic quilt to shreds, sending the white middle class running to the suburbs, and leaving much of the city centre a hollowed-out ghost of itself. The automakers have stumbled, fallen, been picked back up, and fallen again. Joblessness has soared and the population has plummeted. The very name “Detroit” has come to represent the demise of great American cities.

But a spirit persists, a sense of defiance and resilience in line with that certain something that informed all those great musicians of the bop and hard bop eras. And the challenge of adapting to the rise of avant-garde jazz, the success many Detroiters experienced in that arena, speaks to the hard-assed nature of the city and its inhabitants. The unmistakable sound of life on all those great records — by Milt Jackson, Curtis Fuller, Sonny Stitt, and Joe Henderson, as well as Burrell, Lateef, Adams, and all the others — remains there, ready to remind you of what Detroit once was and, who knows, what it might one day be again.

Originally published at on May 28, 2013.

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