Art Works Blog

Jazzin' It Up in Detroit

March 23, 2010
Washington, DC

2010 NEA Jazz Master Yusef Lateef performing at the Jazz Masters Award Ceremony at Jazz at Lincoln Center, January 12, 2010. Photo by Tom Pich

You might say Henry Ford helped make Detroit a prosperous jazz town in the '20s and '30s, setting the stage for its peak jazz years of the '50s and '60s. Motown may have been leading the charts, but a number of musicians were developing their style in the field of jazz. So while Rocco's visiting Detroit today on the Art Works tour, we thought we would look at the Motor City's relationship with jazz.

Although not often thought of as one of the great jazz cities—as New Orleans, Kansas City, and New York often are—Detroit nurtured many ascendant jazz artists and proved a significant venue for touring groups. In the early 20th century, Detroit was one of the destinations of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities due to the numerous manufacturing jobs of the auto industry. The city became a regular stop for touring jazz artists, such as the Duke Ellington Orchestra and McKinney's Cotton Pickers, particularly in the Paradise Valley and Black Bottom neighborhoods, where many theaters began springing up. Jazz became an intricate part of the black community, bringing a new vitality to the city.

Detroit was fertile ground for many musicians who are now acknowledged masters of the idiom. More than a dozen NEA Jazz Masters are hometown Detroiters, including Curtis Fuller, Milt Jackson, Hank and Elvin Jones, and Yusef Lateef, among others. (Check out our NEA Jazz Masters website section for bios of and interviews).

While it could have been something in the water that turned out so many virtuoso players, more probably it was the superior music programs in the public schools at the time, such as at Cass Technical High School, which counts violinist Regina Carter and pianist Geri Allen among its alumni. Even as the city began its decline in the 1970s and '80s, following a steady weakening of the local economy, stellar jazz musicians continued to emerge, such as James Carter and Kenny Garrett.

Thanks to clubs like Goodnite Gracie, Baker's Keyboard Lounge, and Bert's Marketplace, to name a few, jazz still very much has a home in Detroit today. And the Detroit International Jazz Festival, supported by the NEA, does its part each Labor Day weekend to make sure the city remains a popular destination for jazz artists and aficionados alike. On the bill for this year's festival—the city's 31st annual event—are trumpeter Terence Blanchard, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and pianist Mulgrew Miller, the festival's 2010 artist-in-residence.

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