I unintentionally kicked off 2020 with a bang, at least in one respect. I read Mark Stryker’s excellent Jazz from Detroit last month, and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in some time, sticking with me weeks after I finished it.
I had been looking forward to the book’s release for some time, though it took me longer than expected to get around to it. (Upon seeing him at a wonderful Prism Quartet recital in Ypsilanti in November 2018, I introduced myself to let him know I was looking forward to the book’s eventual release.) I’ve followed Stryker’s work for years and his Twitter timeline is a wonderful repository of historical and musical morsels. I’ve seen him around at various shows in southeast Michigan over the years (the trademark hat and mustache make him easy to identify).
Whether people are aware of it or not—and many are likely not—Detroit has played an integral role in the development of jazz. For those with even a modest jazz collection (…for those who even have a non-streaming collection anymore, that is…), look through the liner notes and you’re bound to see at least one name who is from or spent time in the Motor City. I mean, where would jazz as an art form be without the John Coltrane Quartet (with Detroiter Elvin Jones on drums) and Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet (with Detroiter Ron Carter on bass)? (Hell, Ron Carter alone is credited on over 2,000 albums.) That said, until Jazz from Detroit‘s release in July 2019, no one had tried to cover that history in a single volume.
A richly detailed and comprehensive look at both the musical heritage of the city and the lineages in which Detroit has played an integral part, Jazz from Detroit has much to offer to both the musician and layman. Coming in at nearly 300 pages—not including the informative appendices and voluminous index—it’s a taut text that covers a century of not just musical developments, but economic, industrial, demographic, political, and sociological ones too. Stryker reaches beyond purely musical considerations, digging deeply to examine the factors that helped make Detroit such a cultural powerhouse. Bassist and pedagogue Rodney Whitaker said it best, telling Stryker, “That’s what we do in Detroit. We make cars, and we make jazz musicians.” (p. 294)
Stryker spent decades doing his homework, much of that time as a critic for the Detroit Free Press. In addition to his digesting existing scholarship, many of the interviews with the musicians and sidemen discussed throughout the book, including several who are now deceased, were conducted by Stryker personally. His authority comes from being someone who is both a fan of the music and history as well as someone who is himself a part of it. (His anecdote about his first phone call with bassist Ralphe Armstrong had me laughing out loud.) Additionally, his genuine love of the city and its heritage come through with every passage. He’s not a dispassionate scholar who swoops in from parts unknown to examine a phenomenon, only to leave once he’s collected his data. Rather, he’s a champion of the city and its legacy, pulling it out from under the shadows of New York City and Los Angeles, and, to a lesser extent, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Chicago. As the author writes:
“Many Midwestern and Rust Belt cities with large African American populations also experienced golden ages of jazz in the middle of the 20th century—Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Cleveland among them—but their musical impact eventually faded. Meanwhile, Detroit continued punching above its weight class.”(p. x)
This book deals with jazz specifically. Myriad other books, articles, and films have been devoted to Detroit’s Motown and rock offerings. Though there is some musical cross-pollinating where Motown is concerned, Stryker, to his credit and the book’s benefit, stays in the jazz lane.
The book is divided into six parts. “Setting the Stage” (~1900-1950) lays the initial groundwork for much of what follows, particularly regarding the automobile industry and its role in shaping Detroit’s public education system and black working and middle classes, as well as discussion of some early musical figures in and around the city. “The Golden Age, 1940-1960” gets into the real meat and potatoes, with over a dozen chapters, each covering a notable musical figure (e.g., Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter, Curtis Fuller, Sheila Jordan, and more). “The Jones Brothers” discusses that remarkable triumvirate Hank, Thad, and Elvin. “Taking Control” explores some of the more communal and entrepreneurial musical developments in Detroit, including the Detroit Artists Workshop, the Strata Corporation, the Creative Arts Collective, and more. “Marcus Belgrave and His Children” dives into the music and legacy of Marcus Belgrave, one of the city’s patron saints of jazz who mentored many of Detroit’s more well-known contemporary exponents (e.g., Kenny Garrett, Rodney Whitaker, Geri Allen, Regina Carter, James Carter, and more). Lastly, “Tradition and Transition” takes stock of the health of both the city and its music of the last couple decades through early ~2019. Each chapter includes recording recommendations for the relevant artist or group.
As someone who grew up in Michigan, it was great to see how some of the more “local” or regional names fit into the larger musical and cultural tapestry. For example, laying all my cards on the table, I knew Marcus Belgrave was a longstanding musical and pedagogical institution in Detroit, having seen him at various masterclasses and concerts in college and elsewhere (annually leading and sitting in with myriad groups at Detroit Jazz Festival, sitting in with Wynton when he visited Detroit, etc.), but save for the occasional mention in a liner note when I’m getting a new (for me) album, it wasn’t always clear to me just how he fit into the larger puzzle beyond the Midwest. (Admittedly, perhaps it was my own ignorance.) I now have a much clearer understanding, thanks to Stryker’s work.
Stylistically, much of the book is weighted toward The Tradition, but that’s to be expected. After all, many of the figures discussed are known for styles steeped in the blues, swing, and bop (be- and post-). Even the more avant-garde folks who appear throughout, including bassist Jaribu Shahid, drummer Tani Tabbal, and pianist Craig Taborn, had a foot in more mainstream styles at one time or another. My only real quibbles with the book are extremely minor and subjective. For one, I was surprised to see Massive Attack labeled a rap group. (That said, as a fan, I was as surprised as anyone to see the group mentioned at all, and, admittedly, trip hop isn’t too widely known of a label.) Additionally, and it’s just because the album is a desert island disc for me, I would have included Chasin’ the Gypsy as a recommended James Carter album instead of either Heaven on Earth or Present Tense. But that’s me.
Selfishly, as a point of saxophonistic privilege, I must highlight one of my favorite passages. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Joe Henderson’s training and that he studied with Larry Teal. More than that, though, I was floored to read of the following convergence of greatness. Talk about a pantheon of jazz and classical saxophone: “[Larry Teal’s] Tuesday morning lineup of students in 1956-57 was Yusef Late at 9:30, Henderson at 10:00, and Donald Sinta at 10:30.” (p. 132) A real murderers’ row!
If you’re at all into jazz, history, or Detroit culture, I highly recommend Jazz from Detroit. Mark Stryker knocked this one out of the park. I only hope there’s a sequel of sorts in the future.
Perhaps to whet your appetite if you’re still wondering whether or not you should read Jazz from Detroit, I highly recommend these excellent interviews of Stryker conducted by Ethan Iverson for Do The M@th: here and here.