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And the Night Shall be Filled with Music

Picture this: Motor City Blues Queen Thornetta Davis singing to an intimate group inside one of Detroit's most regal homes.

She sways to the beat, her energy growing with the audience's obvious enjoyment. The crowd, all of about 130 people, is quiet, respectful, adoring. Blues in an Old English Castle off of Woodward Avenue? It never sounded better.

This night came together in an unlikely yet ideal setting. Davis was the opening act in a series of nine concerts that are part of the Palmer Woods Music in Homes program. Not only are these concerts entertaining, they are enriching one of Detroit's oldest and most prestigious neighborhoods.

Although Palmer Woods is one of the finest in terms of architecture, landscaping and urban planning, it too is suffering under Michigan's – and particularly Detroit's – long economic malaise. The concerts help raise funds for its neighborhood association, which in turn assures the safety, beauty and quality of life within this largely stable area remains just so.

A little about Palmer Woods. It is a historic, sprawling area of about 300 homes located west of Woodward Avenue and north of Seven Mile Road in Detroit. The houses, built by architectural giants like Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Kahn, cover a range of styles: Tudor Revival, Neo-Georgian, Mediterranean, Modern and Craftsman.

According to the well-organized community's Web site:

Landscape architect Ossian Simonds laid out the streets of Palmer Woods as curving avenues, breaking the rigid gridiron tradition of Detroit. To control traffic patterns and maintain privacy, the subdivision contained few through streets. Building lots were irregular in size and shape, no two being alike. Names such as Gloucester, Balmoral and Cumberland reflect the influence of English history.

Palmer Woods contains many of the finest examples of creative residential design in the city because the development of the subdivision coincided with the rapid expansion of Detroit's auto industry. In the early 1900s, many major executives from the growing industries built homes and lived a life of opulence and wealth in Palmer Woods. Once home to the Fishers, Van Dusens, Prentises, Sanders, and Briggs families, the classic heritage of this unique neighborhood is still appreciated by the current owners who reside in these magnificent houses.

Longtime Detroit residents Spencer and Barbara Barefield organize the Music in Homes event, now in its third year. From the moment they moved into Palmer Woods some 22 years ago, they knew their house had music in it.

“We looked at our spacious, connected living and dining rooms and knew it had terrific potential as a concert space,” said Barbara, an artist and photographer.

Spencer -- an internationally known jazz guitarist – has long organized musical collaborations. The couple is the founder of the non-profit Creative Arts Collective, which held concerts at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (The concerts there at the DIA were so beloved during their 13-year run that a CD collection of them will be released soon.)

The concert series ended when arts funding crashed during the 1990s. Major jazz, blues and classical artists fled Detroit and Michigan as a whole, the Barefields said. They stayed, mostly because their two children (a musician and artist themselves) were thriving here.

“To survive in Detroit, you have to be innovative … or maybe crazy,” Barbara said. “As many of our musicians left for NYC and Europe, we chose to stay.”

The music never left their house, where they regularly held concerts. Two years ago, the Barefields approached the Palmer Woods Association board with an idea to hold larger musical events – open to the public – inside the many grand homes in Palmer Woods. They nervously agreed.

But as they say: If you build it, they will come. Palmer Woods Music in Homes is probably the only one of its kind in the nation. The Thornetta Davis concert sold out in December – and the Palmer Woods residents hope the other eight will too.

The next concert is Saturday, Jan. 30, and features the Dwight Adams Mardi Gras Ensemble. There will be an artist reception: food, beverages, great conversation. I cannot think of a better way to lose those gray Michigan winter blues.

“By showcasing the amazing talent we have in this area, we are introducing new audiences to both the arts and our unique neighborhood,” Barbara said. “We are supporting historic preservation of our architectural treasures, as well as recognition and respect for Metro-Detroit's gifted musicians.”

(The concerts will end in June with a three-day jazz festival in the Woods, featuring Spencer Barefield at the Frank Lloyd Wright-Turkel home. More to come on this home and this amazing three-day series.)

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  • 1

    I'm from Detroit, living in LA for the past 30 years. I absolutely love Detroit and am elated to read about this wonderful program bringing music into a truly magical section of Detroit, Palmer Woods. I'm a songwriter with many hits ("September", "Boogie Wonderland", "Neutron Dance", the theme to "Friends" and the musical The Color Purple among others.) To this day I've never learned how to read, write or play music but I got all my training from growing up in Detroit listening to the unbelievable radio stations - Martha Jean The Queen changed my life forever - and camping out on the lawn in front of Motown every weekend and listening to whatever I could seeping through walls.

    Music is a great nourisher of the soul and to hear that it's filling these historic houses is a great sign of hope. I think Detroit was THE the city of the last century, both in its rise and decline, a microcosm of the modern world, and is primed to become THE city of this century if enough people believe in it and are committed to its rebirth. Detroit is filled with gorgeous architecture, some of it albeit crumbling, and I hope this program or one similar to it starts filling houses everywhere in town.

  • 2

    "But were there any pickaninnys scurrying about?"

    I mentioned my wonderful wife in the Scarab Club blog. She grew up with Diana, Martha and the gang and sang on the busses with them.... felt that Diana was too Cididy, too cool doing drugs and all that, and to my surprise she mentioned that while she sang for the Voices of the Mighty Tabernacle she sang back up to Mahalia at Carnegie Hall.

    One Friday, while working at Albert Kahn, I was invited to a Blues gig in Exton PA with some CAD developers. Called Glenda Ann and she replied we're going so by the time I got home she had the minivan packed with the clothes, food and the nieces and nephews.

    We arrived in the afternoon and drove up to the very posh Barn and heard the guys practicing. After totally surpising them we went to a nearby motel and relaxed and then when it came time to go she refused and said that she would stay with the kids and play in the pool.

    She picked up on some vibes that I had not noticed but she insisted that I go. When i retuned she asked the question.

    "No", I replied. "Well then, it's not the Blues" was her comeback... It's just some goofy arsed pompous set pretending.

    Yes, Palmer Park IS beautiful and It shows what can happen when you have regulations. And the regulations were that you had to have an architect for any house over 2000sf. It subsequently was pushed to 3000sf. and the deceitful Republicans killed all restrictions under Engler.

    And that is why there was so much horribly ghastly Ugly stuff going up before the Crash... no Architects... they stragled us. Michiganians will be able to see the product of the Republican deregulations for years.

    Nothing short of Horrible.


  • 3

    [...] past six months of this blogging project. There's Spencer and Barbara Barefield, who organize the Music in Homes event for their Palmer Woods neighborhood. Spencer is a noted jazz guitarist; Barbara does [...]

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