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Before Motown, Detroit Had Jazz

Get ready, Big City. The Detroit Jazz Fest is about to blast off. This annual Labor Day tradition is free, free, free and features top talent in a family-friendly setting. No excuses; this is a must-attend event.

Today, I'm honored to host two writers and Detroit jazz historians: Lars Bjorn and James “Jim” Gallert. They are authors of “Before Motown – A History of Detroit Jazz 1920-1960.” The 2001 book creates a complete picture of the city's jazz scene from the greats to the almost-forgotten artists.

The DJF described them as thus: “Bjorn always had the vision of writing a definitive history of Detroit jazz, and Gallert knew the importance of preserving the voice of the artists.”

Background from the Jazz Fest (which recently honored the duo with its Jazz Guardian award): Bjorn serves on the board of directors at the Detroit Jazz Center and is president of the Southeast Michigan Jazz Association. He is known for his interviews with Detroit musicians, his pioneering article surveying early Detroit jazz (published in the Detroit Jazz Who's Who) and his meticulously organized information culled from old newspapers. Gallert is a producer and host of Jazz Yesterday and Detroit Jazz Alive. While doing his work, including his well-known biographies of forgotten musicians like pianist Todd Rhodes, he has collected a large number of photographs and rare recordings related to the jazz scene—clubs, musicians and bands.

You'll read this later, but to note: If you want to learn more about Detroit's storied contribution to jazz, Bjorn and Gallert will host a 75-minute presentation featuring rare pictures and recordings at 4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 4, in the Pepsi Jazz Talk Tent at Woodward and Congress streets.


Detroit Had Jazz Before, During and After Motown

By Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert

Detroit has been an important jazz city since the 1920s and has contributed a lot to the development of jazz particularly in the twenties and fifties. In the twenties, the city grew faster than most American cities – Detroit was called “Dynamic Detroit” – due to the rising fortunes of the auto industry, and this created a large demand for recreation, including dancing.

A dance craze developed during World War I and ballrooms popped up everywhere. In Detroit there were at least ten ballrooms, and they were mostly found along Jefferson and Woodward Avenues. The most well-know ballroom was the Graystone Ballroom on Woodward and Canfield (now a McDonald's) and it was run by Jean Goldkette.

Goldkette organized his Victor Recording Orchestra, which attracted the best white jazz players in the country to Detroit, including the path-breaking cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer and the Dorsey brothers to name a few. The band's recordings helped make it known nation-wide and it earned a solid reputation among “hot” musicians.

Unfortunately, it collapsed under the weight of its payroll in 1927 but managed to wax a few splendid jazz titles before sinking. Goldkette also played a key role in hiring McKinney's Cotton Pickers to play at his ballroom in 1927. The Cotton Pickers (the musicians hated the name – most of them were college educated guys from Springfield, Ohio) became the first and most popular black band at the Graystone, which practiced strict segregation of dancers as did other ballrooms in the city.

While Black bands played for both black and white hoofers, black dancers were only allowed into the Graystone on Mondays. The Cotton Pickers' heyday was when they were led by Don Redman, who is generally considered one the architects of the big band jazz which developed in the early twenties. They also landed a recording contract which brought them some fame and national tours until 1931, when their contract expired and the Great Depression decimated the automotive and recording industries. By this time, Jean Goldkette had filed for bankruptcy, his entertainment empire in shambles.

Detroit's economy started to claw its way back to normalcy during World War II when its “Arsenal of Democracy” moniker signaled a production boom for war materiel and, after 1945, automobiles. Detroit, like the rest of the country, was awash in the sounds of the latest musical export from Manhattan – “BeBop” – and we contributed several notable players, like vibist Milt Jackson, tenorist Eli “Lucky” Thompson (both of whom worked with Charlie Parker), bassist Al McKibbon (who played in Dizzy's RCA Victor band) and drummer Art Mardigan (a journeyman who gigged with Wardell Gray, Allan Eager, and Parker).

It was the second generation of Detroit beboppers who made a deep impact on the jazz world.  This group included Thad and Elvin Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris (who will play at this year's Detroit Jazz Festival) and pianist Terry Jean Pollard. All of these soon-to-be-stars figured in the fabled early 1950s house band at the equally fabled Blue Bird Inn. Another center for modern jazz in the fifties was Klein's Showbar on 12th Street where tenorist Yusef Lateef fronted his quintet for most of the mid- and late- 1950s. This band frequently traveled to New York for recordings on major jazz labels.

Detroit jazz musicians going back to the 1920s have been handicapped by the lack of a viable recording industry in the city. The most significant record company in Detroit was of course Motown, but jazz was seldom on their radar screen, even though many Detroit musicians were gainfully employed by Motown from 1959 until 1972, when Motown decamped to Los Angeles.

Detroit is sometimes called “New Orleans of the North” due to the variety of soundscapes in the city, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Motown Sound.  It could not have come into being without a hip nexus of jazz, blues, gospel and R&B music.

The Motown Sound was largely created in the studio on Grand Boulevard by jazz musicians who used their improvisational skills to come up with the grooves to accompany the long line of talented singers who Berry Gordy invited. These musicians also had a decade's worth of experience playing in the so-called jump bands that were found in the city's African American bars.  Jump bands were hard swinging combos that combined blues or boogie-woogie rhythms and heavy backbeats with a front-line of honking saxophones. The most well-known of these groups were led by pianist Todd Rhodes, trumpeter King Porter and saxophonist Paul Williams.

A precursor to the Motown sound may be heard in Rhodes' recordings like “Rocket 69” which has elements of gospel – the call-and-response between tenor sax and ensemble, a fine bluesy tenor solo, solid piano-driven rhythm and Miss Connie Allen shoutin' the saucy lyrics.

If you want to learn more about Detroit's storied contribution to jazz, we will mount a 75 minute presentation featuring rare pictures and recordings at 4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 4, in the Pepsi Jazz Talk Tent at Woodward and Congress streets.


For a full schedule of Detroit International Jazz Festival events, including the Jazz Talk Tent schedule, click here. You also can visit their Web site with several articles about Detroit jazz musicians right here.

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  • 1

    When we were trying to save the Graystone Ballroom from Detroit's pernicious and sadly infectious disease, "DEMOLITIONitis" it was pointed out that the Big Band Sound initiated here as well.

    When I asked Count Basie if we should save the Graystone his comment was "ABSOLUTELY".

    Since I worked on the restoration of Independence Hall in Philadelphia with the initiators of the Architectural Restoration Movement in America it seemed to me that we had a veritable treasure trove of architecture that we have gotten to see destroyed.

    Demolition is a very sad thing indicating that the minds involved are bereft of intelligence and creativity.

    It is great to see that the music is being saved, but why not the architecture too?

    Fortunately there are a very small number of people who see this and try their darnedest to see that Detroit does not demolish everything, which it very conceivably could.

    When my wife and I took the kids to the Rock and Roll museum they had a display of the history of Rock and Roll. The very first record on the right was of the "Soul Spinners" and Glenda mentioned that while her Father was not on that recording he did sing with the group.

    Detroit played a roll in the invention of Rock and Roll as well and don't forget that Bill Haley was born in Highland Park and his mother played the organ in their church there.

    Elvis was a warm up act for Bill Haley and the Comets who shocked Europe and particularly England.


    Sorry for the rant on the idiocy of Demolition, I also forgot to mention the much higher cost of doing things that way. Just look at what is being done to some of our great school buildings. Costly beyond all reason.

    Don't destroy those old records and don't destroy the old buildings either.


  • 2

    Bill, I admire your quest to preserve our historic architecture and history. I feel the same way.

    In case you missed it, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is holding a contest to award a $25,000 grant to help preserve a historic bldg.

    The Woodward Avenue Action Association nominated the Ford Highland Park Plant. It all depends on public support by votes. To vote go to: and click on the tab "Vote Now for Ford Highland Park in National Contest." Hurry, the contest ends Sept. 15.

    It's difficult to see how $25,000 will make much of a difference restoring this massive structure but it's a start. I recently drove thru the Milwaukee Junction area where Detroit's auto industry began. What a tragic waste. It makes me sick to see the vandalism and decay that we are allowing to take place. We can't let the Ford plant deteriorate the way we let Milwaukee Junction and Packard.

    To every Detroit Blogger and your friends - please vote. It's easy.

  • 3

    A new book features Detroit: The New Face of Jazz:

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