An icon passes: Faruq Z. Bey

Saxophonist-composer-poet symbolized a movement

Those he touched wanted to share in his wake, to talk about the way his music had knocked them down or opened them up or raised their intellects — or touched them spiritually as well as musically. How he personified a creative essence or sound or a scene or an era — or even a city.

Faruq Z. Bey was the leader and central figure in Griot Galaxy, the group that, through the 1970s and 1980s, defined the jazz avant-garde more than any other in Detroit. 

In their early days, they were regulars at Cobb's Corner (at the corner of Cass and Willis), along with groups led by Marcus Belgrave and Lyman Woodard and others. But even in that scene, Griot had its own niche, with 10 or so musicians crowded onstage, sounding like even more with an approach that borrowed from Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and others on the cutting edge.

"They had a small, highly energetic and very supportive group of people who loved what they were doing ... a lot of artists, painters, a lot of poets, a lot of writers were interested in the band," the writer Kofi Natambu said for a 2003 profile of Bey. And along with the music, Natambu recalled, the audience was drawn to the "the visionary aspect of what Griot Galaxy was doing." 

They distilled their sound (three-sax, bass, drum) and stage presence around 1980 — Bey plus Tony Holland, David McMurray, Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal. With Eastern and African garb and metallic face paint, an aura of ritual, and music that was intensely — and sometimes hypnotically — rhythmic, they were a band that should've made it out of Detroit, an avant-garde band that could reach fans who might not otherwise be listening to the style at all.

And Griot Galaxy might've become more widely known outside of Detroit but not for a mid-1980s motorcycle crash that left Bey first comatose and then partially paralyzed. The band made appearances with and without the recovering Faruq, and finally dissolved in acrimony. 

Post-Griot, Bey re-emerged slowly, mainly in the last decade, leading his own groups and collaborating with others, particularly the Northwoods Improvisers; Griot left behind two full LPs; Bey recorded nearly a dozen with the Improvisers and continued to influence younger musicians. 

More than a musician, he was a poet, a philosopher and more an old-school philologist than a modern linguist. He could digress on the word "hey" in conversation, and deliver a treatise on a more loaded word like "jazz." ("Avant-garde," by the way, he wasn't fond of, citing its military origins: advance troops tend to get wiped out in clash.) 

Faruq, who turned 70 on Feb. 4, had been in ill health with emphysema for many years; his oxygen tank was a constant companion. He had performed as recently as April with the group Box Deserter in Hamtramck. He was to be featured in the Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue as part of the Concert of Colors in July. His book Toward a "Ratio"nal Aesthetic was to be reissued this fall in conjunction with an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit on Afro-futurism (a term that fit Griot Galaxy and Bey perfectly). 

He'd been in contact with friends on Thursday, but couldn't be reached Friday, raising concerns. He was subsequently found dead at his Detroit home on Saturday, apparently of natural causes; no cause of death has been determined.

Tuesday afternoon, 250 or so mourners gathered at the Muslim Mosque and Community Center, off Davison near the Lodge, to pay respects before Faruq's burial at Knollwood Cemetery in Canton. There were numerous remembrances of Bey the artist and philosopher and friend. Performance poet and artist Ann Holdreith recalled the time he explained that he'd once had ambitions to become an automotive designer "until I heard Coltrane and it ruined me.”

And although even the most casual acquaintance would know that Islam had been important to Faruq's life, few of his secular-world friends seemed to know that he was considered one of the founders of orthodox Islam in African-American Detroit in the early '70s.

According to his obituary, the First African Primal Rhythm Arkestra and the Bey Family — which are at the root of the Griot Galaxy story — also led to the genesis of the Masjid As Salaam, with Faruq as a founding member along with Imam Muhammad Jalil Bey, Imam Mubarrak Mutakalim and Imam Abdul Hakim Halim.

With those gathered nodding heads in agreement, one of the imams on Tuesday described Faruq as someone who "spoke and acted as a person with a Harvard education as opposed to someone from the west side of Detroit.”


Meanwhile, comments and reflections on Faruq's life continue to be added to the Music Blahg post started Saturday, along with links to videos and audios, including a link to a rare 1984 video recording of Griot Galaxy. These are excerpts from the comment thread:


From James Cornish, trumpeter, who last played with Bey in April: 

One only had to listen to him for a few notes to realize that he was coming from a very, very deep place. He had this unique tone on his sax that was both warm and agitated. You could feel his pain, but you were also mesmerized by the depth of his heart. His sound was bigger than life. It had me in a trance every time he played.

He played with his oxygen tank right up to the end. That says it all.


From Gilda Snowden, artist, who sought advice from Bey on how to get the natural, dreadlock hairstyle (another way in which Bey was a local pioneer): 

At first he wouldn't share the secret with me, saying, "Why do you want to go through all this?" When I pleaded with him to share "the way," he then told me to just "be natural, don't force it, let it flow."

It occurred to me much later that what he was telling me about the rediscovery of my hair also was a template for the creation of art.


From Tyrone Williams, poet: 

He was a generous man, a giant talent as humble and as wickedly funny as any musician I've known.


From jazz historian Jim Gallert: 

A conversation with Faruq always raised my intellectual level. I know he scuffled the last few years, probably longer, but his spiritual strength and musical resolve never wavered.


From M.L. Liebler: 

Faurq Z. Bey was my hero first who became my close friend in the mid-1980s. ... We traveled together, we wrote together, we yelled at each other, we talked for hours about everything from Rush Limbaugh's idiocy (he loved talk radio) to gossiping about our friends, about our shared deep faith in God, and in many ways we saved each other.


From Melba Joyce Boyd, Wayne State University faculty member and poet:

He impacted our consciousness and our creativity. We are who we are because he was who he was. 


From Skeeter Shelton, saxophonist and frequent bandmate, who compared the loss to losing his father, the drummer Ajaramu: 

I just can't believe it — my big brother is gone. I can't stop crying.


From Mike Johnston, Northwoods Improvisers bassist and bandmate: 

I believe that Faruq was a real giant, a master of communication via the spoken word or the played soulful note. ... Frequently when someone would ask Faruq if he wanted to attempt to play something he would respond: "I ain't scared."


W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. See to see more (or add to) comments about Faruq Z. Bey's life and art, also for links to past coverage, videos and audios

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