Charles H. Wright Museum’s dual jazz exhibits are a step back in time

‘Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection’ and ‘Detroit Jazz: The Legacy Continues’ are on view until Feb. 2023

Oct 21, 2022 at 2:00 pm
click to enlarge Gordon Parks' "Music—That Lordly Power" from 1993 is on display at the Charles H. Wright Museum's "Jazz Greats" exhibit. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Gordon Parks' "Music—That Lordly Power" from 1993 is on display at the Charles H. Wright Museum's "Jazz Greats" exhibit.

Django Reinhardt strums his guitar while puffing on a cigarette. Billie Holiday sings her heart out with eyes that sparkle like the sequins on her dress.

These are a sample of the photos on display at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History’s new exhibit Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection. It features 31 black and white photos that capture jazz performers, engrossed fans, and the Harlem School of Dance in motion.

The exhibit opened on Friday, Sept. 21.

Photos in Jazz Greats were shot between the 1920s and 1980s and most of them are gelatin silver prints from film negatives. It reminds us of a bygone era when concerts weren’t distorted through cell phone pics and people could be present in the moment like the audiences captured in the exhibit — smiling jovially, dancing, and soaking it all in.

While the Jazz Greats exhibit immortalizes the well-known names of the genre, a companion exhibit highlights Detroit’s contributions. Across the hall, Detroit Jazz: The Legacy Continues feels like the city’s storied Paradise Valley come to life.

“[Jazz Greats] is really more of a contemporary art photography exhibition where you don’t really need to know the history of the photographs,” says Jennifer Evans, exhibitions manager for the Wright Museum. “[In Detroit Jazz] we talk more about when, what, where, and who.”

Detroit Jazz: The Legacy Continues is separated into five sections: exploring physical spaces like Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, jazz as an expression of freedom, a source of education, a form of innovation, and a spiritual vessel.

“There is a shared understanding among music scholars that jazz moved with the Great Migration as people were moving from the south to the north,” Evans says. “It really helped African Americans express feelings they had overcoming oppression, painful experiences, things that were associated with just growing up in kind of a post-enslavement environment.”

Photos in this exhibit tell visitors about Detroit jazz legends like Marcus Belgrave, Harold McKinney, and Wendell Harrison.

“Harold McKinney, Marcus Belgrave, and Wendell Harrison, in the ’70s and ’80s, really were peers to each other, but they also understood the value of mentoring younger people and the importance of helping them learn how to make money in the industry, and how to be a good musician,” says Evans, who helped curate the Detroit Jazz show.

In addition to photos and bios of Detroit jazz musicians from past to present, the exhibit includes a video clip from the Detroit Jazz City documentary from Detroit Public TV, and a video installation by New D Media called “Bird in Paradise.”

You may recognize the installation from outdoor projection mapping experience Dlectricty in 2021, when it was projected onto the Wright Museum.

“The animation really kind of shows you what jazz feels like,” Evans says.

The animated installation centers around nightlife in Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, Detroit’s bustling Black neighborhoods that were destroyed to make way for the I-375 highway. It’s set to the music of Charlie “The Bird” Parker, which brings the entire room to life.

Both Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection and Detroit Jazz: The Legacy Continues will be on view until Feb. 28, 2023. General admission to the museum is $15. For more information, see

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