Of bugs and basses

When Marion Hayden was a little girl, she didn’t play with dolls. She played with bugs.

The bass came later.

While other girls were playing house and arranging Barbies in compromising positions, Hayden rejoiced in roaming the neighborhood with her friends, collecting creepy-crawlies by the jarful. She and her cohorts would then spread out their prized treasures, studying them in detail for hours.

Today, Hayden is regarded as one of the best jazz bassists in the nation. But, if she hadn’t taken one pivotal leap of faith, she might still be studying bugs.

Hayden’s parents were avid music lovers, and she was raised in a household of “Gershwin and jazz.” She wanted to play bass from an early age, but her young frame was too small for the imposing instrument, so she began the cello at age 9 in the Detroit Public Schools.

Once she reached a suitable height, she started on the upright bass. It was love at first note.

“I knew I wanted to play jazz,” says Hayden. “When I got my bass, it was no-holds-barred.”

She studied classical music throughout her grade-school years, and played jazz with friends after class. Her first gig came at age 14, courtesy of jazz great Marcus Belgrave.

When it came time for Hayden to attend college, she didn’t study music, instead pursuing a liberal arts degree at the University of Michigan. Still, she continued to play and gig in her spare time.

“My involvement in music was never dependent on being affiliated with an institution,” she says. “It was always part of my life anyway.”

Hayden then ventured to Michigan State University for grad school, where she returned to her childhood fascination — bugs. After studying in MSU’s entomology department, she was offered a job by the Michigan Department of Agriculture. For nearly 10 years, Hayden worked in the field, performing diagnostics on insect infestations and similar work.

In between her fieldwork, Hayden co-founded an all-female jazz group, Straight Ahead, in 1989. The band quickly gained a loyal following and high-profile gigs. A record deal with Atlantic soon followed.

Hayden then came to a crucial turning point in her life. She quit her job and became a full-time musician.

“It’s funny because I never would have thought of myself as a risk-taker,” says Hayden. “But, you have to be willing to listen to that little voice inside of you, because it just might be the one to show you the way.”

As it turns out, the voice was right. The former entomologist is now in high demand in the jazz community, both locally and nationwide.

“She’s the first-call bassist in most cities across the country,” says Hayden’s former instructor, jazz horn player Ernie Rodgers.

Hayden lives in Highland Park with her husband, artist Saffell Gardner, and two sons, Asukile, 12, and Michael, 6. She’s one of those rare people who radiates a continuous warmth and energy and exuberantly talks a mile a minute. When asked her age, she roars with laughter and refuses to divulge the information.

“Let’s just say I’m over 35,” she answers with a broad grin.

Hayden taught bass for seven years at a community college in Cleveland, and is now in her second year of instruction at U-M’s jazz studies program. She was also the co-founder of the “Sisters in Jazz” mentorship program, which paired professional women jazz musicians with young female hopefuls. The program has now spread across the nation.

The jazz world was notoriously sexist in the 1930s and 1940s. While women were favored as vocalists, few played instruments. Though much has changed, those lingering sentiments still surface from time to time. Hayden has firsthand experience.

“There is a cadre of people that are really ignorant and feel that women musicians aren’t up to it,” she says, raising an eyebrow in distaste. “And too bad for them, because they could be missing out on some really bright moments.”

“Sometimes I figure people have reasons for wondering why they would have a woman on bass. But they have to know [the bandleader] is not likely to have a bass player up there who’s not going to take care of business. I don’t pay any attention to them, because I know I wouldn’t be there if I wasn’t taking care of it.”

In fact, Hayden says the ignorance of a certain few has actually helped solidify her commitment to music.

“There were a couple of people here and there who were particularly needlesome — not just unsupportive, but went out of their way to make me feel uncomfortable. I had to ask myself why I was playing, and the answer was because I loved doing it. And my love for the instrument had nothing to do with what anybody else thought about me; it was just because I loved doing it. Sometimes you have to get a little bit of resistance so you know how strong your resolve really is.

“I had to ask myself, am I just going to let this person make me feel like I shouldn’t be here? Or am I going to say, forget you, I’m here because I’m here and you ain’t got nothing to do with it?”

The answer for Hayden was clear.

“I will be here,” she says with a smile.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]
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