Wild about Harry

At first the conversation was just about the unjustly obscure Harry P. Guy — and jazz activists Barbara and Kenn Cox’s work to bring him out of the shadows. But with only a little prodding the subject matter grew broader as the Coxes shared memories of clubs, scenes, characters; stories of kids grown into musicians of note and of musicians of note now gone; stories in which the Coxes starred, stories in which they were walk-ons, and stories, like Guy’s, that they had adopted as their own.

They were sitting in their riverfront apartment surrounded by a mini-history in jazz in photos, prints and paintings on their walls. “Harry” — the Coxes are both on a first-name basis with him — had been on their minds since the early ’80s, when former Detroiter Herb Boyd wrote a groundbreaking essay on the early, pre-jazz history of African-American music in Detroit.

Guy was a “musical genius,” Boyd wrote, a pianist, organist, composer and arranger, a bridge between European classical music and the music of the African-American church. He wrote arrangements for vaudeville stars such as Sophie Tucker and Bert Williams. He wrote for the local Theodore Finney’s Orchestra — a group that caught the ear of the great W.C. Handy. Since Boyd’s essay, musical scholars Nan Bostick and Arthur LaBrew have brought to light more about Guy’s life and Detroit’s significant role in the ragtime era.

Barbara was intrigued by this proto-jazzman’s connection to her church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal, where he was organist for 12 years. Kenn was captivated by Harry’s ability to finesse both sides of the secular-sacred musical divide.

“He’d take a sabbatical and go out and work the riverboats,” notes Barbara.

“That’s what gabbed me, the dichotomy — the so-called dichotomy,” replies Kenn.

And Guy’s activism — he was an early music unionist in the city — resonated with both Coxes.

Kenn, among other projects over the years, spearheaded Strata Records and Gallery in the ’60s and ’70s, which put out records by Detroit artists, and presented Detroiters and national acts that the promoters in town generally wouldn’t, from Sam Rivers to Chick Corea. (Herbie Hancock, Kenn recalls, was the “angel” who’d bring his band to play dirt cheap “when the cash flow was getting weird.”)

Barbara, meanwhile, has been a mover and shaker in the Societie of the Culturally Concerned. She’s currently the director; Kenn, the creative consultant. Formed to host a single reception in the ’80s, the group became a going concern.

“We became a Robin Hood organization. We helped where we could,” she says.

By Barbara’s count, SCC has given recognition awards to 120 people, not just musicians, but also visual artists, theologians, thespians, you name it.

A few years ago, the Societie started raising funds to put a stone on the unmarked grave into which Harry Guy, who died a pauper, was lowered in 1950. Fundraising started and stalled. And one night, Barbara, says, it was if Harry were speaking directly to her.

“Finally he said, ‘This is it: You’re gonna put a stone on my grave.’ It woke me up. I told Kenn that morning, this is something we’ve got to do. … If that’s the end of the Societie, we’re gonna put this stone on his grave,” she recalls.

And after rustling up some more money and doing some archival sleuthing to establish July 17 as the date of Harry’s birth in 1870 — the stone is to be laid this Saturday at 11 a.m. at Elmwood Cemetery. The Gabriel Traditional New Orleans Jazz Band will lead a slow-gaited New Orleans-style funeral procession from the cemetery gate to the gravesite; afterward there’ll be an exuberant second-line parade back to the parking lot. Ragtime specialist Mike Montgomery and Taslimah’s Ragtime Ensemble will play Guy’s rarely heard music at a 1 p.m. luncheon at Bert’s on Broadway.

The message in this, says Kenn, is that people like Harry P. Guy shouldn’t be forgotten, particularly in the African-American community. You don’t want to bury yourself in your history, he says, but you need to stand on it.

For the Coxes, music and musical history are very much the fabric of their personal history. Barbara recalled a chain of events that goes something like this: Ed Love (the disc jockey) introduced her to Bill McLarney (then Detroit correspondent for Down Beat magazine) who suggested that she gather up friends to help bolster the crowd for the trombonist George Bohanon as he started a new gig at the now-defunct Village Gate. That was when she met Kenn, the band’s “poor, pitiful piano player.” A little later, she invited the band to her birthday party, but Kenn somehow failed to get the word. Eventually, she had him over for a lunch get-together with some friends, after which a prescient chum noted the chemistry: “You’ve got something on your hands, girlfriend.”

They started dating. Neither seems to remember how the subject of marriage came up, but on July 1, 1967, they jumped the broom.

They recalled with laughter, and sometimes awe, the years. There was the night Coltrane’s bassist Jimmy Garrison played a solo that said, implicitly, “Segovia, Pablo Casals, they could hang it up.” There was the jazz club bartender nicknamed “Wham,” whose legal problems led to the still laugh-worthy quip “Wham’s in the slam.” There was the time that Donald Byrd wanted help setting up a recording session at the fabled Blue Bird Inn. The session never came to fruition, but it led to seven years of annual reunions for the old Blue Bird crowd. Says Barbara, “It had such an impact on that whole community. We had politicians. We had numbers men. We had the whole gamut.”

And someday, they’ll be chuckling the same way and thinking back to the day that Harry Guy got his headstone.


Elmwood Cemetery is at East Lafayette and McDougall, Detroit. Bert’s on Broadway is at 1315 Broadway at Gratiot. Donation to attend the luncheon is $25 per person. Reservations suggested. Call 313-393-3044.

W. Kim Heron is Metro Times managing editor. E-mail [email protected]

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