This is our music

Tracing the roots of Motor City jazz, from McKinney’s Cotton Pickers to bop.

At least in books, jazz fans have long been able to stroll the red-light district of New Orleans with Jelly Roll Morton, ride Mississippi riverboats where King Oliver and Louis Armstrong’s cornets pealed shoreward, and hang out from sundown to the next morning’s steak breakfast while listening to Kansas City swing. Los Angeles’ Central Avenue where Emery “Moose the Mooch” Byrd sold pot, smack and bop discs at his shoeshine stand … the South Side of Chicago where a trumpet held in the busy night air would supposedly play itself … New York’s Cotton Club, Minton’s and the Five Spot: Jazz histories — particularly in a boom of the last 20 years — are filling in the story of how our national music spread and developed nationwide.

That’s where Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert fit in. Without a Detroit book to shelve alongside the tomes on any number of other jazz artists, styles and cities, jazz heads around town have been pestering them for years about the progress of the book. And now that it’s here, it is likely to stand for many years as the book on the subject, the key to imagining the swell of music around dancers at the Graystone Ballroom in the ’20s, or the heated experimentation at the Blue Bird Inn in the ’50s … or the Motown studios of the ’60s which created the best-known music ever to emanate from this town.

Bjorn and Gallert build on the case that a key to Motown’s success was a community of jazz-steeped musicians who could turn the rough notions of songwriters and producers into such sophisticated pop craft as “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (to mention hits of just one spring and summer).

“We’re all jazz musicians, so we did it on the spot. It was like having a jam session,” recalled the late saxophonist Thomas “Beans” Bowles, in one of the 93 oral-history interviews that Bjorn and Gallert conducted and draw upon. Writing in his autobiography, To Be Loved, and quoted here, Berry Gordy Jr. doffed his hat to the men who made the music (and his fortune): “They did all kinds of stuff — always pushing me to the limit and beyond.” So much for the analogy between Motown Records and the auto plant assembly lines. Motown may have had a process for creating its product, but creativity rather than routine was its essence.

And how did Motown’s all-essential cadre of musicians come to be?

The authors begin when various pre-jazz strains mingled in the city early in the century. By the 1920s, hometown piano players like Big Maceo were performing blues at house parties, and blues empress Bessie Smith’s traveling revue was packing the downtown Koppin Theatre. “Society” bands, like those of Fisk University-trained Ben Shook were playing a mix from light waltzes to ragtime, setting the scene for the arrival of full-fledged jazz, epitomized here by Jean Goldkette’s orchestra (Bix Beiderbecke was among his stars) and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.

McKinney’s group is credited with shaping the new music more than any other band in the Midwest, thanks to innovative arranging and ace musicians. (One wishes Bjorn and Gallert had shared Gunther Schuller’s claim that for a time even Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson “were no match … in terms of consistent inventiveness and performance standards.”)

The music evolved into swing while shifting from ballrooms, such as the Graystone, to smaller nightspots in the burgeoning African-American community. And the music reached another high point as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker electrified the ’40s scene.

In another oral history, the recently deceased Harold McKinney recalled his first jolt of Parker. A couple of cats at the soda fountain suggested that the teenager play A-25 and B-30 on the jukebox: “The stuff hit me like an electrode to the base of my brain; I jumped around like a jack-in-the-box; the music tickled my innards. … I was never the same since.”

Nor was Detroit jazz. Parker’s innovations spurred an altogether remarkable generation of musicians, many of whom eventually migrated to New York and invigorated the national scene: Milt Jackson, the Jones brothers of Pontiac (Hank, Elvin and Thad), Pepper Adams, Donald Byrd, Yusef Lateef, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, to name only some of the most famous.

The stories of the musicians are here — plenty of them being rescued from obscurity — as are the stories of the clubs where they played. Maps pinpoint the sites where music once soared. The old advertisements and vintage playbills and photographs alone are a gold mine. Some 200-plus, easily accessible footnotes back up and elaborate on the text.

Befitting Bjorn’s background — he’s a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn — this is very much a social history; music always runs parallel to the story of the city and the interplay of black and white: migrations and segregation, who lived where, who played, who danced, who owned, who chafed, who mingled, who protested.

But where the book fails is in sometimes choppy prose that rarely marshals facts into a compelling narrative. Along with the personnel shifts of the seminal Club Congo Orchestra, one wants more about what the musicians and the audiences felt, what the music did to their heads, more electrodes to the brain.

Still Bjorn and Gallert could have published their raw field notes and interviews and made a contribution to jazz scholarship and pestering jazz heads. They’ve done far more than that.

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