A generation of young Detroit jazz musicians is on the go
by Charles L. Latimer
Tenor saxophone legend Benny Golson was set for a three-night run at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café back in April and he needed a pianist to round out his band. Word got around to one of Golson's longtime pals, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Belgrave — whose reputation around Detroit for spotting and nurturing raw jazz talent is legendary — didn't waste any time imploring Golson to hire 22-year-old jazz pianist Ian Finkelstein, a student at the University of Michigan, whom Belgrave has mentored off and on since Finkelstein was a kid. Finkelstein is an easy-to-spot thin guy with a curly Afro and wire-framed eyeglasses. On the piano, Finkelstein has the elegant manner of the late Bill Evans, whom Finkelstein lists as one of his chief heroes.
"I knew Ian was ready. He has always been very in-depth. Whatever you showed him musically, he absorbed right away. You don't see that happen often," Belgrave says.
The offer to work with Golson — the lauded composer of "Killer Joe," "I Remember Clifford," "Along Came Betty" and other classics — stunned him.
"Actually, Mr. Golson's manager called me and asked if I was interested in the job. I called my mother and my aunt to tell them I would be working with Benny Golson. I was running around the house yelling," Finkelstein recalls during a telephone interview.
That was Finkelstein's first go-round in the majors. Other juicy offers followed. Months later, for instance, Belgrave hired him to play in his band which included legendary Detroit trombonist Curtis Fuller and drummer Louis Hayes at the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival. In both cases, Finkelstein proved the perfect fit.
Finkelstein is one of a new generation of up-and-coming Detroit jazz musicians who're playing at jazz clubs such as Cliff Bell's, Northern Lights and Baker's Keyboard Lounge. The generation includes drummers Alex White, Julian Allen and Jesse Kramer, saxophonists Marcus Elliot and Rafael Statin, bassist Ben Rolston, and pianist Michael Malis. You can catch them playing in established bands or leading their own.
The wonderful thing about the members of this new generation is they've been nurtured in the classroom and as well as in the more traditional community of working musicians and on-the-job instructors. The it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-musician notion goes way back.
Pianist Barry Harris is legendary in this tradition, conducting sessions in the basement of his west side Detroit home in the 1950s. The sessions were open to any aspirants serious about playing jazz, particularly bebop. Jazz musicians such as the late Teddy Harris Jr., Donald Walden and Harold McKinney benefited from Harris' sessions. And when Harris Jr., McKinney and Walden become older, seasoned musicians, they kept that tradition, which was unofficially named the Detroit Way, alive.
Harris Jr. taught in the basement of his home in Highland Park, and McKinney at the Serengeti Ballroom on Woodward Avenue. Under their guidance, young jazz musicians learned how to run a band, media relations and how to behave as pro jazz musicians. It was an important part of the young musicians' development.
That kind of one-on-one, community-based grooming suffered major blows when Harris and McKinney died (which isn't to diminish the work of Belgrave and others who carried and carry it on).
Meanwhile, mentoring was somewhat different in academia. And when musicians fresh out of college started bands, which was once unheard of, the apprenticeship part of young jazz musician's development was sometimes lost.
In academia, the musicians were exposed to renowned jazz musicians (with such names as Rodney Whitaker, Robert Hurst, Geri Allen, Chris Collins and Marion Hayden at Wayne State, Michigan State University and U-M). And to their credit, college faculties now produce many outstanding jazz musicians. But college professors aren't necessarily available to the students 24-7 like Harris and McKinney were, Belgrave notes. And the campus classroom can't replace the traditional classroom of the stage.
For example, if Harris gave an aspiring musician some exercises to practice and that aspirant was up late into the night practicing, and he got stuck on a certain exercise, he could call Harris much as a peer and get the master out of bed. That's a far cry from the academic world of syllabi and meetings during posted office hours.
"That's a horrible situation," Belgrave says. "The young guys not getting a chance to work with the seniors who had been out there for years, so the young guys were left listening and absorbing things that they heard from recordings."
Fortunately, Harris' style of community-based grooming continues with seasoned jazz musicians such as Paul Keller, RJ Spangler, and Geri Allen, Robert Hurst and Marion Hayden (some of whom also teach in academia, thankfully blurring the distinction between the two sides of the ivy). They have taken the young jazz musicians under their wings, and the youngsters have shown they're worthy.
When drummer Jesse Kramer graduated from U-M last year, he had already worked in bands led by bassist Paul Keller and pianist Claude Black, nationally respected jazz musicians. Kramer is one of the most tasteful young jazz drummers on the Detroit jazz scene. There's no pretense to his playing, and he understands the role of a jazz drummer. That's something Kramer attributes to working with Keller.
"At the time I started working with Paul, I wasn't the most qualified drummer out there, but Paul took me in. After a show, he would pull me aside and let me know everything I was doing wrong, and sometimes he would yell at me," Kramer recalls.
Kramer didn't leave U-M with any delusions about his chops. He knew he wasn't ready to start his own band right away. That was years away, he figured.
The same held true for pianist Michael Malis, another U-M grad and currently a first-call player with ties to the great Geri Allen. Right now, Malis holds the piano chair in the Planet D Nonet, and he's a regular in Dennis Coffey's band along with the up-and-coming bassist Damon Warmack. Playing in the bands is an extension of his musical education, Malis says. To him, the Detroit jazz scene is a nurturing environment and an ideal place for young jazz musicians trying to make a name.
"The Detroit jazz community has been wonderful and very open in terms of the older generation, such as guys like RJ Spangler, John Douglas and Dennis Coffey giving me opportunities to play and to grow.
"Here in Detroit, it's less of a jazz scene and more of a jazz community. The musicians are the kind of people who will visit you in the hospital, or ask you how your wife is doing and genuinely mean it," Malis says.
Unlike Kramer and Malis, some of their peers felt they were ready to start bands and hit the recording studio immediately after graduating college. And they went about the business of creating recording and employment opportunities for themselves.
Tenor saxophonist Marcus Elliot has been hot since he graduated from Michigan State University in 2011. When bassist Robert Hurst left the Tonight Show Band, he returned to Detroit and formed a band. He hired Elliot right away on the recommendation of several key jazz figures in Detroit familiar with Elliot's skills. This year, Elliot dropped an outstanding debut album, Looking Forward, and he leads a trio every Tuesday at Cliff Bell's, blowing post-bop mixed with elements of free jazz much like tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.
Elliot says he wants to be like his idol saxophonist Wayne Shorter, recognized foremost for his composing. All the cuts on Looking Forward are Elliot originals.
Bassist Ben Rolston, who's a member of Elliot's trio, made a free-jazz-friendly album this year, Fables. Rolston is a young jazz bassist who's intimately hip to the lineage of great jazz bassists from Detroit and otherwise. Rolston's touch is like the late bassist Scott LaFaro's, and like Elliot, Rolston cut all originals. He believes in due time the focal point of his career will also be his composing.
Rafael Statin is the up-and-coming hellraiser who seems to have received the most praise. Statin's tenor acumen has been likened to James Carter's by many Detroit jazz faithful who caught Statin at weekly jam sessions around town and leading at Cliff Bell's. But some veteran jazz musicians such as Belgrave feels Statin is still in the formative leg of his development, so comparing him to Carter is a bit much. But the youngster is serious and he can blow. He's already worked in New York with drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts and Robert Hurst, and Statin is rumored to be taking private lessons from saxophonist Kenny Garrett.
Players in the new generation of Detroit jazz musicians take their careers seriously. When you go to clubs to hear them, they project a high level of self-assurance and professionalism unusual for their ages. Belgrave says they're old souls in young musician's bodies. That they understand the value of Detroit's rich jazz history, and they seem determined to contribute to that jazz history. Right now, they're on course, and keeping Detroit's jazz scene going. Watching Finkelstein and his peers develop is exciting. Clubs owners feel the youngsters are good enough to represent their club, and jazz veterans consider them to be of first-call caliber.
"These young guys amaze me," Belgrave says. "Detroit has always had that special thing and this new breed of young jazz musicians absorbs so much. Anytime I get an opportunity to use them I'm going to."
Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]