Bopping to the top

"We find it hard to stay away from each other,” says Mark Byerly of his band, Bop Culture. The jazz trumpeter isn’t being facetious when he makes this statement; there is a genuine love connection between the members of his band — and no, there’s nothing romantic or seedy about that. It just seems as though these guys were destined to be together.

In the back yard of Byerly’s Royal Oak home, three-fourths of the band sits down to talk to Metro Times. Each week, they gather here to practice and record and, of course, have a few beers. They are a relaxed lot, the laughs come easily.

Such high spirits are no surprise, as Bop Culture has been gigging steadily at such local haunts as the Firefly Club in Ann Arbor, the Harlequin Café in Detroit, and D-town’s most popular jazz spot, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. In 2003, the quartet won a talent contest that garnered them a spot at the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival. When asked about the increasing success of the band, bandmates Byerly, pianist Rick Roe and drummer Bill Higgins agree that it must be their compatibility that keeps them focused.

“I guess, looking back, we never had to work at our musical relationship,” says Byerly.

The band, which started in 2000, began as a duo comprising Byerly and Roe, but before long developed into a quartet that would include local bassist (and leader of his own big band orchestra) Paul Keller. Originally calling themselves the Rick Roe Quartet, they would eventually adopt the more appropriate alias, Bop Culture.

Byerly explains, “What we always try to keep in mind is that the group is a collective effort.”

And it is. The band is truly the sum of their many years in the biz.

Byerly, a Grand Rapids native, grew up in a household filled with music. His grandfather, also a trumpeter, inspired him to pick up the instrument at the age of 11. He fondly recalls the days when he and his granddad would play duets together.

“I grew up sitting around the piano singing standards with my family like ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ and ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ If you wanted to avoid music in my house you would have had to pack up and move out,” Byerly says.

The constant exposure to music must have rubbed off on him, as Byerly would go on to share a stage with such luminaries as trumpeters Woody Shaw and Marcus Belgrave, and pianist Mulgrew Miller.

Higgins, though the youngest member of the band, has the heart of a veteran drummer. He developed his chops while growing up in Germany, where his father, an engineer in the Army, was stationed. He says that his cousins first introduced him to the drums, and the rest is rhythmic history.

Rick Roe, the creative force of the group, has recorded three albums of his own: Monk’s Modern Music, The Changeover and The Late, Late Show. Like Byerly, he has performed with a wide range of local and national jazz musicians, including saxophonist Donald Walden, trumpeter Marcus Printup and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. In 1994, he won The Great American Jazz Piano Competition.

And while they have all achieved individual successes and developed their own unique styles, many say that, as an ensemble, they hark back to the sort of controlled freedom that experts often associate with Miles Davis’s great quintet of the 1960s. Flattered by the comparison (though somewhat confounded by it), the members of Bop Culture admit that they have no desire to be emulative.

“Of course we love that music, but it has never been a conscious effort to make our band sound like other bands. I love Miles, Rick loves Herbie [Hancock], and Bill loves Tony Williams, so how can you avoid those kind of influences?” Byerly explains.

This is evident on their eponymous 2002 freshman release, a mixture of familiar standards and probing modal compostions by Byerly and Roe. Their sophomore release is to be all original compositions.

It’s not that Byerly and company were dissatisfied with the first disc; they loved it. They just don’t want to be regarded as a band that recycles music.

“I would personally like to see the band start playing and recording more original material. … We have a lot of music of our own that we want to explore,” Byerly explains.

And like any gigging musicians, they are excited about their growing popularity. For them, the real reward comes with being onstage together.

“When you have a great band of cats that actually like being together and playing together that just increases your percentage of furthering the band’s success,” Roe says.


Bop Culture is part of the free Marshall Field’s Day of Music at the Max M. Fisher Music Center (3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Performers from the DSO to Derrick May play from noon Saturday, Aug. 7, to noon Sunday, Aug. 8. Bop Culture performs Saturday at 10 p.m. Call 313-576-5111 for more info.

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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