Marcus Belgrave, Detroit jazz icon, dead at 78

May 26, 2015 at 9:26 am

Jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, a musical icon to generations of Detroiters and musicians, passed away on Sunday. He was 78 years old.

Fans of the affable musician had grown accustomed to seeing him breathing with the aid of oxygen due to heart and pulmonary problems. Belgrave suffered from pneumonia several times in recent years had taken to wintering in California for his health. On Sunday morning, the musician with the big smile and soulful musical skills, passed away while he slept.

His wife, vocalist Joan Bow Belgrave, was tearful as she discussed his last day. Belgrave had been scheduled to perform at the Concert of Colors in July and was going over the music they planned to play.

“He was okay yesterday,” says Joan. “He played his horn, some music from the Ray Charles book that we were planning to use. He talked about how he was going to get out of rehab and not do much of anything. … He was playing his intro to “You Don’t Know Me” and having some trouble with it. I told him that was OK because he had a long time to practice.”

But Belgrave neither had time nor was he good at not doing much of anything. He was always stirring up some musical gumbo.

Marcus Belgrave was born in 1936 in Chester, Pennsylvania, and began learning to play trumpet at 12. As a teenager he met Clifford Brown and took some instruction and inspiration from the legendary bebop trumpeter. In 1958 Belgrave joined Ray Charles and traveled with him for most of the next five years, mixing in stints with Yusef Lateef, Max Roach and Charles Mingus.

He settled in Detroit in 1963, and later taught jazz at the Metropolitan Arts Complex where he began what is probably is most lasting legacy, mentoring young musicians who have gone on to become major influences in the world of jazz. Through the likes of pianist Geri Allen, bassists Rodney Whitaker and Robert Hurst, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, violinist Regina Carter and drummer Ali Jackson all came under the tutelage of the Belgrave’s consummate musicianship.

In the 1970s he was also a principal member of the Tribe music and media collective during the 1970s, playing avant garde music with saxophonist Wendell Harrison and pianist Harold McKinney. He released his album “Gemini,” which has become a cult classic on the Tribe label.
Belgrave’s career has included performing and/or recording with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin, McCoy Tyner, David “Fathead” Newman, B.B. King, Art Hodes and Charlie Gabriel.

Belgrave went on to play in Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz At Lincoln Center orchestra; he was named a Jazz Master by Arts Midwest in the early 1990s and toured North Africa and the Middle East with co-Jazz Masters Harrison, McKinney and drummer Roy Brooks. In the 2000s he released several recordings with his wife and Gabriel.

In 2001 he formed a Louis Armstrong tribute band with Gabriel and toured nationally for several years playing the seminal jazz recorded by Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven groups of the 1920s. In recent years he was named a Detroit Jewel by the Detroit City Council, took a teaching post at Oberlin and was named received a Kresge Eminent Artist prize.

Belgrave is survived by his wife and four children. His son Hassan Belgrave is a saxophonist who performs in the Detroit area.

For all the jazz royalty he has been associated with and all the accolades Belgrave has received, he always remained a down-to-earth, approachable person who continued to give advice youngsters about the technicalities of music and the challenges of life as a musician. Until his health slowed him down he was just as likely to play a wedding, funeral or backyard birthday party as he was to step onstage at Carnegie Hall.

Belgrave’s career and musical mastery encompassed the entire trajectory of the first 100 year of jazz, from the New Orleans traditional through swing, bebop and jazz rock fusion, to avant garde explorations. No history of Detroit jazz could ever be written without numerous references to him, and the development jazz has taken in Detroit would be very different had Marcus Belgrave settled elsewhere.

Services for Marcus Belgrave will be Saturday at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit. The time has not yet been determined.