New music espresso

Share on Nextdoor
The Cup of Socrates, the Raven, the Minor Key, the Unstable -- at the end of the '50s, these were just some of the beat generation coffeehouses sprouting up like dandelions in the well-trimmed lawn of mainstream Detroit culture. Storefronts painted black, avocado green or deep purple drew crowds of high school and college kids in Dobie Gillis sweatshirts, thick-rimmed shades and weekend beards to smoky performances of poetry, folk music and jazz. Self-conscious terminal hipness was the fashionable disease of the hour.

But something authentic happened in those places nonetheless. The Raven featured Odetta, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and became the town's premier folk venue. The Unstable was home to after-hours jam sessions of bebop and then free jazz. And the Minor Key shifted from fifth-rate poetasting with bongos to sets by the quintet of hometown jazz genius Yusef Lateef, and then to transcendent apparitions by the likes of Monk, Mingus, Miles, Coltrane and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

The coffeehouse phenomenon erupted in the Eisenhower years and cooled off in the '60s, but not before it had given us all a lesson in the principle of "available space." If the dominant culture wouldn't nurture something we needed, then we'd water the roses ourselves. If capitalism was going to eat its young, decimate old-style downtowns with creeping mall-itis and homogenize creativity into pure product, then we'd have to (rock 'n') roll our own.

Now, as if the idea took root deep in the collective unconscious and put forth its shoots again, coffeehouses are back in the performance business. The concept of available space, so extensively applied by counter-culture entrepreneurs of all kinds, is thriving again in the java connection all over greater Motown.

Of the many metro caffeine scenes offering live music, words and a sense of community, a particularly fertile venue is Xhedos Cafe at 240 W. Nine Mile in Ferndale, nearing its first anniversary. On Saturday, owners Keri and Caleb Grayson will celebrate one year of innovative programming as an adjunct to serving some of the finest joe in town. The program that night will include the folk compositions of singer-guitarist Gretchen Busan, as well as the kickoff to the cafe's patio promotion, another thoughtful addition to the Xhedos project.

In fact, "thoughtful" is a fitting word for this establishment; another could be "idealistic." Caleb thinks of the cafe as "a place for truth-seekers and beauty-makers."

He gladly relates the feelings of musicians who've played there and been impressed by the first-rate sound system and the attentiveness of Xhedos' clientele. "Part of the fact is that I care," he proclaims with obvious enthusiasm for his task.

The Graysons have gone out of their way to make things right for performers and audience alike. Cappuccinos are frothed to the rhythm of a song, so as to intrude as little as possible on the sound. No one prods a customer into consuming more than he or she needs. And an imaginative approach to programming has made space available to a wide range of alternative truth and beauty:

* Tuesday night's "Lounge Futura" features ambient-techno sounds, with four groups of DJs in residence.

* Wednesday night provides an "Open Mic" to the folk and poetry scenes, where Ferndale poet Cyddie and others participate weekly.

* Thursday's "Radioflyer" is a Detroit music showcase, the rich variety of which has been videotaped by Caleb since late last winter for broadcast on public access television.

* Every fourth Thursday is "Songwriters in the Round" night, a much-appreciated custom of musical sharing.

* Fridays and Saturdays are devoted to a cornucopia of styles and approaches, with the frequent scheduling assistance of Detroit's New Music Society.

Recent headliners have included avant-garde jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, jazz syncretist Wayne Horowitz, seminal concept artist Carey Loren and friends in a tribute to John Cage, as well as experimental aggregations such as the North Woods Improvisers, Larval, Noise Gate and Laughing Gas. On Aug. 14-16, Xhedos will host its first Neo-Avant Noise Rock Festival, featuring three bands each night. The Graysons' idea: Open the doors and they will come, musicians and public alike.

With advanced degrees in fine arts-photography (Keri) and philosophy and Greek (Caleb), the Graysons seem to have picked the road of most resistance. What are these intellectual kids doing out there in the Saturday morning wrestling ring of the business world? But rather than liabilities, they've turned their aesthetic and philosophical talents into their most reliable strengths.

The first thing anyone notices on entering the cafe is the smart, tranquil solidity of the decor. Dark but not somber, minimal but not severe, it says "cool" and "collected" and "inviting." It's a kind of visual essay on the need for a place of concentration in our daily grind.

The stage is right in the front window box, giving a unique air of transparency to any show, like at the old Metropole Jazz Cafe in Manhattan where patrons and passers-by alike had a view of the proceedings.

The implied formula here is: Music + everyday life = awareness. We hear the music (from all sides) and see the world, then are left with an inescapable clarity.

Somehow this experience of thoughtfulness is one that attracts customers from all walks of life: local businessmen on a break, downtown Ferndale shoppers, poets, improvisers, artists, neighbors.

Caleb often can be found at a table discussing ideas with coffee drinkers who don't know he's an owner. The gap of alienation created by corporate capital between seller and buyer is bridged and negated when the goal of business is other than maximum profit, when space has been made available for communication.

Caleb's philosophical roots are showing as he describes either a great piece of music from the night before or a sublime cup of coffee -- or both:

"Wherever you experience that perfection, it's like an icon into the nature of God" -- which is to say that, at Xhedos, truth and beauty are quite tangible things. George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]

Scroll to read more Local Music articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.