The Detroit Way

On the west side of Detroit, 17-year-old Charles Wilson sits at his grandmother's Baldwin piano trying to figure out the complex chord voicings to a musical arrangement given to him by his teacher, pianist Teddy Harris. Harris has been teaching Wilson for nine years and knows the young musician can play anything he gives him.

"What makes him exceptional is he doesn't want to do anything but play the piano. He has learned his lessons well. Right now he can substitute for me. If I don't feel like going to a job I can say, 'Charles, go do this gig for me,' and he can do it," Harris says.

Across town, at the Detroit Jazz Heritage Performance Lab Workshop, musicologist and pianist Harold McKinney grabs his walking cane, pulls himself up from a folding chair, walks over to his 16-year-old protégé Mario Sampson, and instructs him on the right tempo to play when accompanying a vocalist: "You have to force her to reach or else she's going to be self-conscious. I want something underneath her. Get underneath her, build her. Let me hear you articulate every note."

In his office on the campus of the University of Michigan, saxophonist and professor Donald Walden sits across from a student, trombonist Vincent Chandler. He shares some philosophies that have helped him deal with the peaks and valleys of being a jazz musician. He tells Chandler that it's 30 percent talent, 30 percent science and 30 percent business, but the most important abilities are desire and determination.

"You can have all kinds of natural ability, but if you don't have the desire then you probably won't do it," Walden explains. "The ones who are going to be successful at mastering this art have to understand that it's a solitary kind of undertaking. Like you can get a wealth of information from books, but the ability to master this is not going to come from method books or a classroom. The classroom for this music is the bandstand."

Walden met Chandler at a jazz workshop at Detroit's Chadsey High School. He liked the young man's determination. Now Chandler works hard at trying to project his personality through his horn.

"For a person to be able to hear your personality through your instrument is really amazing," Chandler says. "That's why I appreciate Donald Walden, Joe Henderson, John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner. They are the musicians that I want to be like."

For more than 20 years, jazz masters Teddy Harris, Harold McKinney and Donald Walden -- not to mention others such as Wendell Harrison and Marcus Belgrave -- have dedicated their professional lives to developing young musicians.

"My thing was you have to allow young musicians a forum or venue where they can develop and perform," says McKinney.

The jazz masters have done this by establishing workshops such as Harold McKinney's Detroit Jazz Heritage Performance Lab, Harrison's Rebirth Inc. and artists-in-residence programs at Detroit public high schools. At these workshops the veterans are raising a new generation of jazz musicians the "Detroit way," the way Detroit's jazz artists historically have taught young players to master the rudiments of their instruments, how to comport themselves on the bandstand and how to become band leaders. Pianist Barry Harris' mentoring of younger musicians in the '50s is the stuff of local legend. Such rising stars on today's New York scene as pianist Geri Allen, bassist Rodney Whitaker and saxophonists James Carter and Kenny Garrett were shaped in the Detroit way.

"It has always been like that. The older guys always had an ear out for the younger players," Teddy Harris recalls. "If they saw you scuffling with a certain thing or having a problem, they'd say, 'Come here young man, let me show you this. I heard you play that D chord on 7th. Try to do it like this.' ''

McKinney started the Detroit Jazz Heritage Performance Lab in 1993. Under McKinney's guidance, young musicians hang out Thursday nights at the SereNgeti Ballroom and work on getting their "chops" together. McKinney's workshop and others like it are producing young musicians like 16-year-old pianist Roland Hamilton and 16-year-old trumpeter William Omar Butler. Both are students at Cass Technical High School.

Butler started on the trumpet at age 4 and plays both classical and jazz music. This summer he's touring Europe with the Blue Lake Symphony Orchestra.

Hamilton began playing classical music at age 4 and became interested in jazz at 11 after hearing a recording by Gene Harris and the Three Sounds. He's only a high school senior, yet he has built an impressive list of achievements, winning two classical music competitions and a scholarship to study with pianist Ellis Marsalis. Last year Hamilton won the 1996 soloist award in the Michigan All-State Jazz Ensemble Competition and recently received a scholarship to study at Interlochen Performance Academy for eight weeks. He has also formed a quartet named Illusion.

"This city has been the incubator for jazz talent for a long, long time," says Harris. "This is not being facetious, but guys come from all over the world and all over the country to Detroit to learn how to play jazz."

Detroiters say that in other cities where jazz is popular musicians are more protective of the skills because they want to keep down the competition.

"Detroit is like a big small town, more so than places like New York or Chicago. In that respect, there might be more opportunity here for young people to interact with the generations," says Walden.

"My thing has always been dropping my buckets where I am and seeing if I could create a climate for success in the city," McKinney says. "My thoughts were you cultivate people's awareness of the music. I have done that through programs like Jazz for a New Generation and traveling throughout the Detroit public schools."

It's not uncommon for a seasoned musician to stick with his protégé until he masters his instrument. What makes the Detroit way different, says Harris, is that the mentoring goes beyond teaching the young musicians about phrasing and chord changes. Harris, for example, takes his students "job shadowing." He lets them see how jobs are booked and how contracts are negotiated. He believes that by experiencing these aspects students will either become encouraged or discouraged.

"I have to do a lot of things to make a living. I just can't play the piano. I got to arrange. I got to play the saxophone. I got to conduct. I have to use all my musical abilities to come home with a paycheck at the end of the week," Harris says.

He also teaches students that being a serious jazz musician is not about trying to outplay other musicians. They learn how to compete with themselves. Wilson says he has learned how to carry himself as a musician by watching Harris and Belgrave. He knows presentation is paramount.

"They're like the young bulls," says Benjamin Pruitt, a music educator at Cass Technical High School who has worked with Hamilton and William Butler.

"They want to run down the hill instead of walking. So the jazz masters get them to slow down. They learn that you don't have to take everything super fast; you don't have to take everything up-tempo. They challenge them and help them to learn their craft and how to pace themselves."

Trombonist Chandler, 26, says that when he started playing he felt he had to out-blow everybody. He jokingly says he suffered from what he calls the "young lions complex."

"One thing I realized is that when I'm playing a concert, while I'm actually inside my soul I'm thinking whether they like me or not. But one lesson I have learned is that even when I play a solo and I don't feel that good about it, someone will come up to me and say 'that was the greatest thing I ever heard in my life,' and another person will come up to me and say 'thank you,' and there's some people who won't even say a word to me. I get a vast range of comments.

"So the thing is, it doesn't matter. There's always going to be somebody in the audience who will say that wasn't nothing. You never get beyond that. So I focus on satisfying myself and really concentrate and focus on what I really want to say despite any distractions from anything that is going on around me."

Chandler also understands the importance of versatility.

"I want to teach music and be an international musician. That isn't necessarily my primary goal, but my attitude is what I have to say is important and I think it could be important to anybody who loves jazz or who loves music. I want to share that with as many people as I can."

That's the Detroit way. Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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