Published in Jazz Improv, V. 3, No. 4 (6/2002)

Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-60, by Lars Bjorn with Jim Gallert. ISBN: 0-472-06765-6. Paperback. Retail List: $24.95. 239 pages. B&W photos. Published 2001 by The University of Michigan Press.

Review by Virginia A. Schaefer

For many people, the phrase Detroit music is likely to evoke the association Motown, the popular music put out by Motown Records in the 1960s. A jazz listener, musician, or student probably knows of at least one jazz musician with a Detroit connection, but is less likely to know much about the history of the Detroit jazz scene and how it relates to the Motown phenomenon. Sociology professor and jazz historian Lars Bjorn, with research and writing assistance from jazz writer and broadcaster Jim Gallert, has written Before Motown to put Detroit on record as one of the American urban centers where jazz originated and developed.

Before Motown is set out in seven chapters, each covering an era, usually a decade, in the development of Detroit jazz and R&B. Bjorn, the primary author (except for the last chapter, which Gallert coauthored), starts each chapter with a description of the economic and social outlook of the city and particularly of Detroit's African American population. The book includes lots of quotations from the authors' many interviews with jazz artists, fans, and music-business people, as well as numerous photos of performers and club advertisements. Particularly in the first six chapters, descriptions of the various eras and avenues of jazz in Detroit concentrate on personnel, venues, and itineraries, with generally spare discussion of musical styles and repertory.

Early Jazz and Big-Band Years
The first chapter covers the years up to 1920, when Detroit's burgeoning auto industry fueled a big population and made it a preeminent working-class city in the U.S. Like other Northern cities of the era, Detroit drew many black workers from the South, and by 1930 it had a thriving black community. Starting around 1910, a number of vaudeville theatres and dance halls opened to serve the residents of the black neighborhoods. Some entertainment venues served an exclusively black clientele and others a mixed-race clientele. Most establishments were owned by whites, but many had black management. In these venues, black musicians performed traditional blues, urban blues, and "society band" dance music. Both the black society bands and their white counterparts played light classics, ragtime, ballroom dances such as the waltz, and the fashionable syncopated dances like the cakewalk. By the World War I era, small and medium-sized groups of black musicians in Detroit were playing music billed as jazz in cabarets and some dance halls. Bjorn explains that the blues was less an influence on jazz in Detroit than in Chicago, because relatively few New Orleans musicians migrated to Detroit.

The second chapter addresses the role played by Detroit in the development of big-band jazz in the '20s and early '30s. Detroit musicians such as pianist Milt Buckner and his altoist brother Ted played in big bands, and Detroit was a regular stop on tours of Midwest territory bands and New York-based bands. For a time in the 1920s, the Don Redman-directed McKinney's Cotton Pickers band was in residence in Detroit at the Graystone Ballroom, owned by the band's manager, impresario Jean Goldkette. Goldkette also managed a number of other bands that made extended stays in Detroit, for example, the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, which included Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and violinist Joe Venuti.

The next chapter continues to trace Detroit's jazz activity during the 1930s era of the big bands. While economic hard times and some rivalry from sound movies cut into nightclub audiences, the popularity of ballroom dancing was high. Concurrent with the decline in employment and prosperity in the early '30s, many black Detroiters became more active in opposing racial discrimination. In the entertainment sphere, that effort led to more black control and ownership of dance and entertainment clubs, particularly in the Paradise Valley neighborhood. Many of these clubs, such as the Club Plantation, were black and tan (open to a mixed-race clientele while the performers were all black). The local bands that played in these clubs tended to be smaller – six to ten pieces. Detroit was a tour stop for national-level and territory big bands, but supported limited local big-band activity. Bjorn attributes this partly to the lack of major recording companies in the city

Modern Jazz Ascendancy
The chapter on the 1940s focuses on the role of Detroit in "the birth of bop". With the resurgence of manufacturing in WWII, Detroit's economy rebounded and again attracted immigrants, including black Americans from the South. During the war years, racial conflict increased as blacks demanded more rights and opportunities in areas such as housing, and whites reacted against the perceived threat. With the effort the NAACP, the city government, and the unions, significant progress was made toward improved conditions. Decentralization and some integration of neighborhoods were reflected in the jazz club situation, with more integrated venues in more areas, including some predominantly white neighborhoods. The most important clubs included the Paradise Theatre, the Blue Bird Inn, and the Flame Show Bar.

In the 1940s, Detroit jazz clubs were frequented by the major bebop artists, including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. A number of local jazz musicians started incorporating the new bop vocabulary into their playing; these included trumpeter Howard McGhee, tenorists Wardell Gray and Lucky Thompson, saxophonist Pepper Adams, and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. In general, the city's jazz musicians and audiences gave a good reception to the new bebop style. Bjorn attributes this affinity partly to a strong local tradition of smaller-group jazz clubs. He also credits the willingness of experienced jazz musicians to foster the learning of younger ones, and the local availability of good formal (non-jazz) music education in the public and professional schools and universities. Detroit DJ Bill Randle played and promoted bebop on his radio shows, as did a few other radio hosts. And starting in the late '40s, TV host Soupy Sales added bebop artists to the jazz performers he featured on his variety show.

The book devotes two chapters to the 1950s, which Bjorn describes as the "golden age" of jazz in Detroit. In that era, the U.S. as a whole prospered, but residents of cities like Detroit suffered the negative effects of a gradual movement of manufacturing to suburban areas. Even worse for city dwellers was the "urban renewal" that disrupted minority-inhabited center-city neighborhoods with highrise office buildings, expensive housing, and bypass highways. This phenomenon forced some jazz clubs to move and others to close. However, new jazz clubs opened throughout the city, and most featured what Bjorn terms modern jazz, which here means mainly bebop, hard bop, and West Coast (cool) bop, with the occasional the post-bop element. The racial composition of the Detroit modern-jazz players was mixed, except for the cool-school players who were all white. A number of jazz clubs opened in the '50s, including the important Rouge Lounge.

A number of Detroit jazz musicians during the 1950s became major players on the New York and international scene. These included Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson, Lucky Thompson, pianists Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, and Terry Pollard, trumpeter Donald Byrd, and flute and tenor sax player Yusef Lateef. The Jones brothers from the town of Pontiac near Detroit – trumpeter/arranger Thad and drummer Elvin – became major jazz figures, following their older brother Hank, who had become established as a pianist in the late '40s.

In 1955, guitarist Kenny Burrell, then a student at Wayne (later Wayne State) University, formed the New Music Society to present modern jazz performances at the World Stage, a progressive theatre, and other venues. The New Music Society was an unusual cooperative venture, in which the musicians took an unusual amount of control over the entire performance process. Other participating musicians included Yusef Lateef, Barry Harris, and Donald Byrd. The largely university-connected audiences were very supportive of the group in the couple of years it existed.

R&B, Motown, and Detroit Jazz
The final chapter covers the growth of R&B and its relationship to jazz in Detroit, and particularly the creation and success of the Motown recording enterprise. The authors recap the history to 1950 of the three kinds of blues played in urban areas – urban blues, jump, and rhythm and blues (R&B). All these, but especially R&B (which subsumed jump in the late '40s), were thriving in Detroit. Starting in the late '40s, for the first time in Detroit several independent record companies were formed to record "music the major labels ignored", including bebop and R&B. An important marketing avenue for the recordings was radio, which played jazz, blues, and R&B mostly on shows targeted to black listeners, although a few DJs mixed some into their white listener-oriented pop shows. Detroit urban blues artists included John Lee Hooker, whose country-tinged style was later to become influential on rock but which jazz players found undisciplined. Jazz pianist Todd Rhodes, who played in big bands in the '20s and '30s, formed a group in the 1940s that in the '50s became the most successful jump and R&B band in Detroit. One of that band's most popular vocalists was LaVern Baker, who moved to Detroit from Chicago. Another local performer who achieved national success was Detroit native Della Reese, who started her singing career in the jazz and blues Flame Show Bar.

The account of Paul Williams's metamorphosis from a jazz saxophonist into an R&B performer is revealing. In 1947 Williams was an alto sax and clarinet player in King Porter's Detroit-based big band when Savoy Records talent scout Teddy Reig offered him a chance to record. Williams's playing, modeled on that of Johnny Hodges, was as solid as the rest of the band's, but the scout's interest was more in marketing Williams's good looks to female members in the growing audience for R&B. Williams took up the offer, and Reig became his coach in his transformation to an R&B performer. Williams was directed to abandon his alto to concentrate on baritone sax, deemed more appropriate to R&B moves. Williams had to tailor his style to Reig's directive "…not to play a whole lot of notes. He kept saying 'Honk! Honk! Honk!'" (p. 186). The stylistic makeover brought commercial success. With a sextet comprising his former colleagues in Detroit jazz and jump bands, Williams made several big-selling R&B recordings, including his hit "The Hucklebuck" in 1948.

Jackie Wilson also started in Detroit, winning talent contests as a young gospel singer at the Paradise Theatre, where he was spotted by R&B impresario Johnny Otis in 1951. By the late '50s, Wilson had become a highly successful R&B and pop recording artist. In 1957, songwriter and sometime record-store owner Berry Gordy engaged Wilson in recording two of Gordy's songs. Encouraged by the local popularity of that record, Gordy went on to record and manage the 17-year-old Smokey Robinson and then in 1959 to open a major recording studio, later named Motown, which quickly started turning out R&B and pop hits. The authors note that Motown "…eventually became the largest black-owned enterprise in the nation. For the first time black music was successfully brought to the mass white market by a company that was in black hands. It was also…the first time a Detroit record company became a national competitor" (p. 199).

Berry Gordy first turned to blues and R&B as a way to boost sales in his record store, which was stocked mainly with the jazz records he preferred. For the instrumental component of the Motown recording sessions, it was natural for Gordy to hire jazz musicians working in Detroit. While Motown productions were centered on the singers, the instrumentalists contributed a great deal to the overall musical creation. For several years there were no arrangers; the instrumentalists were expected to work out an arrangement during a session, according to the general directions of the producer, often Gordy or Smokey Robinson. Even when arrangers were used in later years, the musicians often significantly changed the arrangements. The authors quote Gordy from his 1995 autobiography To Be Loved, "'Many of these guys came from a jazz background…They did all kinds of stuff – always pushing me to the limit and beyond'" (p. 200). In an interview, bari sax player Thomas "Beans" Bowles describes a typical Motown session, "We're all jazz musicians, so we did [the arranging] on the spot. It was like having a jam session. … Berry might hum something to you. 'Can you play [hums]?'" Thus, Detroit jazz musicians played a major part in creating the Motown sound. However, they seem not to have received a proportionate share of the commercial rewardsm, as Bowles went on to say: "We could be there all day to do one song. And we're getting five dollars per 'song'!" (p. 201). The authors also note that, more than the low pay, many Motown instrumentalists resented that they were left uncredited while Motown singers became stars. Motown session trumpeter Johnny Trudell told the author that the players were never given any album credits because Motown did not want anyone else to "steal" the musicians.

Summary and Appendixes
The book concludes with a brief summary, which recaps the highlights of Detroit jazz history (the R&B connection is barely mentioned). The summary also includes an assessment of the state of today's Detroit jazz scene. While conveying some wistfulness for the lost "golden age" of Detroit jazz, Bjorn reassures any doubting readers that in Detroit jazz is alive and fostering musicians who are known to the larger jazz audience; he names Marcus Belgrave, Geri Allen, and James Carter.

The book includes a name index and a subject index, both helpful. There's a brief discography listing CDs that are, for the most part, currently available and "recommended" (criteria for recommendation are not stated). There is an appendix listing all Detroit jazz venues mentioned in the book, and another called Library Resources Used, which comprises prose descriptions of the newspapers and magazines used as sources. Inexplicably, however, there is no bibliography. This omission, along with the indexes' absence of cited authors and titles, means that a reader who wants to look up a cited book or article may have to search through footnotes to find the first reference to the work. However, the copious footnotes, which offer additional details on people and places as well as meticulous citations, are a welcome feature.

The book's summary illustrates two shortcomings, in my view. One glitch is the rather convoluted and unclear prose style of a few sections that describe jazz style or history at a general level; one example is the summary, and another is the section on the history of bebop on pp. 75-78. These problem passages contrast with rest of the book, which is clearly written, for the most part.

A more significant shortcoming, I think, is the book's overall arrangement of overview and summarizing material in relation to detailed descriptions. Except for the general sociological overview that starts each chapter, much of the important general-level material is presented in an offhand manner in out-of-the-way places. Major points often appear after a welter of details that would have been more meaningful to the reader if presented after the points that they explicate. At the book level, the content of the summary might have been more helpful if, after undergoing some copy editing, it had been placed at the beginning of the book rather than the end.

Despite some flaws, Before Motown is a thought-provoking book that engagingly sets out important social and economic, as well as musical, factors that have contributed to the development of jazz and R&B in Detroit.

Note: Jazz Improv Vol. 3, No. 2 includes a review of Regina Carter's CD Motor City Moments, which features and pays tribute to Detroit jazz musicians. That magazine issue also contains an interview with and essay by Yusef Lateef.


Copyright © 2003 - 2012 by Virginia A. Schaefer