Detroit Jazz Fest brings local heroes into the spotlight

The four days that I have been waiting for the entire summer have finally come around. The Detroit Jazz Festival has brought tons of acclaimed jazz musicians to the Motor City to entertain and enlighten thousands of people from around the country. Detroit’s rich music history, particulary its roots in jazz came full circle as local gems have been spotted all throughout the festival, either leading their own bands or accompanying other nationally known artists. And for that, we have Chris Collins to thank. Collins, the new artistic director of the jazz fest brought a real “detroit-ness” to the fest, as he puts it, and as a jazz saxophonist and educator, he believes that the true enjoyment comes from listening to and embracing the music that has a long, deep legacy within the city.

Marcus Belgrave

My education about Detroit jazz this weekend came not only from listening to the music of legendary Detroit born musicians such as drummer Louis Hayes, trombonist Curtis Fuller and alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, but I also learned a lot by listening to them discuss their journey as up and coming musicians during jazz’ heyday in the 1950s and 60s. Fuller and McPherson were a part of a panel discussion on Saturday called “Detroit in the 50s & 60s” which took place inside the Jazz Talk Tent and was led by music scholars Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert. They were joined by legendary trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and bassist Dan Pliskow, two musicians who cut their teeth on the Detroit musical scene in the 60s and have continued to lead the city’s musical legacy forward.

As Bjorn asked the panelists about their experiences working in Detroit and touring the country, the conversation turned into a trip down memory lane for the musicians. McPherson recounted stories of him being 20 years old and working as a member of Charlie Mingus’ band, which he remembered as quite an unforgettable experience.

“I thought we were all going to get killed” said McPherson, while discussing a time when a club owner owed Mingus $2,000 but didnt have the money to pay him. McPherson recalled Mingus tearing up all of the strings on the piano at the club and thinking that he had caused about $2,000 worth of damage that was equal to the amount the owner owed him.

I’m sure each artist could talk for hours about being on the road with pioneers such as Mingus, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderley.

Curtis Fuller

It was almost hard to imagine these artists as young, eager kids just trying to make a name for themselves in the jazz world, which at that time was filled with racism.  But their conversation really shed light on the jazz culture at the time and how their challenges as well as their time spent working with jazz innovators really helped shaped them to be the artists that they are today.

While growing up in Chester, Pennsylvania, Belgrave recalled working with renowned trumpeter Clifford Brown who served as his mentor. Brown took a young Belgrave under his wing and showed him how to develop his skills as a trumpeter. ” I met Clifford when I was 12 and he was about 17,” said Belgrave.  “After hearing Clifford play a solo I just couldnt finish playing, I just stood there in awe.”

Clifford was certainly a jazz giant and his warm, rich tone on the trumpet has inspired many musicians including Belgrave.

Fuller recalled his experience working with fellow Detroiter Yusef Lateef in New York and being a member of his quintet in the 1950s. While Fuller has recorded many great recordings as a leader, his most well known recognition came when he became a member of Art Blakey’s historic Jazz Messengers crew. I first got wind of Fuller while listening to Blakey’s 1963 recording Buhaina’s Delight, which, in my opinion is a hard bop classic.

This group of men have witnessed as well as been a part of many superior jazz recordings and performances. An entire book could be dedicated toward exploring their role in jazz history.

I know this review may be a little different from the other updates about the Detroit Jazz Fest. Don’t worry I have got plenty to say about the music, which is coming soon. But listening to these legends all in the same room is an experience that doesn’t come around often. And I had to savor every minute.

Charles McPherson

To learn about these musicians, visit their websites listed below:

Marcus Belgrave

Curtis Fuller

Charles McPherson

Dan Pliskow


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