Motown Jazz Project highlights the significant influence of Detroit jazz musicians on the iconic record label

What would Motown be without Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the legendary Marvin Gaye or its founder Berry Gordy? The better question is “What would Motown be without the Funk Brothers?” While this musical collective never released their own records under the Motown label, they were a vital part of the iconic Motown sound and shaped the overall voice of Young America. But many people, like myself, had no idea who the Funk Brothers were until the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown was released and showcased the history of the Detroit-based studio musicians who backed tons of Motown artists and played on more number one hits than Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. They were the city’s unsung heroes and other than within Motown circles, they never got their due credit for helping to create such timeless music.

From left to right: Woodrow Chenowith, Don Babock, Vincent York, Matthew Balmer, Dwight Adams. Photo Courtesy of Lars Bjorn

The documentary started the discussion about the Funk Brothers and allowed many of the studio musicians, both living and deceased, to receive more exposure outside of the Detroit area. But, the conversation about the Funk Brothers should not have stopped after the documentary. The Motown Jazz Project is one undertaking that is continuing to highlight the legacy of these musicians and also showcase the fact that most of the Funk Brothers were jazz musicians and/or came from a jazz background. This effort was established through a collaborative partnership with the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Eastern Michigan University, EMU’s Department of Music and Dance , and local Detroit jazz musicians.

The Motown Jazz Project presented their first concert on Saturday, April 5, at EMU’s Student Center and it featured a number of Detroit area jazz musicians who have ties to Motown artists. The band was led by veteran guitarist Ron English, a Funk Brother himself, who played with Motown acts such as Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and the Four Tops and featured keyboardist Al McKenzie, musical director for The Temptations and Martha Reeves; Darrell Smith, former music director for The Spinners; saxophonist/flutist Vincent York, former musical director for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas; trumpeter Dwight Adams, who regularly tours with Stevie Wonder; and drummer Ron Otis, who tours with contemporary Motown artist Kem.

Together, with vocals by Toledo-based singer Ramona Collins, the band performed a list of popular Motown tunes by The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and The Supremes and more. There’s no denying the ageless power in the Motown sound and that was proven by the ethnically diverse crowd, from young to old, singing along to the catchy, rhythm-driven tunes such as The Temptations’ “My Girl,” Diana Ross and The Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love,” and the Motown classic “Dancing in the Street” by Martha Reeves and Vandellas, which Collins purposely ended the show with to get people dancing in their seats.

Ramona Collins
Vocalist Ramona Collins. Photo Courtesy of Lars Bjorn

The Motown Jazz Project further confirmed the major influence the Detroit jazz musicians had on creating the Motown musical process. Even if there had been no vocalist singing the songs, there would have been just as many people clapping and dancing along to the funky, upbeat grooves provided by the band. The Motown Jazz Project did not even scratch the surface of Motown’s extensive musical catalog.

The band could have gone on for hours and hours and still not have covered every song the Funk Brothers played on. With the success of the concert, SEMJA just might make this an annual event where people come out to both celebrate Motown and the important contributions of Detroit jazz musicians. For more information about the Funk Brothers, CLICK HERE.

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