Marcus Belgrave slowly guides his minivan down a slush-encrusted street on Detroit’s east side, sipping lukewarm coffee from an aluminum travel-mug and peering out into the foggy, mid-day gloom. For the second time in as many minutes, his cell phone goes off. He grunts, clasps the wheel with the hand holding the mug, scrunches over and digs into his parka pocket again.
“Man, I sure don’t like to complain about being busy,” he says in a gravel-coated voice perpetually verged on laughter, “but man, I’ve sure been busy this month!”
In January, in the Motor City, that’s really saying something; this is when rigor mortis often sets in on the local scene. But trumpeter Belgrave is back on his way downtown to the fabled tube-and-analog White Room Studio for day four of a recording session to be released as The Detroit Experiment, a mix-and-match follow-up to Ropeadope Records’ first such project, last year’s The Philadelphia Experiment, with Christian McBride, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and Uri Caine. Like the Philly record, it will be rooted in the hometown jazz tradition and clothed in Detroit’s many world-class manifestations: gospel, funk, hip-hop, soul and techno.
Arriving downtown, Belgrave huffs and puffs up three long flights of grimy stairs in the abandoned-looking skyscraper that conceals the White Room. Pushing through a gray, anonymous door at the end of a dingy hallway, the trumpeter sails into a gale of hearty laughs, hot hand slaps and crazy one-liners from an all-star lineup awaiting his arrival. Former Detroiter Bennie Maupin, international electronica mix-master Carl Craig, funk bass monster Al Turner, deep-pocket drummer Ron Otis and keyboardist Charles Greene all sport styles miles away from Belgrave’s mainstream groove, yet they bow to him as the Motor City’s main music man.
“It’s ironic that Marcus is from Pennsylvania, which is the Keystone State,” says chief experimenter and producer Aaron Luis Levinson, “because he’s the keystone for this entire session.”
A glance at Belgrave’s resume explains that statement’s wisdom only partially: late 1950s Ray Charles sideman, early ’60s New York City vanguardian; then, in Detroit, Motown Records mainstay, cutting-edge bandleader and guerrilla educator. It was another 20 years before any real national exposure—touring with Wynton Marsalis’ big band in 1986. In all, Belgrave has made five hard-to-find LPs of his own and recorded cameos with Mingus and Tyner and a few more. It’s scant star time for a master and 40-plus-year veteran.
Belgrave insists he does not mind the obscurity, perhaps because he’s been so busy over the years playing musical godfather to kids like Geri Allen, Kenny Garrett, Robert Hurst, James Carter and Regina Carter. Each of these former Detroiters will testify that meeting and studying and blowing and hanging out with Belgrave during their youngest years in Detroit was life altering. The jazz world is immeasurably richer for Belgrave’s staying home.
“He is like baby’s milk,” Regina Carter explains. “He’s like a nutrient, like a parent. It was just so important to us as young people to really get a firm grasp on the music and come to it in a way that is fun and enjoyable.”
No wonder, then, that when Allen cut a great album that had Garrett, Hurst and Belgrave on it, she named it The Nurturer (Blue Note) in tribute to Belgrave.
Belgrave arrived in Detroit 39 years ago, tired of the road, Brother Ray’s merciless whip-cracking and the scuffle of New York City’s modern scene.
“The road was killing me,” he says. “I wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t gotten out. It’s too grueling: one-nighters, driving until dawn to every town in the world, and you never see none of it.”
Detroit, on the other hand, offered him a steady girl, steady gigs with Barry Gordy’s exploding soul music factory and a community of top players, particularly Wendell Harrison, Phil Ranelin and the late Harold McKinney. Together, they were intent on making and recording creative music on their own terms and bringing jazz education to a city that was quickly forgetting its magnificent musical history.
“It was really a happy opportunity to come here and begin working with kids,” Belgrave says. “That gave me the satisfaction to be able to continue to play music and make people happy and see it on their faces. Sometimes people ask me, ‘How can you be satisfied just playing for kids?’ Well, kids and old people are my favorite people.”
One of the newest of Belgrave’s inexhaustible supply of talented new kids—the young, pretty singer Monica Blaire on this session. She’s overdubbing a vocal to yesterday’s first take of Geri Allen and Regina Carter performing “There Is a God.” Then, while Turner works up a new bottom line for the bracing, bumpy drumming that Otis has laid down for another tune, Maupin and Belgrave toot through the catchy, stop-and-go head they will dub over it. They knock it off in one take; bobbing and weaving and dancing their lines around each other, bouncing along with the boiling Detroit boogie in their headphones.
A half-eaten tuna sub firmly in hand, Belgrave heads back out into the 6 p.m. darkness and a bone-chilling downpour. He cruises toward one of Detroit’s bleakest streets—the south end of once-glamorous Cass Avenue—and points at a boarded-up, battle-scarred building, reminiscing about great jam sessions he once had there. Suddenly he spots a familiar vehicle, lowers his window and hails the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s (DSO) education heroine, Daisy Newman. Riding shotgun is Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra drummer Herlin Riley, in for a one-night-only clinic with some of Belgrave’s “favorite people”: the high schoolers and collegians of the DSO’s metropolitan student big band, the Civic Jazz Orchestra (CJO), which Belgrave now leads.
The rehearsal room is impeccable, brightly lit, swarming with kids, brimming with cacophony that gradually melts into a warm-up blues. It’s a far cry from Belgrave’s Jazz Development Workshop of a generation ago, which led shaky existences in run-down buildings, trying to help kids who sometimes hardly had a decent axe, or tuition. But it’s where Belgrave reached some of his most successful students.
Today things are much better: the CJO is immensely more stable and the kids cover a much wider demographic. Half are black—a welcome rarity in today’s sadly skewed world of music education—and all are among the area’s best young players. But some things never change—tonight the trombone section is temporarily missing.
Belgrave and Riley are simultaneously kind and demanding, pushing the 20-odd kids through tough charts—Ellington’s “Harlem Air Shaft,” Thad Jones’ “Kids Are Pretty People.” When they finally start swinging, Belgrave’s somewhat tired face breaks into a huge smile. He boogies around in the center of the room, letting the music lift him.
“It is exhilarating just to be in their presence,” he says later, after he’s the last to leave the rehearsal and has treated Riley and two top students to a late-night nosh in Greektown. “Teaching the CJO has been my salvation the last couple years. Financially it’s really helped out, but mainly it’s because of the kids.”
He recalls his long history with the grand old building that is now the Symphony’s home, how it was almost flattened into a parking lot before a group of DSO musicians banded together to save it.
“I remember the first time this band graced the stage of Orchestra Hall together, during a workshop with Wycliffe Gordon,” he says. “It took me back to my workshop days over on Gratiot Avenue in 1974, when they came over and asked me if I was willing to help save Orchestra Hall. We set up there on the stage, which had all those holes in it. To be up there again, with the place so gorgeous now, it just amazed me. I started crying and I told Daisy, ‘You don’t know how it makes me feel because I played the first function for Save Orchestra Hall.’ To still be alive and in this beautiful space makes me feel like I’ve done something worthwhile.”
Certainly there were some painful memories mingled with the pride that prompted those tears. Belgrave hit bottom in Detroit in 1984. Exhausted from zero-budget teaching, self-exiled from the Big Apple, frustrated that the ballyhooed jazz revival had not touched him, sick of the miserly local club scene, worried by the responsibilities of bread-winning, Belgrave became an angry, resentful man. When Michigan Bell turned off his phone, he didn’t bother to get it turned back on. He dropped out of sight.
But a friend in New Jersey took him in and helped pull him through.
“I was so destitute and they helped me out, held hands with me and prayed,” he remembers of the man and his wife. “They asked me if I was ready for Jesus and that sounded so good that I said, Yes. I started crying. I felt this physical feeling of something leaving my body. It put me on a one-week high.”
Belgrave went back home and cold-turkeyed cigarettes and alcohol. His smile came back, brighter than ever.
“People kept asking me, ‘Man, what did you do?’” he says, his throaty laugh peaking into a high hoot. “I suddenly felt so strong!”
His newfound spirituality morphed into meditation and chanting. The trickle of grant money that had barely kept him alive started flowing a bit faster. He discovered the joy of playing at senior centers; he got busy as every Detroiter’s favorite sideman. He scored a cherry, couple-months-every-year gig at a swank hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia. Marsalis made him a charter member of his new jazz orchestra, putting him on the road for short trips.
“I spent eight years with them,” he says. “When I left, I was the last of the old guys. Do I miss it? No, but I wouldn’t mind doing something like that with the kids I’m teaching.”
These days Belgrave stays close to home, except for his weekly drives to Oberlin College, where he’s teaching. He still crashes the hippest gigs in town and turns them into rollicking jam sessions. And suddenly he’s found his local box-office appeal, which was always strong, positively soaring. It seems he’s parlayed his dead-on Satchmo version of “What a Wonderful World” into a brand new thing miles away from the edgy postbop he recorded in the 1970s on his sole Tribe record, Gemini II. “Marcus Belgrave and the Detroit All-Stars’ Tribute to Louis Armstrong” played five pops concerts at Orchestra Hall late last year to nearly sold-out houses.
The CD version of the Satchmo tribute, Marcus Belgrave’s Tribute to Louis Armstrong (WJS), recorded live in Windsor, Ontario, radiates the rollicking fun that typified jazz before it began taking itself so seriously. The mix is wildly inconsistent, and the clams are unmistakable, but the CD is a blast of Southern sunshine, covering Pops from 1926’s “Heebie Jeebies” to “Hello Dolly” and the inevitable “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Belgrave alternates between lusty trumpeting—bubbling with his fuzzily warm sound and unshakeable sense of melody—and mirthful singing—equal parts natural inclination and unabashed send-up.
“I never met Louis,” Belgrave says, shaking his head. “I had one opportunity in Paris when I was there with Ray, but I blew it. The guy who books over at the Masonic Auditorium always used to say to me, ‘Man, if you did Louis Armstrong, I could book you every night.’ That always stayed on my mind, but I couldn’t do it because I was such a wild man. And when I lived with Charlie Gabriel [a top Detroit reedman hailing from New Orleans], he was always telling me about Louis and saying, ‘Marcus, you play all that wild stuff and you ain’t makin’ no money!’ So I kept experimenting with it.”
“I didn’t think I would like doing the Louis thing as much as I do,” he admits. “What Louis was able to do was reach people that were not jazz-oriented. They were just common people. Once you’ve got ’em in your hands with the singing, you can do anything.”
Despite all of his love for Armstrong and the tribute recording, Belgrave admits the CD isn’t his own favorite album out of the precious few he has recorded.
“No,” he says, laughing yet again. “None of them are. The best is yet to come.”
Belgrave says he has not bought a CD in years and mostly listens to the radio. What's been catching Belgrave's ear most lately is Pat Metheny because he likes the way the guitarist blends so many different genres. He also “never gets away” from Thad Jones.
Belgrave plays a mid-line Kanstul trumpet. The mouthpiece is a Kanstul CG3.