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Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit by Lars Bjorn with Jim Gallert

Detroit’s prolific jazz heritage has been thoroughly researched and documented in Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert’s Before Motown. The book focuses on the musicians and socioeconomic conditions in Detroit in the era before Berry Gordy’s sound overtook the city’s music scene.

Before Motown is well illustrated with photos and advertisements, and there are numerous informative footnotes and several maps of jazz venues from different eras. Bjorn and Gallert’s text is interweaved with articles from various publications and interviews with notable musicians and observers.

The first chapter deals with music in Detroit before the advent of big-band jazz. It reveals that trombone legend Jimmy Harrison spent his early years living and performing in Detroit before joining Fletcher Henderson’s band in New York in the ’20s.

The excellent chapter on early big-band jazz thoroughly discusses arranger Don Redman and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra with Gene Gifford as arranger, and the Graystone Ballroom. A strong case is made for Goldkette’s band, which had Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer in its ranks for a time, and its rightful place of prominence among the early swing band elite. Many of this band’s best arrangements went unrecorded.

Paradise Valley, the core area for Detroit jazz activity during the ’30s, is portrayed in a separate chapter. Bjorn and Gallert discuss a wealth of valuable information concerning this important era, which thrived despite the city’s industry being hard-hit by the Great Depression.

The advent of bop brought about changes in the music and the musical landscape of Detroit. Modernists like Milt Jackson, Lucky Thompson, Wardell Gray, Howard McGhee, Frank Rosolino and Sonny Stitt were among those who emerged from Detroit’s fertile ’40s jazz scene. This era is given a detailed review in “Detroit and the Birth of Bop.”

“The 1950s: The Golden Age of Jazz in Detroit” surveys the decade that produced many of Detroit’s finest musicians. Biographical sketches describe their lives and their contributions to jazz. Miles Davis’ days in Detroit during the early ’50s are also reprised. Yusef Lateef, still performing today at 80, is given much deserved space. Among others discussed are Barry Harris, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna, the Jones brothers (Hank, Elvin and Thad), Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Paul Chambers, Joe Henderson, Charles McPherson and probably the finest baritone player of that era, Pepper Adams.

“Detroit Rhythm & Blues-From Jump Blues to Motown” relates the part Detroit jazz musicians played in creating the “Motown Sound.” There are many interesting comments from musicians about their experiences working with Motown Records.

A couple of caveats: bassist and Cass Tech grad Ron Carter is not mentioned, and a statement on page 110 refers to an appearance at the Graystone Ballroom of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet in July of 1956. Unfortunately, Brown died in an auto accident that June.

With talent currently on the national scene such as James Carter, Robert Hurst, Geri Allen and Regina Carter among others and with the venerable Marcus Belgrave still active in the Detroit area along with other fine local musicians, Detroit’s future as a major jazz center is assured. This book covers its pre-’60s legacy very well.

Originally Published