Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

20 Years of Supporting Detroit Jazz

The Erb Family Foundation, along with other city organizations, is helping to keep a key music scene vital

Terence Blanchard with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Civic Jazz Ensemble
Terence Blanchard conducts a master class for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz Ensemble (photo: Len Katz)

Terence Blanchard looked around the restaurant table and launched into a gentle sermon about jazz education in Detroit that was part homily, part pep talk, and part awestruck approbation.

“I tell people here all the time that you don’t know how lucky you are,” he said, speaking with the light southern drawl of his native N’awlins. “This doesn’t happen everywhere, and that’s why it’s so important that you all keep doing what you’re doing.”

Blanchard—a charismatic, multi-Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter, coveted opera and two-time Oscar-nominated film composer, and longtime Fred A. Erb Jazz Creative Director Chair at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra—was addressing a small group of DSO executives, leaders of the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, and heads of other partner organizations engaged in jazz education in Detroit.

The Erb-sponsored celebration, which took place in midtown Detroit in late April, honored the DSO’s ongoing commitment to jazz programming and education and the foundation’s recent $1 million gift to permanently endow the Erb Jazz Creative Director Chair. The gift culminates 20 years of supporting jazz, dating back to jazz lover Fred Erb’s original $1.5 million donation to the orchestra in 2002.

Erb, who died at age 89 in 2013, made his fortune as a regional supplier of lumber and building materials and do-it-yourself retail sales. The Erb Family Foundation was established in 2007.

Blanchard, 60, touched on overlapping topics. He tipped his hat to Erb’s financial support for jazz at the DSO and the foundation’s annual giving to jazz education initiatives in the city. About $350,000 per year in combined funding is granted by the Erb Foundation to five nonprofits: the DSO, the Carr Center, the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, the Detroit Jazz Festival, and Michigan State University Community Music School-Detroit. Together these groups make up JazzEd Detroit, a network of programs that serves students in elementary, middle, and high school, as well as those often-difficult post-collegiate years as emerging professionals.

All this is what Blanchard meant when he said this doesn’t happen everywhere. But he was also alluding to something broader. What was most striking about his remarks and the lively discussion that followed was how the words “legacy,” “lineage,” and “mentorship” dominated the conversation.

These are not merely buzzwords when applied to Detroit jazz; they describe a way of life. Jazz, this quintessential African American art form, remains embedded within the deepest levels of Detroit’s cultural DNA. No wonder Blanchard puts the city on a pedestal.

You cannot tell the history of jazz in America without also telling the history of jazz from Detroit. From the mid-20th century until the present day, Detroit has been one of the primary feeders of talent to the national scene. The city has graduated scores of legends, innovators, and stars into the pantheon, among them the Jones brothers—pianist Hank, trumpeter/composer Thad, drummer Elvin—vibraphonist Milt Jackson, guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Ron Carter, trumpeter Donald Byrd, saxophonists Yusef Lateef and Kenny Garrett, violinist Regina Carter, and pianists Barry Harris and Geri Allen.

Even after 1970, as its population fell sharply, the auto industry faltered, and the city struggled, Detroit continued to export innovative jazz talent to the major leagues. Now, as the city rebuilds, the exportation continues. The 30-year-old bassist Endea Owens, for example, a graduate of the public Detroit School of Arts and mentored by Detroit heroes of two generations, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and bassist Rodney Whitaker, can be seen nightly in Jon Batiste’s house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. 

Detroit remains a vital home for jazz, and there’s a symbiotic relationship between the city’s musicians and its savvy audience, which Blanchard called more knowledgeable about the music’s history than any in the country. How does the city regenerate its tradition generation after generation?

Legacy, lineage, and mentorship.

In the 1950s, Harris was the mentor-in-chief, training waves of musicians who migrated to New York and spread the Detroit gospel of swinging bebop and hard bop. In more recent decades, Belgrave—the very first holder of the Erb Jazz Creative Director Chair—assumed the role of Detroit’s most influential teacher.

Today, a phalanx of mentors in Detroit and environs, following in the footsteps of their own teachers, have picked up the baton once carried by Harris, Belgrave, and others. Those Erb-funded programs at the DSO, Carr Center, MSU Community Music School, Music Hall, and Detroit Jazz Festival are playing a key role in perpetuating the legacy too.

Trumpeter Kris Johnson, who was among those at the April celebration, is another product of Detroit’s fertile jazz ecosystem. Born in Southfield, he toured for more than a decade with the Count Basie Orchestra. Now 38, he has transitioned from mentee to mentor. Among his key formative experiences was performing with the Detroit Symphony Civic Jazz Orchestra under the tutelage of Marcus Belgrave. The DSO is the only major orchestra in the country to sponsor student jazz bands. (It has three.)

“When I was in Civic, Marcus would bring his young son, Kasan, to rehearsals and he’d sit over in the corner,” Johnson remembered. “When I became director of Civic years later, Kasan was in the band. Now he’s playing alto saxophone in my big band.”

Connections run deep in Detroit. Johnson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at MSU, where Rodney Whitaker, director of jazz studies, mentored him. Whitaker’s mentors growing up included Belgrave, and the bassist’s first major touring gig was with—wait for it—Terence Blanchard. Today, Johnson finds himself the director of the MSU Community Music School-Detroit.

The day after the celebration, Johnson led the debut of the DSO’s Paradise Theatre Big Band at Orchestra Hall. A multi-generational band of 20 Detroiters, the group roared through Johnson’s arrangements with guest soloists Blanchard and star vocalist Kurt Elling. More than half the band had come through the Civic Jazz Orchestra. Many had also been nurtured by other community initiatives like, for example, the Carr Center’s Gathering Orchestra, a fellowship program for high-level college players and emerging pros.

The music warmed the hall with the haloed glow of the past, present, and future. Fred Erb, whose passion for his city’s jazz heritage was boundless, would have been walking on sunshine. It all gave fresh meaning to Blanchard’s salvo from the night before: No, this does not happen everywhere. In the wake of the performance, his admonition that those funding and delivering jazz education in Detroit should forge ahead felt less like a request than an imperative to invest in the long game. To put it another way: If Detroit takes care of jazz, then jazz will take care of Detroit.

Mark Stryker

Mark Stryker is the author of Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press), named Jazz Book of the Year in the 2019 JazzTimes Critics’ Poll. Inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2020, Stryker covered jazz, classical music, and visual arts for the Detroit Free Press from 1995 to 2016. He also grew up working as a jazz alto saxophonist.