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Marcus Elliot Keeps the Detroit Jazz Tradition Alive

A look at how the saxophonist represents the 313

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Marcus Elliot
Marcus Elliot

“The Detroit Way,” according to author Bill Harris, who’s written extensively about jazz, is a tradition of schooling rising Detroit jazz musicians on the rudiments of musicianship, audience engagement, attire, and comportment on and off the bandstand. This is a tradition that saxophonist Marcus Elliot has mastered—and that he has every intention of continuing as his reputation grows. 

“I see myself in a new position and now that I’m a little bit older, I can start using my band as a place to mentor as well. That’s how it was done for me,” says Elliot, whose own go-to mentors were trumpeters Marcus Belgrave and Kris Johnson, as well as bassist Rodney Whitaker.

After graduating Michigan State University in 2012, Elliot decided to build his career in Detroit and not move to New York as some of his peers had; he was confident he could thrive in his native city’s vibrant jazz community. Not long after graduation, he secured a weekly residency at Detroit’s popular jazz club Cliff Bell’s, giving him a chance to build his chops one brick at a time. During the residency, which lasted four years, he led several bands.

“I was able to form my quartet … and every week just felt like such a heart-opening experience to play with those guys. Writing music, pushing one another to be better on our instruments and to listen deeper, we would just get into these spaces, and we could just stay in them forever.”

During this time, Elliot also became a musical ambassador for the cultural diplomacy program American Voices. He performed in countries like South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia, furthering his understanding of music as a universal language: “Most of the people that we played with, we couldn’t even really talk to … but we were able to connect on this music thing.” He credits his time in Africa with influencing the way he viewed rhythm and making it more of a focal point in his music.

Elliot has a way of playing—sometimes enhanced by looping and other electronic effects—that compels people to listen. Pianist Michael Malis, who co-leads the band Balance with Elliot, says that the saxophonist’s sound acts as a messenger that connects directly with audiences: “I love the work that Marcus and I do in Balance. We’re able to go very deep on very challenging music because we have established a strong working process over our 15 years of knowing each other. We spend a lot of time zooming in on the minute details of the music. We’ll discover all of the space and breadth that those moments have to offer. I’m really grateful to have a collaborator who pushes me to this level of depth.”

Since 2015, Elliot has self-released four albums, and he plans to release Conjure, his second project with Balance, this summer. It’s an extension of their self-titled 2017 debut, a showcase of compositional brilliance and improvisational know-how; this time around, the duo will also welcome some special guests. 

 “Every week just felt like such a heart-opening experience.”

Elliot’s embrace of the Detroit Way includes educating the next wave of musicians from the city. He’s a newly appointed saxophone instructor at Wayne State University and previously served as director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz Ensemble, in which he once played as a student. He plans to use any future bands he assembles to further his music and guide the next generation of Detroit jazz musicians.

“I see this as a new chapter,” Elliot says, “and it’s a great opportunity for me … I’m really excited to be able to help out students in any way I can and to be a part of the ecosystem that is here in Detroit.”

Veronica Johnson

Veronica Johnson is a freelance music writer from Detroit. She has written for Detroit-based publications Metro Times, Real Detroit Weekly, Model D, and The Michigan Historical Review, as well as the national jazz site The Jazz Line. Her work on Detroit hip-hop was published in the 2014 book A Detroit Anthology. She is also a board member of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, a grassroots Detroit music preservation organization.