Keith Vreeland 1938–2018

Keith Vreeland died on August 31 following a bout with cancer. He was a vital force on Detroit’s creative music scene, both as pianist/composer and a designer. Keith taught Elements of Design at the Center for Creative Studies for 39 years, retiring in 2003. He and his wife of thirty years, Marty West, were prominent on our music scene. Marty is creative as well, and they formed a loving pair.

By night, Vreeland was busy creating fresh sounds with musicians like saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey, guitarist Ron English, and bassist John Dana. Dana, whose friendship with Vreeland stretched back to the 1960s, for many years would meet with Vreeland each fortnight to “explore the repertoire,” as John recalled. “I remember Keith was always reading books on music theory, or composition. He favored a modal approach, like Herbie or McCoy. Keith was quite original, always pushing himself away from his comfort zone.”

Vreeland played on two Tribe LP’s (Message from the Tribe, The Time is Now). During the 1970s he often worked in bass/guitar/piano trios backing vocalists or instrumentalists, gigging at places with singular names like the Blue Chip Lounge, Mo-Mo’s, the Shadow Box Lounge, Midnight Village and Half-Pint’s.

The music Keith created was as distinctive as the clubs at which he performed. He was busy during the 1970s, performing with Tribe and other Avant-Garde leaning groups as well as the Austin-Moro big band. Keith flourished during the 1980’s, playing with the Lincoln Street Music Company (including saxophonists Phil Lasley and Faruq Z. Bey) and Flux, a quartet co-led with drummer George Davidson.

One of Vreeland’s more interesting bands was a duo with reedman Marvin Kahn. They waxed three albums in the 1990s (in between weekly basement gigs, Vreeland wryly noted). As an established Detroit musician, Vreeland worked with numerous nationally-known musicians, including Pharaoh Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Badal Roy, and home-grown stars Marcus Belgrave, Joe Henderson, and Kenny Garrett. Vreeland appeared at the Detroit Jazz Festival as leader, and he always presented daring, interesting material. Vreeland and Dana assembled an avant-garde collective called Synchron, which included Faruq, Leonard King, and, briefly, James Carter.

Vreeland’s openness to new forms, compositions, and instrumentation impressed musicians. Dana notes that modesty, too, was a significant part of Vreeland’s personality. “Keith had a way of putting others before himself.” He was generous with praise and encouragement and managed to identify gems within other musician’s solos. Vreeland always treated others with respect and warmth, and it’s those qualities I remember most about my friend. We were blessed to have Vreeland among us for so many years.