Every year the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival has featured some former Detroiter who has become a big name in the world of jazz. This year's festival is a virtual homecoming as several stars are invited back: tenorist Yusef Lateef, pianist Tommy Flanagan, drummer Elvin Jones, altoist Charles McPherson, and saxman Kenny Garrett. Together with two reunion bands they can tell the story of modern jazz in Detroit.
Lateef is at 78 the oldest of the group and played a major role in the jazz life of the city. He grew up on the East Side and attended Miller High in the late 1930s with Milt Jackson, Art Mardigan and Lucky Thompson, to name a few budding jazzmen. Lateef had his first big band experience with Matthew Rucker's Spirits of Swing and eventually left Detroit in 1945 with the Bama State Collegians. In the late forties he played and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, but in 1950 returned to Detroit for family reasons. He stayed for ten years and is mainly known for leading his own quintet at Klein's Show Bar on 12th Street for the latter half of the fifties. The Quintet made several recordings, which show the leader's version of modern jazz influenced by the music of Asia and the Middle East. Lateef was a pioneer in incorporating these musical traditions into modern jazz. It should be noted that Lateef refrains from using the word jazz to describe any of his music. In 1960 he left for New York City and recorded with Charles Mingus and Cannonball Adderley. In the last two decades Lateef has ventured into the musical territories labeled New Music and World Music, but always finding a path uniquely his own.
Tommy Flanagan and Elvin Jones were both part of the house band at the Blue Bird Inn in the early fifties. About ten years younger than Lateef, they left Detroit in 1956. The Blue Bird band was the center of modern jazz in the city as Flanagan saw it: "It was a beautiful club. I never saw a place like that even in New York. It had a neighborhood atmosphere and all the support a jazz club needed. Everyone who loved jazz in Detroit came, and it was a very inspired group that played there." The group was led by Elvin's brother Thad on trumpet and Billy Mitchell on tenor sax. Guest stars were frequent, e.g., Miles Davis, Wardell Gray and Sonny Stitt. Flanagan and Jones also played together in Kenny Burrell's Four Sharps months before leaving for New York. Once in New York the two went on to play and record with most major figures in modern jazz. By the sixties Jones was a member of the John Coltrane group and Tommy Flanagan spent many years as the accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald. By the seventies they were increasingly working as leaders of their own groups.
Charles McPherson is about ten
years younger than Flanagan and Jones and was one of the underage players
who hung around outside the Blue Bird to hear their idols in the early
fifties. He remembers how Elvin Jones opened the blinds so that McPherson
and his friends could see the band. Together with his close friend trumpeter
Lonnie Hillyer he came under the tutelage of Flanagan's replacement in
the Blue Bird band, Barry Harris. His only regular gig in Detroit was
to replace Lateef in the house band at the West End Hotel, an after-hours
spot. Around Christmas 1959 he and Hillyer left for New York and within
months they were playing with Charles Mingus, on the recommendation of
Lateef. McPherson moved to San Diego in 1978.
In the late 1960s some Detroit jazz bands turned toward modal playing and the leader in this movement was the Contemporary Jazz Quintet. The CJQ will have a reunion at this year's festival, bringing back trumpeter Charles Moore from Los Angeles, to co-lead the band with pianist Ken Cox.
Another reunion at the festival will be the Tribute to Marcus Belgrave, when he rejoins several of his former students from the seventies. Kenny Garrett was briefly a student of Belgrave. He left Detroit in 1978 at only 18 to join the Duke Ellington orchestra and later played with Miles Davis. Garrett has become one of the major young voices on his instrument. Pianist Geri Allen is another former student of Belgrave's who is a major voice on her instrument, with a long series of records in her own name. The third Belgrave returnee is bassist Bob Hurst who is most well known for playing with the Marsalis brothers. Belgrave has been a leading figure on Detroit's jazz scene for thirty years as an educator and a soloist and we are lucky to still have him here at the top of his game.