From Detroit to the World: Celebrating Marcus Belgrave

Linda Yohn represented SEMJA and WRCJ hosting the NYC Winter JazzFest tribute to Marcus Belgrave. She offers this reminiscence and review.

If you have experienced Joan Belgrave in live performance, you are well aware that her late husband — beloved trumpeter/educator/mentor Marcus Belgrave — colors every aspect of her life and music. On January 12, 2020, Joan shared her love for Marcus and the music of our great city, Detroit, with New York City and the world. This five-part evening of Detroit-centric jazz was presented at the nightclub (le) Poisson Rouge as part of New York’s annual Winter JazzFest.

The roster of artists was a who’s who of Detroit jazz yesterday and today, along with musicians who absorbed Marcus’ influence at Oberlin College and other venues. Kudos to Joan Belgrave for arranging the collective appearance of trumpeters Dwight Adams, Theo Croker and Greg Glassman. Saxophonists were J.D. Allen and Kasan Belgrave. Throughout the evening the piano chair was occupied by Zen Zadravec, Kelvin Sholar or Johnny O’Neal. Bass duties were handled by Ibrahim Jones, Robert Hurst and NEA Jazz Master Ron Carter. Drums and percussion were powered by Brandon Williams, Ali Jackson, Karriem Riggins, Kassa Overall and Louis Hayes, another NEA Jazz Master. As an added treat, Detroit record producer and techno king Carl Craig brought his gear to supply additional electronica layers on Marcus Belgrave’s “Space Odyssey.” And for many, the top treats of the evening were the expressive vocals of NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan and Joan Belgrave.

The evening began with music journalist Mark Stryker, author of Jazz From Detroit, recently published by University of Michigan Press. Stryker shared Detroit’s jazz story from “the great migration” to the present. Joan Belgrave, Hurst and Riggins joined Stryker to wrap up the talk and put Marcus Belgrave’s musical magic and genius into perspective with warm humor and respect. The music the lit up the night. Joan and her working ensemble of Zadravec, Jones and Williams shared songs of Marcus’ historic repertoire and life with trumpeter Glassman. Emotion ran high, strong and sincere especially on Joan’s rendition of You Don’t Know Me from the Ray Charles book.

Joan Belgrave returned to the stage with Marcus Belgrave protégés Glassman, Croker, Adams, Allen, Kasan Belgrave, Sholar, Hurst, Riggins, Overall and Craig to honor his legacy and significant influence as mentor and teacher. Marcus Belgrave originals such as "Space Odyssey," "Akua Ewie" and "All My Love" including Adams playing Marcus’ trumpet made this set.

Reverence for Detroit’s deep jazz tradition followed from the Jazz Royalty Ensemble of Jordan, Adams, O’Neal, Zadravec, Carter, Hayes and Riggins. Ron Carter was inspirational — his usually composed demeanor was cast aside for a generous grin and refreshing, unconventional solos. His two originals "Hastings Street" and "Eight" arranged for this unique ensemble shed new light on the tunes. Jordan shed new light on the Kenny Dorham classic "Fair Weather" and found new personal revelations in her classic jazz story-telling "Sheila’s Blues." The 91-year-old NEA Jazz Master shows no signs of stopping or slowing down. Her brilliance and warmth brought forth an early standing ovation from the appreciative audience.

The evening ended with Marcus Protégés: Taking It Forward. Croker, Adams, Glassman, Allen, Kasan Belgrave, Sholar, Hurst, Overall, Riggins and Jackson took Marcus’ music into the future and beyond. Standout moments of the finale were Sholar’s expansive piece "Villanelle Six" and Hurst’s funky "Detroit Day" when Jackson really strutted his stuff with a single tambourine.

All twenty of us made it up on the stage for a grand bow to Marcus Belgrave, Detroit and the world of jazz. What a night to remember and what a feat of production for Joan Belgrave! Frankly, this show could go on the road!!