Live review

“Celebrating Detroit, Honouring Marcus Belgrave” at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC

From Detroit to the World: Celebrating the Jazz Legacy of Detroit and Honoring Marcus Belgrave (Winter JazzFest)
(Le Poisson Rouge, NYC. 12  January 2020. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

“From Detroit to the World” could have been about any number of things: cars, Prohibition-era alcohol, Motown records. This time it’s about the music and teaching of the late jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave (1936-2015), presented by his family, peers and protégés.

Marcus Belgrave. Publicity photo

Belgrave might not have been the most famous trumpeter around but he was one of the more influential, whether in Detroit or further afield. His sound seeped through early stints with Ray Charles, as well as Joe Henderson, McCoy tuner, Wynton Marsalis, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and a whole suite of Motown sessions.

But instead of measuring his own success, his longer term impact can be measured in the success of the musicians he taught. And that’s where the bulk of the evening’s performances lie: with the legacy that he left.

For the benefit of those not well-versed in Belgrave lore, the showcase opened with a panel session chaired by journalist,  historian and author of Jazz from Detroit Mark Stryker; an opportunity to hear some personal anecdotes about his approach to music. Belgrave’s widow, Joan Belgrave (who put the whole show together) contextualised Marcus’ playing and teaching styles through how he learnt to play, as part of his family band. His father taught everyone how to play all sorts of instruments, and Marcus just thought that was how everyone should learn.

That cross-instrumental understanding is something that he kept on with throughout his career, evidenced by the two other panelists, former pupils Robert Hurst (bass) and Karriem Riggins (drums). Both Hurst and Riggins recalled being booted off their instrument in lessons and on stage so that Belgrave could demonstrate to them how to play it the way he wanted it played. Hurst credits this to the focus on rhythm in the way Belgrave played trumpet, and in the way he wanted his bands to play around him: always listening, and with a strong rhythm.

A powerful frontline – Theo Croker, JD Allen, Dwight Adams, Greg Glassman and Kasan Belgrave with Kassa Overall on drums. Photo © Jonathan Chimene

With some background laid out, it was time for four sets of musical tribute, starting with Joan Belgrave’s Message of Love (dubbed as such by host Linda Yohn) – a collection of hers and Marcus’ favourite tunes played by a Detroit-based group; a Belgrave House Band of sorts. As well as some Belgrave originals, this featured a plaintive, drawn out It’s Good To Be Home Again from Greg Glassman on trumpet and Zen Zadravec, and a full rendition of Belgrave’s favourite Ray Charles song You Don’t Know Me.

But instead of focusing on the music, this section was really about the stories from Joan in-between: her memories of the sound of the trumpet at his funeral, the first song they wrote together, the songs he played just before his death.

Next up was the Legacy Ensemble – a collection of his protégés playing some of his choice compositions. And he certainly had plenty of protégés playing musical chairs on stage. From looking at them it was in fact clearly a combination of three or four different legacies, signalled by their sartorial decisions: hoodies and beanies; collarless shirts and overalls; sweater vests and jazzy shirts; or the full suit, tie and hat combo.

Hurst and Riggins, our erstwhile panellists, were at the core of the group. After the spacey ’70s opening to Space Odyssey, it was the straight beat and deep bass groove that set the backing for the three trumpet frontline. But after cracking self-deprecating jokes about bass solos in the introduction, Hurst’s mesmerising adventure in his improvisation through All My Love brought the house down. Engaging, precise, varied, the phrased composition ensured no-one went to the bar during this solo.

All My Love also saw Dwight Adams pick up Belgrave’s old horn – an honour partly bestowed because of the similarity in his trumpet approach – shadowed by Joan and their son Kasan Belgrave on alto. And while everyone on stage is part of Marcus’ legacy, his son (his microphone being fussed over by his mother while he plays) is definitely a big part of that legacy. His comfort on stage was exemplified by his fluid improvisation on Akua Ewie, a song written for Kasan’s sister. He arrives on stage late, smokes through a rapid solo dropping Dizzy references, and joshes with Adams while the others play.

The Detroit Jazz Royalty Ensemble were certainly all comfortable on stage, and the presence of some of them had the already intrusive photographer corps in a spin, and half-way mounting the stage to get snaps of the preeminent Ron Carter with his bass. There is an audible intake of breath as he launches into his first solo on Hastings Street, and while it was written for an unusual cello-heavy nonet, his composition Eight was played as a stripped back trio very nicely with Louis Hayes on drums.

Sheila Jordan at Le Poisson Rouge. Photo © Jonathan Chimene

But the cheeky Sheila Jordan is the real royal winner, holding the audience captivated as she picks through Kenny Dorham’s Fair Weather – her voice dripping with emotion, and conveying so much meaning through a look as she connects with the room. She follows it up with stories of her childhood in and out of the Detroit jazz clubs, and pulls the standing ovation of the night as she bows out brandishing her 91 years of age as a triumph. Fantastic.

The final set was about Taking It Forward, with the protégés playing their own compositions in their own way. And it was accordingly varied, showcasing the different routes Belgrave’s students have taken. While some of his students were busy showcasing themselves on Saturday night, where two Oberlin college graduates Theo Croker and Kassa Overall were leading their own exciting projects the night before at the Mercury Lounge, it was on Kelvin Sholar’s sprawling composition Villanelle 6 that it felt everyone really let loose. Overall shuffling nicely on the drums, Sholar pumping some dirty keys, and an array of horns playing homage to Belgrave. And while Dwight Adams and Greg Glassman are clear maestros, it was Croker’s round, deep tone that caught the ear. When he plays it sounds like a flugelhorn – a richness that truly tilts a hat to Belgrave – and the phrasing always sounds so calm and composed. With three trumpets, and alto and a tenor up front this future ensemble was an ambitious scratch band, but one where Belgrave’s teachings on the importance of listening clearly got through.

The whole evening was thick with pride – for Marcus Belgrave’s legacy, and for the city of Detroit itself. The upbeat tone about the city’s past and its promising future was only rarely punctured with hints of the period in between, with fleeting mention of the old neighbourhoods erased by the first depressed freeway, and the constant break-ins at Belgrave’s old place when he was away on tour. But with a tambourine being beaten to within an inch of its life by Ali Jackson, and a joyous busy sound on Hurst’s Detroit Day, this evening was certainly a true celebration of what Marcus Belgrave and Detroit brought to the world.

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