The University of Michigan’s annual veneration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King takes on a local tone when the University Musical Society presents “From Cass Corridor to the World: A Tribute to Detroit’s Musical Golden Age,” featuring pianist Geri Allen and her one-time mentor, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, Monday, January 21.
Detroit’s jazz history reaches back almost a century. The urban mix, enriched over decades by the Great Migration from the South, provided a multiethnic and multicultural artistic palette, and the predominantly African American city core abounded with all kinds of music. Young talents were nurtured in a variety of social spaces: at home, in church, in public schools, and in the universities of the streets, whose mentors provided instruction and inspiration. The three most important such teachers were pianist Barry Harris, who trained generations of important artists prior to his move to New York in 1960, saxophonist Donald Washington, and Belgrave. Their work was aided by the high level of music instruction in the public schools, especially at Northern (Tommy Flanagan, Bess Bonnier, Smokey Robinson), Northwestern (Betty Carter, Roy Brooks, Wendell Harrison), Miller (Frank Rosolino, Milt Jackson), and Cass Tech high schools. Cass Tech produced such illustrious alumni as singer Diana Ross, comic Lily Tomlin, and, of course, successful jazz players, among them Gerald Wilson, Donald Byrd, Regina Carter, and Geri Allen.
Allen was born in Pontiac but raised in Detroit. Her early musical training was enriched and developed in the years during which she studied and performed with Marcus Belgrave in his grassroots university-of-the-streets Jazz Development Workshop, which opened in 1975. Belgrave, originally from Pennsylvania, had traveled all over the globe with the Ray Charles band and had recorded with some of the best players in New York, but he settled in Detroit to work in the house band of Motown Records. His workshop, housed in a storefront on Gratiot Ave., trained many young jazz musicians; those performing at the Hill Auditorium celebration include the rhythm section trio of Allen, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Karriem Riggins, who will accompany the featured artists throughout the evening. Belgrave, who recently retired from teaching at Oberlin College, is one of the finest trumpet players in jazz, with a sound all his own and unbounded musical imagination.
The evening will be anchored by Allen, who after many musical and academic adventures has settled down as a professor in the U-M School of Music. She developed the skills she acquired in Detroit not only through university studies, but also through performing and recording in a wide range of musical settings–from the latter-day Mary Wilson and the Supremes to various more adventurous avant-garde settings–and by reaching back decades to the music of Mary Lou Williams. Her rich sense of jazz history will inform her tribute to the music of Detroit on this special evening.