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As a longtime jazz fan, arts writer Mark Stryker was well aware that the city of Detroit had played a role in the development of the music he loved. However, after he took a job with the Detroit Free Press in 1995, Stryker began to realize just how pivotal that role was. As he interviewed Motor City icons such as Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan and Joe Henderson, certain recurring themes cropped up that broadened his understanding of why Detroit was uniquely positioned to become a hotbed for jazz. “I began to connect the dots,” says Stryker, 55, who does just that in Jazz From Detroit, his entertaining and insightful new book from University of Michigan Press. “You begin to see this incredible ecosystem of jazz that exists in this city and how it produced all these musicians and how it survived.”
Stryker tells his tale through a series of in-depth, era-spanning profiles of Detroit’s major players, from Gerald Wilson and Milt Jackson, through Yusef Lateef and the Jones brothers, to Geri Allen and Gerald Cleaver. The concept of mentorship, he relates, profoundly affected the music’s continuing presence in the city, as older artists imparted a “Detroit DNA” to their protégés.
“There’s a deep respect for tradition, particularly bebop and the blues, and a kind of polished craftsmanship that comes from coming up under the wing of somebody like Barry Harris or Marcus [Belgrave],” Stryker says. “So we have these innovators who changed the course of the music, like Elvin Jones or Ron Carter, or in more recent years like Geri Allen. But you also have these great stylists; they didn’t necessarily change the music, but they developed such high levels of personality and individualism on their instruments that they’re almost a category of one. Roland Hanna is somebody that’s like that. And you think about a Charles McPherson or a Louis Hayes. They play like no one but themselves. They play their personalities every time they step on the bandstand. I don’t think that’s an accident that that came out of Detroit.”
Stryker also credits rigorous musical programs at Detroit schools such as Cass Tech, as well as infrastructural support for events such as the Detroit Jazz Festival. Couple that with an African-American population that continues to patronize jazz clubs and concerts, and a sense of continuity prevails. “That middle-class African-American population who grew up with the music still come out and hear the music,” Stryker says. “Then they pass it on to their kids. And that has a powerful impact. Because the music is not created or sustained in a vacuum.”
Despite some racial fractiousness in the 1960s and the city’s economic woes of the past couple of decades, the jazz world of Detroit is close-knit and inclusive, Stryker maintains. “The jazz community here is family,” he says. “The musicians, the audience, the supporters — those familial bonds have helped sustain the music.” —Bob Weinberg