REVIEW: From Cass Corridor to the World: A Tribute to Detroit’s Musical Golden Age



It wouldn’t be MLK Day without a sonic tribute to the soul of the social justice movement. In honor of the rich musical history of the city of Detroit, Hill Auditorium hosted a collaboration of some of the world’s best jazz musicians.  The D-3 Trio, comprised of Gerri Allen, Robert Hurst, and Karriem Riggins (shown above in that order) filled the auditorium with the sweet sounds of Motown’s finest tunes.

The evening was curated by Geri Allen, who is an esteemed professor of Jazz in the Music school as well as a world renowned musician. On campus, she is known for her Sunday Salons which she hosts in the Sterns Building every so often  in honor of Mary Lou William’s jazz tradition. Geri Allen is a native of Detroit who was guided by legendary  trumpet player Marcus Belgrave. He is a father figure to many early  Detroit jazz instrumentalists, including Bob Hurst.  On Monday, Belgrave performed at Hill  with his former students who are now world class musicians.

The evening was designed to pay respect to the legacy of Detroit music. The program began with the spiritual “Lift Every Voice,” followed by a Martin Luther King Jr. speech which was originally recited at the Berlin Jazz Festival. The speech was sung/read by George Shirley, who is also a pioneering legacy in the black musical tradition: he was one of the first black  operatic  singers to perform at the Met. In the speech, MLK described jazz and blues as an oracle for the black experience; no other medium can synthesize the story as purely. It is an  intangible and abstract experience, but also direct and connected to a deep lineage.

The performances  featured notes of  trial and tribulation as well as complex jazz gospel. The celebrated  vocalists  represented  a tradition of older  female singers; a woodwind feature showcased  four clarinets, including the legendary James Carter; tributes were paid to names like Aretha Franklin, Elvin Jones, and Roy Brooks;  then, an improvised poem  recited by Shahita Nurulla. The only young voice of the evening was a featured student named Stephen Grady who took a a solo on a gospel jazz arrangement. The rest  of the voice spoke  the older days of Detroit musical origins.

The second half of the evening remembered Detroit’s pop sensation: Motown. The Original Vandellas and The Contours inspired the crowd to dance. And in honor of Detroits most recent musical movement, a female MC and rapper called Invincible paid hommage to hip-hop sensation J Dilla.

Over flowing with emotion, the program was a soulful and evocative experience. What was striking about the music was that it was deeply  traditional, but  infused  with something very new. They were not playing  the gospel songs as they had always been played. Echoes of Afro-Diaspora sounds rung out loudly  but were met with modern, impressionistic overtones. The music avoided the pentatonics that are signature of African rhythms and infused  the sounds with modern notes and ideas. The blues remained, but the color pallet had been warped. With musicians of such high caliber, it is possible to do this without compromising  the tradition from which they came.

At the end of the night, Marcus Belgrave received an honored award. He had been  father to so many talented musicians in the Detroit family and that night,  they were all on stage with him. The program closed with the most spiritual and emotional performance of all,  “Oh Precious Lord,” leaving the audience and the musicians alike deeply moved by the tribute.