Mark Stryker, Author of 'Jazz From Detroit,' on a City "Punching Way Over Our Weight Class"

Jan 8, 2020

“You can’t tell the history of jazz in America without also telling the history of jazz from Detroit,” says Mark Stryker. “Those two things are indivisible.”

Stryker may not be a strictly objective source on the matter, as author of the justly acclaimed Jazz From Detroit (Univ. of Michigan Press). But as his book demonstrates, the claim comes rooted in clear musical and historical evidence. Through a series of artist profiles, with attendant cultural context, Stryker shows how several generations of musicians shaped the course of the music, either as part of a Motor City Diaspora or as pillars of a homegrown scene.

During an in-depth interview near the close of the year, Stryker reflected on the motivation behind Jazz From Detroit, which was informed by a lifetime of listening — and his long tenure as a critic and reporter for the Detroit Free Press.

The advent of what Stryker calls “The Golden Age” of Detroit’s jazz scene ran from roughly 1940 to 1960, producing many of the musicians who defined the sound of modern jazz — including multi-reedist Yusef Lateef, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianists Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan, and bassist Ron Carter. That era also corresponded to the apex of the city’s industrial might, when Detroit was a driving magnet in the Great Migration.

“It is a place where music is omnipresent,” says Stryker of that midcentury heyday. “I mean, it is on the street corners, blues and swing are everywhere: it seeps under the windows, under the doors. Out through the African American neighborhood of Paradise Valley, there are scores and scores of restaurants, clubs, where musicians can play. And people had money. It’s really important that the auto industry in Detroit was on the front end, leading end, of creating an African American working and middle class in this country. You know, this music does not flourish in a place where money is not flowing.”

Our conversation also touched on the importance of institutions like Cass Tech High School, which produced musicians ranging from big band composer Gerald Wilson to pianist Geri Allen; the Jones Brothers, Hank, Thad and Elvin, who receive their own special section in the book; and the rise of artist-run collectives including Tribe and Strata Corporation, primarily in the 1970s.

And we discussed a vital tradition of private pedagogy and mentorship that began with Barry Harris in the ‘50s, and was later exemplified by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. From Detroit to the World — a concert this Sunday night at Le Poisson Rouge, as part of the Winter Jazzfest — will focus in part on Belgrave’s legacy in particular. Organized primarily by vocalist Joan Belgrave, his widow, it will feature a handful of his former protégés, as well as living legends like Carter, singer Sheila Jordan and drummer Louis Hayes. (Stryker will lead a preconcert conversation about Detroit’s jazz history.)

Finally, it’s worth noting that Jazz From Detroit is a true pleasure to read. As a fellow critic, I relished the chance to ask Stryker about his process as a writer — the balance of descriptive and evaluative language that brings these profiles to life.

Mark Stryker, left, with Nate Chinen in Detroit, 2018.
Credit Ashley Lederer

I greatly enjoyed this conversation, and hope you will too. Here are full versions of the songs excerpted in this segment:

Kenny Burrell, “Chitlins Con Carne”

Barry Harris Trio, “My Heart Stood Still”

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, “The Little Pixie”

Geri Allen, “Batista’s Groove”

Producer: Sarah Kerson