Pamela Wise: Sonic Solidarity Interview

Pamela Wise, pianist, educator, and “cultural warrior,” discusses her relationship to Detroit music, music education, and the impact of COVID-19.


Gholz    00:50    Alright. We have with us Ms. Pamela Wise, Detroiter, musician, pianist, composer. Pamela can you describe a little bit about who you are and what is your relationship to Detroit music?  


Wise    01:10    Well, I describe myself as a modern day jazz pianist and composer that focuses on fusing Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz together.

You know, I’m a surviving cultural warrior in Detroit. I often use my artistic talents to be a voice for the community in terms of different things that are going on and what our community residents might be facing.  


Gholz    01:46    And you are not from Michigan, you came to Michigan from Ohio.  


Wise    01:52    Yeah, I’m originally from Steubenville, Ohio. Not “Stupidville” Steubenville. A lot of people are like “Stupidville?” No, Steubenville is where Dean Martin is from. My Dad grew up and went to school with Dean Martin. So, that’s one of the star crowns of our little small mining town of Steubenville.  


Gholz    02:19    And where’s that Cuban, I mean Detroit, Michigan and Ohio, we’re pretty far away from Cuba, one might think. So where does that come from for you? Where, where does that, where is that, as a musician?  


Wise    02:32    As a musician I think it comes from probably my ancestry. I know I have descendants from Africa. I don’t know about Cuba, but I just think that being an African American that it’s really a natural thing and it was surprising because I would always hear those rhythms in all American music just about, so it’s not really that far-fetched. I just wanted to trace my ancestors a little more and investigate why I hear that music and why I see it prominent in dance and in everything else that we do. I just think that it’s amazing how all those rhythms have carried on for thousands of years. 


Gholz    03:24    Pam could you, are you the first, I know we’ve talked about this before, but you’re definitely not the first musician in your family. Can you just briefly say what the background of your musicianship is, if there were other musicians in your family or if you were — I’m pretty sure when we’ve talked before — you are not the first musician in your family?  


Wise    03:47    Oh, no. My father [Robert Wise] was a jazz upright bass player that had a jazz trio that was pretty popular. They had traveled around the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. And of course when his kids like me started coming along, he also got a gig in the Post Office, that he worked for for over forty years, but he always continued to play music.  


Gholz    04:14    And so he was a postal worker and a musician. 


Wise Yes. 


Gholz I’m thinking about our postal workers these days. You must be thinking of them as well. They’re right on the front lines of all of this.  


Wise    04:27    Yeah, I  think of the postal workers all the time because, you know, my Dad was a postal worker in a very small town and like I said, he always continued to play music, but he was also like, everybody knew my father and loved him so he was kinda like this postal carrier mayor kind of personality, so I couldn’t get away with too much…  


Gholz    04:54    Right, right.  


Wise    04:58    … schoolteachers, because he delivered mail to all their houses.  


Gholz    05:01    Sure. You’re making me remember that Dudley Randall, the great poet from Detroit was also a postal worker and that most artists and musicians in Detroit really are, I mean, most people aren’t privileged enough honestly to be a full time musician, you know? 


Wise That’s true. 


Gholz: Most people have to have some other kind of income. How long have you been what you would call a professional musician?  


Wise    05:30    Well I left my, I had a couple of day jobs when I first moved to Detroit and I would say that I quit my day job around 1983. So that’s when I became a full time musician.  


Gholz    05:46    And what allowed that to happen? What was the key? Yeah, what was happening back in 1983. It’s getting further and further away now, Pamela. 


Wise    05:56    Yeah. Yeah.  Because, you know I found out I was only working entry level jobs and I could make just as much money or more playing, you know, four or five nights a week. Of course, that’s the way gigs were back then.  


Gholz    06:13    Right.  


Wise    06:14    Yeah, you had more venues to play. But it’s not quite like that now. I’ll often kind of worry about our younger musicians and trying to, you know, encourage them to continue their education and not rely on, you know, little gigs to keep you going because it’s just not enough now, that’s not a good future to keep playing at every Joe’s Bar all the time, you can’t support a family like that.  


Gholz    06:46    Right. It’s difficult to see the American Dream as a musician.It’s probably always been difficult, but yeah, it seems when you can’t put steady giggin’ together, right, where you’re pulling something specific right each week, you know?  


Wise    07:07    Yeah. And then, you know, it’s different times now because I even remember listening to some of the master players who were kind of fortunate enough, in a way, to have record contracts and…


Gholz Right.


Wise … you know, maybe the label, like if you were playing with the band and you were kind of like a really great player, they might pick you up and put records out on you and promote you and open the doors for touring and stuff like that. But the industry has really changed quite a bit from those days. And especially now with this COVID-19, I’m not really sure what is going to be on the horizon for musicians? You know, it’s live performance and with them limiting limited gatherings and that kind of thing. I don’t know. We’re going to have to get quite creative here in terms of making a pathway for our youth.  


Gholz    08:13    Yeah. Well let’s get to that. Let’s take another minute here, so we talked a little bit about how you grew up and being a professional musician, you run a record label, right? Rebirth is — talk a little bit about what Rebirth is and how you actually put out music? Because you don’t have a major label contract, right? But you put out records cause you guys have your own capacity to do those kinds of things. So just talk a little bit about your creative output in normal times. Let’s, we’ll leave COVID for a second. We’ll talk about what you were doing before the pandemic.  


Wise    08:56   Well of course my husband Wendell Harrison is the founder, co-founder, of Tribe Records with Phil Ranelin and they’ve always put out their own music. And we continued the Tribe label up to a certain point. Then it kind of changed over to Rebirth and Wenha. And now it’s changed back over to Tribe. Because Tribe has always continued to put out music even though when a lot of people thought it disbanded, it really never did. It was always the underlying current there because we had a lot of record labels and distributors in other countries that still wanted to pick up Tribe material and also what we recorded on Rebirth and Wenha, so we’ve always been like an independent record label that would pick up distribution from other labels in other countries.  


Wise    10:00    Rebirth is basically a nonprofit organization that Wendell and Harold McKinney founded back in 1979 because they wanted an educational arm of what we were doing so we could focus in on teaching younger jazz musicians and providing opportunities for them educational wise, but also giving them opportunities to play and record and work. And we still [have] been able to continue to do that through grant funding and grant programs. And I know you said that, I was this administrator, but I’m not really that great of an administrator. I mean, these are things that I try to help put in place because, from working day jobs, I do have some type of office and organizational skills. So I always try to lend that to Wendell and Harold. So we could continue to build off of that.  


Wise    11:10    And then over time we brought in other people, like yourself, so we could continue our projects and to do what we do. And today we’re still doing it. Wendell, he’s now also teaches for the Detroit High School of Performing Arts twice a week as a jazz improvisational instructor. But he also provides outlets for the young musicians to come over on Tuesdays, created the Upper Room series where they could come over and continue their jazz improvisational studies and out of that he hires them for gigs and it just kinda goes on and on and on. Because at different times Rebirth would go to different middle schools and high schools and play for the kids and stuff like that. And we found out that we started out with about 10 kids that were learning jazz at that time. Now we got about 75-100 that are showing other kids how to play.  


Gholz    12:16    Amazing. And, just to give our audience a sense of perspective, when we’re talking about Tribe, the first Tribe live concerts, right, the branding of Tribe. It goes back to 1970?  


Wise    12:31    Yeah, yeah. I was still in high school then, so I wasn’t around at that time.  


Gholz    12:37   Right. Is it the anniversary this year? Was it last year? The 50th anniversary of Tribe?


Wise    12:41    You know, I really don’t know. I would have to ask Wendell about that. You know there’s probably some other fans out there that know more about that than maybe even Wendell does, cause they keep up with it.  


Gholz    12:55    But even with Rebirth, you’re saying it’s ‘79. I mean, you’re talking about working in education with youth for over 30 years.  


Wise    13:04    Yeah. Yes. Yep, I think our first workshop, the first grant we got might’ve been around in 1980 where we held some type of music repair workshop because when we found out that a lot of the kids that were in high school, they didn’t have decent instruments to play on and the school wasn’t fixing them for them. So we held a workshop, basically showing them how they could make basic repairs on their instrument and make reeds and stuff like that, whatever they needed to. We couldn’t get into redesigning any metal and stuff like that.


Gholz Sure, sure. 


Wise They learned how to, to basically take care of their instrument and keep it clean. And you know, to solve just small problems with that, we found out that was a really, really big problem for them.  


Gholz Yeah.


Wise    14:02   But we continue to try to provide whatever training that we can for them. I think that’s one of the most important things. And I think Wendell was not only really inspired, he was inspired by Harold McKinney to carry on the educational part of that. But also Dr. Amelita Mandingo who was a cultural warrior in the city of Detroit. And at the time before I came along, she was running a program called Metro Arts


Gholz Yes. 


And she hired Harold and Wendell and people like Teddy Harris and she had a wonderful program that was going on full time, to train young musicians, dancers, artists, whatever, you know, whatever training they need. And they would get professional training. And I think the city of Detroit, I don’t know. I think they’re, I’ve heard bits and pieces that they’re trying to recreate that scenario again, but I don’t know.  


Gholz    15:12    Where we are with — Wendell, Mr. Harrison, you know, went to Northwestern High School on Detroit’s West side, not far from the Blue Bird [Inn], right, where Detroit Sound Conservancy is trying to make our mark and you’ve done a number of performances with Shrine of the Black Madonna. And that’s not far, in the grand scheme, from the Blue Bird either. It’s like right, right there. Can you talk a little bit…  


Wise    15:42    It’s funny that you mentioned about that because the founder of the Shrine of the Black Madonna church was, you know, he loved jazz. Reverend Albert B. Cleage. And he used to hire a lot of the young jazz musicians who were in that area to come and play at different functions that he would have at the church, at his home, because he was really involved in it, in the youth back in the fifties and sixties. But also wanted to provide that same type of groundwork to have a great outlet for the youth to do things that were safe for them to do. Because at that time in Detroit they had “The Big Four” and they had a lot of problems of racial discrimination around that time.  


Gholz    16:34    The Big Four, the police that would go around and ask that you, ask not so politely, for people to move along, get off the corner, etc, etc.  


Wise    16:46    Right. Right. And do you know Reverend Cleage was very inspirational in terms of providing outlets for youth in that neighborhood to do some positive things. And if they had some work, craft that they, you know, art to offer, he was all into it and he would encourage them to come in and showcase their talents.  


Gholz    17:12    We should talk at some point after this conversation, Pam, about the Reverend Cleage archive. I would love to, if there’s a picture of him in the Blue Bird, I’d love to find one someday, but he was obviously a Christian, but Christian national, sort of Black Christian nationalism, which, is that how you would describe it?  


Wise    17:38    Oh, most definitely. He designed an opportunity and I would say a great aid to the black community in terms of creating a platform for us where we could get out of the traditional things that we saw in Christian religion, in terms of the pictures of the White Jesus Christ…. 


Gholz Right.


Wise … that type of thing. He kinda changed that whole narrative for us. And I think his teaching you know, at first, when I started hanging around the church they were kind of stuck in a time zone but now I see that they’re greatly needed more than ever, that other people need to get on board to what we’re doing. And it’s open to everybody. It’s just not for Black people. It’s for anybody who wants to do good, you know, our founders always welcomed that. And we continue to do that.  


Gholz    18:54    There’s a, last year, or maybe I guess a year and a half, Herb Boyd came out with his book about Black self determination in Detroit I’m fudging the title a little bit there, but, Reverend Albert Cleage definitely [was] part of that longer legacy of Black Detroiters doing it for themselves, you know?  


Wise    19:18    Yeah. And then we’re going to have to do it, we gotta do it now because all of this stuff is going on. I mean, you know where we’re all going to have to pitch in here together and come out of this some kind of way.  


Gholz    19:34    Well, what has been the impact? Let’s take a minute. What has been the direct impact of the pandemic on you, your career, and Wendell’s career? Are you able to, for instance, maintain some of the education programs in other ways or is everything sort of frozen right now?  


Wise    19:54   You know, I’ve been able, Wendell has been, and I, we’ve been pretty much FaceTiming our students. 


Gholz Right. 


Wise But they’re not able to come over on Tuesdays anymore because of the social distancing kind of thing. So we’ve had to put the Upper Room series on hold, but we’re able to still communicate through FaceTime. Now I was a little bit disappointed in the Detroit Jazz Foundation because Wendell has been teaching their program at different, various high schools and Marion [Hayden] also and Gayelynn McKinney, just to mention a few that’s been able to teach programs for the Detroit Jazz Foundation through different high schools and middle schools, which is very important. But when this COVID-19 came up they weren’t able to offer any type of, not only compensation for the artists, their instructors, but also the fact that they hadn’t put any type of thing in place where they could video chat with the students…


Gholz Right.


Wise … that they had or, I mean, it just wasn’t, it’s not [a] very well thought out program, they’re fortunate to get these funds from private donations and grants but whoever’s administrating the programs is very limited in thinking of their master instructors, they canceled them for the rest of the school year and then of course not providing any type of compensation for them.  


Wise    21:39    And there’s only six of them. It’s not like they’re, you know, funding a hundred instructors in the school, it’s only six people and they were only running for the school year. So you figured the COVID went down last month, they only had April and May to go, you know, to go the rest of the road. So I felt that they should have, as instructors, master instructors, they should’ve been compensated for that time. And also mechanisms put in place where, “Hey, we can FaceTime the students and still keep the program going,” you know? But, that’s my spiel on that. But yeah, there’s been some things that happened, income has been interrupted. You know my thing at the church, I mean, I still get some compensation from the church, but I guess we won’t be gathering again until next month and you know so stuff happens but hang in there and deal with it, you know.  


Gholz    22:42    As we’re looking forward here and I wanna be conscious of your time here. We’ll talk to you a couple more questions here and then we’ll call it a day. But as we’re looking forward to when this is all, I mean, I don’t think it’s going to be done for a while. You know, the more we learn about it, it looks like it’s gonna be awhile before we get a vaccine, for instance. So it’s gonna be touch and go here for a while. And live music obviously is, and face-to-face education, in the same room, as much as you can put somebody on a FaceTime. Or some Zoom, right? I mean, I think those are all really good.  


Gholz    23:30    You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about how all Detroit musicians need, we need to get a sponsor and everybody needs to have good Zoom recorders and good video in their homes and good computers so they can at a whim, at a moment’s notice, connect, and a lot of musicians just don’t even have that, some of those basic pieces, you know? And of course, the students don’t all have those pieces, right? So there’s gonna be remote learning. There’s going to have to be a remote learning revolution here in Detroit coming up soon. But what else do, when you look ahead, what do you think could really help, not just for you and Wendell, but the other musicians you talk to, the young people, what do we really need to do that maybe even we weren’t even doing before the pandemic? Right. What, what would you like to see moving forward in terms of, I don’t know, state support, local cities support, corporate support, whatever it is, but what are the things we want to have when we get back?  


Wise    24:43    Well, when we get back to normal, because, you know, music is, especially jazz, you don’t stay in a room and play jazz by yourself. You have to interact with other people. I think that while the master teachers are still around, I think we need to open up the opportunity to have things like, are you familiar with this San Francisco Jazz Orchestra


Gholz    25:18    I’m not, but I’ll, but we can, yeah, say more.  


Wise    25:22    It’s a wonderful jazz band. Big band and orchestra but they feature, they have different writers, guest artists that come in and perform and write for the ensemble and they have their, like their own radio time on Sirius XM. I think they provide scholarship opportunities for upcoming jazz artists. So I think we need to think maybe put together, and then this is something Wendell was talking about, putting together a really strong state jazz orchestra. 


Gholz Okay. 


Wise And I think he, him and maybe Rodney Whitaker, kind of kicking that idea around to see how they could possibly make that happen where the band could record, possibly with some touring. 


Gholz Right. 


Wise That kind of thing. I think that’s one of the things that’s lacking. Because of that, there’s an ongoing arm, an outlet for the young musicians gaining great experience working with masters, intergenerational, you know… 


Gholz Yeah


Wise … it could even be a multidisciplinary [program].  


Gholz    27:01    I think, Detroit Sound Conservancy’s been involved in trying to keep alive the memory of the Graystone Jazz Museum and in the 80s they were able to find some of that arts funding for jazz concerts, right? And dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of those shows, and we have some of those tapes from those performances and yeah, absolutely. The band members are some people in their seventies and eighties at that time on the bandstand with, you know who now are veterans, but then were just kids, Geri Allen playing in an ensemble with a Marcus Belgrave, with ex-members of The McKinney Cotton Pickers, etcetera, etcetera, you know. And I think that it was — sometimes I think we look back at the 80s as it could be a very rough time.  


Gholz    28:00    You know, already in the 80s state funding and federal funding was sort of going away from the arts in many ways. But in Detroit there was still a lot of arts funding running around and great, great performances, great programming and a big emphasis on music. I think what you’re reminding me is that we need to sort of, you can’t go backwards, but how can we foreground music as how should I say it? The greatest amongst equals, you know. We don’t want to say it’s better than painting or something like that or whatever. But it is, in Detroit musicianship really is, well, what do you think about it? I mean, what is music’s — why is music important to Detroit as opposed to any place else? What’s its role for us?  


Wise    28:52    Well, I mean, I think music is important all over the world. I mean, it’s just not a local thing. I mean, it reaches beyond all boundaries, I think. And it brings people together. Of all walks of life, all boundaries. And I think that’s what it does for everybody, not just for Detroit, of course, you have different things that put Detroit on the map such as people like Wendell and Tribe and Motown and, well heck, DSO, Detroit Symphony Orchestra. So, my thing, it’s not just Detroit. I think every nook and cranny of the world needs art and music. Cause if you look around, everything that you look at, I don’t care if it’s a piece of furniture, you know, that’s art. If you’re sitting in a chair, somebody designed that chair. That’s art!


Gholz Yup. Yup. Absolutely. 


Wise Oh, and I think, you know, “Number 45,” definitely, he had something to say about — he didn’t think that art was important. I’m like, what about that table you using dude?  


Gholz    30:08    Right. Well, as I was just talking with another community partner, Adriel Thornton who is a part of the greater dance community and electronic music community. I’ve known him for many years. He also helps put on the Dally in the Alley every year and other performances in the city. And you know, he just said it very clearly. We were talking together, Detroit musicians are essential workers. You know, there, that’s intense to say because right now we’re all so lucky to have the nurses and the doctors and everybody else who’s really putting it on the line. But if we come out of this and Detroit is no longer a musical city, right? Because we’re basically putting everything on pause for over, I don’t know, it could be a year, right? We could be putting a lot of things on pause for a while. So I think we have to be . . . 


Wise    31:01    Even some of the people, my friends who are working on the front lines as medical workers, they say a lot of times what brings them through the day is a great song.  


Gholz    31:12    Absolutely. What’s, what song, what are you listening to besides your own, I mean, obviously you have a piano in your house and you can perform for yourself and play when you want, but what kind of music are you gravitating to chill you out when maybe “45” or other things are happening and they may drive you nuts a little bit. What are you going to right now?  


Wise    31:37    I like all types of music but here in particularly I’m going to prepare to do a tribute to my favorite pianist, composer, role model, band leader, who was, McCoy Tyner.  


Gholz    31:55    Uh huh. Right. 


Wise Yeah, yeah, yeah. 


Gholz Who just passed away.  


Wise    31:59    Right. And he influenced my playing a whole lot. So, you know, I’m gathering a lot of his material and I know a lot of his material anyway, and I’ve even been fortunate for reviewers to say that they remind, that I remind them of McCoy, which I was just flabbergasted. I’m like, well, what are you guys been smoking? But whatever it was . . .  


Gholz    32:27    Exactly.  


Wise    32:29    But he’s somebody I always looked up to and always thought that he was a great innovative player and even Wendell said, you know, you and McCoy got a lot of things in common. Of course, McCoy was born in 1938 and played with John Coltrane, so I don’t think, I’ll never be the master that he was. But we do have a lot of similarities in our compositions and music and things like that and maybe some approaches. So I said I’m gonna work on doing a tribute to McCoy. So that’s what I’ve been doing.  


Gholz    33:04    Did you ever hear him play live?  


Wise    33:06    Oh yes, a couple of times and I did get a chance to meet him once and had a conversation and I think he kind of inspired Wendell to, this was back in the ’90s when I got a chance to meet him. And then I saw him when he came to Detroit, I guess around in 2014 or something when he performed at the festival, but you know, and him and Wendell’s conversation, because Wendell had a relationship with the Coltrane household as well. 


Gholz Sure, sure. 


Wise And he was telling Wendell, that, how important that he felt it was to keep holding jam sessions for the young musicians. Because they’re not really getting the opportunities like it was when McCoy was coming up and when Wendell was coming up, so, yeah. And I think that really inspired Wendell to keep the beyond the school stuff, have the kids come over and play once a week, because there’s certain things that they’re not going to get from certain people because of the development that Wendell had when he was coming up.  


Wise    34:18    You know, band leaders would tell you certain things to do. You know, while you’re playing with the group, to teach you your role, and in how to approach certain things. And you know, a lot of these band leaders aren’t going to tell you that now. So, McCoy was kind of inspired, Wendell has said, man, you know, “we got to keep that going.” You know, he said, cause they’re not going to get that from everybody. And then he is one of the few ones that are still around that can offer that to them. So… 


Gholz    34:53    Well, we’ve got to find a way to do it and obviously keep both the kids and Wendell healthy and safe because…  


Wise    35:02    Yeah, healthy so far. 


Gholz Good. 


Wise You know, um, I think it’s because you know Wendell, of course he can’t go to the gym now cause everything is shut down. But he always is vibrant and got that energy going. So knock on wood, you know, at 77 years old. A lot of times, you know, you see other people around his age…  


Gholz    35:28    Sure. 


Wise … that ain’t happenin.’ 


Gholz No. Well, listen, Pam, I appreciate you. Appreciate your time today and talking with us and best of luck and best of health to you and Wendell and to Rebirth. And you and I will stay in touch in terms about what’s next and the West Side and music and just where we go from here. So thanks for taking the time today. 


Wise All right, no problem and same to you.

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