Cliff Coleman & Jim Ruffner: “Detroit Jazz: An Overview” Pamphlet

Cliff Coleman and Jim Ruffner present a chronological overview of Detroit jazz in this pamphlet published by the Graystone International Jazz Museum.

Cliff Coleman & Jim Ruffner: "Detroit Jazz: An Overview" Pamphlet

Detroit Jazz: An Overview

Written by Cliff Coleman and Jim Ruffner, c. 1987

Detroit is often credited with being a musical town on the basis of the ”Motown Sound” and accompanying popularity of rhythm and blues artists. Little credit is given to the highly significant contributions Detroit has made to jazz, the most innovative, technically demanding, and emotionally satisfying of all music forms.

And what of jazz itself, and its origins? With its sophistication and stylized structure today, we may not be aware jazz was once termed ”race music” or ”Devil’s music,” and improperly associated only with vice and illicit activity.

Jazz does not necessarily come from ”a place” such as New Orleans,.. or a type of employment opportunity as in that place’s ”red light” district. Jazz grows more generally out of the complete Black American experience here in the United States.

Jazz stems from African roots and European grafts, slave shouts and laments, church spirituals and funeral marches, highly stylized· piano rags heard in the finest places and earthy blues heard in the honky-tonks, and more. Economic necessity placed much of the development in bordellos and speakeasies, to be
sure. Corresponding development also took place in the more acceptable settings of ballrooms and theatres across the world.

What emerged was a new indigenous classical art form of great rhythmic and harmonic complexity, requiring master performers who could both read difficult music and improvise imaginatively over the full range of human emotion. With these aspects in mind, who can say that jazz has a definite origin?

When we speak of Detroit

When we speak of Detroit, poorly documented history indicates that jazz was slow in getting started, but grew to be a rich institution indeed. As early as 1857, a gifted and versatile black musician named Theordore Finney co-led a band on a steamer travelling between Detroit and Sandusky, Ohio. The music was the earliest to be associated with the sound of jazz, although it could be more accurately described as march music.

Black musicians such as Finney, Fred Stone, and Benjamin Shook were said to have dominated the city’s white entertainment world to the almost complete exclusion of white performers into the 20’s. Perhaps, this early prominence, helps to explain the long standing integration of the American Federation
of Musicians Union in Detroit in contrast to most other cities that maintained segregated AFM Locals into the 50’s.

In the early 1920’s, society bands-both black and white, began to provide the vehicle for music we can identify as the jazz of the era. Originally, these bands played rags, light classics, and popular songs within an arranged format allowing little or no improvisation. “Syncopated” and later ”swing” styles with
increasing emphasis on improvisation sparked by Louis Armstrong began to transform the society band tradition:.

A lot of migration occurred. Musicians found Detroit to be a good incubator. They would prepare here, hone their skills on the new musical ideas, then move on to places like New York City.

Reverse moves also took place. Don Redman, chief arranger for the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, came to Detroit in 1927 to direct the McKinney Cotton Pickers. Under Redman, the group became the foremost big jazz band in the midwest and, through its tours and Victor recordings, a national trendsetter.

The Cotton Pickers were known as the ”McKinney Synco Septet” when they moved from Springfield, Ohio, to Detroit in 1926. They soon found a home
at Jean Goldkette‘s Graystone Ballroom, thus becoming the first black band to play there. Management insisted on the new name. The image suffers less than in the case of an all-white band in the Goldkette stable called the Orange Blossoms. That name was changed opportunistically to the Casa Loma orchestra
shortly before Detroit Glen Gray assumed its leadership.

Three other black bands worked regularly in the 1920’s: Billy Mynor‘s Melodians, Earl Walton‘s band, and the Chocolate Dandies organized by
Charles Victor Moore. At the age of nearly 80, Moore is still in 1987 a vital force and a great trumpet stylist active in the Detroit Jazz scene.

White big bands were making some national strides of their own. Names like Joe Venuti, Frank Trumbauer, and Bix Beiderbecke ring out briefly in Detroit’s jazz history as part of the famed all-white Graystone Orchestra. The story is told of how Venuti, a violinist in the Detroit Symphony, then housed in Orchestra Hall, threw over a classical career and became a leading jazz violinist after being captivated by the sounds coming from the nearby Graystone Ballroom. The
‘”Devil Music” indeed!

Significantly, many white orchestras such as the Orange Blossoms evolved from ”sweet” society bands in the early 20’s by assimilating the stylistic of the black pioneers, and were playing the definitive ”hot” numbers by the end of the decade. The unfortunate side is that racial segregation pervaded Detroit dancing establishments to the extent that the Cotton Pickers could play to black groups only on Monday night; every other night they played to exclusively white audience.

The 1930’s found ”hot” music even more popular. The most important change was the gradual shift from big ballroom bands to small cabaret bands. The numerous Detroit ballrooms that included the Arcadia, Grande, Mirror, Monticello, Palais de Danse, and Vanity, to name a few in addition to the Graystone,
faced an uneven future. There was a phenomenal growth of ”black and tan” cabarets, noted as places of black entertainment for white audiences ”slumming” the black community. As early as 1925, however, it was reported that ”whites and blacks and all shades between” could mingle in a welter of syncopation in the
Palms at 1935 St. Antoine.

The famed Paradise Valley emerged from such seeds as the major, largely unsegregated entertainment area in Detroit. Centered near St. Antoine and Adams, in the heart of the black community on the city’s east side, it boasted hot spots such as The Plantation, Melody Club, Club Harlem, B & C Club, Rhythm Club, Band Box, Russell House, Club 666, and Henry’s Swing Club. James Jenkins, who would later strive to save the Graystone Ballroom and founded the Graystone International Jazz Museum, was talent coordinator and general workhorse at Henry’s from 1937 to 1939.

Paradise Valley was a major force

Paradise Valley was a major force in the development of jazz talent as part of the regular house bands and the after-hours jam sessions. The Graystone Ballroom played a complementary role. It was the only major ballroom that regularly employed local black jazz bands during the decade. Leading national bands such as Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington ”battled” local bands at the Monday night event when the ballroom was crowded with black dancers and
local black and white musicians congregated to assimilate the latest musical ”word”. Correspondingly, the cabaret jobs required that local musicians become skilled readers, versed in a number of musical idioms as was also required of the big band players. These circumstances sustained the undercurrent of musicians like J .C. Heard, Milt and Ted Buckner, and Gerald Wilson who started careers in Detroit and then moved on to better-known bands.

The later part of the 1930’s set the stage for what was yet to come. Stage shows, records, and radio played central roles in disseminating the new music played by a young generation of black musicians who replaced the society band tradition with one closer to Black American musical heritage. Louis Armstrong,
big band traditions of jazz, and after-hours ”cutting” sessions inspired the brilliant improvisational style associated with innovators like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. Bebop had arrived. Detroiters such as Milt Jackson, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson, and Billy Mitchell were in the

The mid 40’s brought a subsequent change. Paradise Valley was humming, and the Paradise Theatre, housed in old Orchestra Hall, provided a variety of entertainment. Then, the city suffered one of its most brutal and violent riots, and street crime served as deterrent enough to keep the crowds away from the Valley. With its loss of popularity, and the decline of ballrooms, the most viable outlets for jazz became clubs like the Bluebird [sic], Flame Showbar, Minor Key, Kline’s Corner, and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, several of which had been founded in outlying areas in the 30′ s.

Eventually, urban renewal was responsible

Eventually, urban renewal was responsible for the most determining change to the Paradise area, transforming Black Bottom into freeways and vacant lots. Jazz adjusted to a variety of places and situations in the late 40’s and 50’s. The Drome Lounge, Rouge Lounge, Garfield Lounge and other clubs added jazz entertainment to that still existing. Barry Harris is an example of one musician who held regular jam sessions in his home. Afterhour sessions were held at the Rappa House in Paradise Valley and West End Hotel in Delray. Afternoon sessions took place in Wayne University’s Mackenzie Hall.

High schools, especially Miller, Northwestern, and Cass Tech, began to offer more progressive music curriculums. The New Music Society and its World Stage was the pilot for self determination organizations of the late 50’s. In such ways and places there emerged the Jones brothers from Pontiac (Hank, Thad,
and Elvin), Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna, Frank Rosolino, Paul Chambers, Betty Carter, Terry Pollard, Pepper Adams, Barry Harris, Donald Byrd, Lonnie Hillyer, Curtis Fuller, George Bohanon, Sonny Red, Yusef Lateef, Charles McPherson, Ernie Farrow, Doug Watkins, Dorothy Ashby, Kenny Burrell, Art Mardigan, Frank Gant, Freddie Waite, Oliver Jackson, Louis Hayes, Hugh Lawson, Alice Coltrane and others who could continue the flow of ”Detroit-raised” musicians into nearly every major jazz ensemble in the country! Everyone who could be considered a big name in the idiom had a Detroiter in their band. Detroit’s music environment was just that strong.

The 50’s and 60’s brought new ideas of improvisation and creative structure within the music from artists such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Old and new forms were all reflected for a while in a very vibrant club scene from River Rouge to Grosse Pointe. The outward flow of rising stars as Ron Carter,
Joe Henderson, and Kirk Lightsey continued. Even so, a hundred other musicians of equal stature stayed, returned, or migrated to Detroit to keep the local scene vital. One reason Detroit became such a hotbed for world-class musicians was because these greats were not readily afforded union status in New York, and could easily find gigs here. Unfortunately, not everything was sustained and times could be very tough indeed.

Radio had been a viable medium for jazz music for some time. Ed ”Jack the Bellboy” McKenzie was a national pioneer of radio jazz programming at WJBK and hosted the early Ed McKenzie Dance Party featuring live jazz talent at WXYZ-TV. Dr’s Wendell Cox and Hailey Bell were prominent radio pioneers. Picking up on the trend, they decided that in addition to their AM soul station WCHB — which was the first black-owned operation built from the ground up, they would add an FM jazz station WCHD. It was renamed and revitalized as WJZZ by two of Dr. Bell’s grandsons.

The early 70’s brought about a change in the recording and distribution of the music. Many more record companies were signing and combining jazz talent, which gave musicians freedom to send the message loud and clear that there was a renewed music force to be reckoned with. It articulated struggle in its joyful and abstract melodies. Not only the beauty, but the pain of the human condition; the frustration as well as the promise. Local broadcasts helped increase the size of the audience.

Today jazz moves in many directions

Today jazz moves in many directions; whether mainstream or free form, hard swinging or metaphysical, straight ahead or convoluted, earthy or abstract, acoustic or electronic. Jazz has reentered the churches, a realm it never really left. The process can better be termed a quest rather than a struggle.

Detroit’s active and diverse jazz community has found increased support. Musicians like Jimmy Wilkins, Marcus Belgrave, Lyman Woodard, Donald Walden, Bess Bonnier, Sam Sanders, Wendell Harrison, and Spencer Barefield are all involved in organizations designed· to perpetuate jazz in the city. Strength and support comes from the city government as well as a few dedicated institutions like the Detroit Council of the Arts, the Michigan Council of the Arts, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Renaissance Foundation.

Concerts in parks, by the river, at the Art Institute, in churches, at the Montreaux/Detroit Jazz Festival and many other outlets including the Graystone Jazz Museum are all well publicized events that once again allow the public wide access to musicians .and their living art. Club dates are improving. WJZZ, WDET, WEMU, WUOM, WJR, CKLW, and other stations continue a tradition of jazz or big band broadcasting, making more of the total spectrum available than ever before.

The Graystone Ballroom is gone. The Graystone Jazz Museum lives on as an institution founded at Duke Ellington‘s death by James T. Jenkins to gather artifacts, foster research and oral history, and carry forward year round the best of the living jazz forms through concerts and outreach programs. The significance is incalculable in terms of its value in stimulating the intellect of our youth, sustaining the heritage of our adults, and supporting our artists. This truly special kind of music serves as a creative catalyst encouraging humanity to seek a path for a positive and promising future, come what may.


1. Herb Boyd, Detroit Jazz Who’s Who, Detroit, Jazz Research Institute, 1984.

2. Leroi Jones, Blues People, New York, William Morrow, 1963.

3. Lars Bjorn, ”Black men in a white World: The Development of the black jazz community in Detroit, 1917-1940, ”Detroit in Perspective, 5 (1980) 1-19.

4. Graystone International Jazz Museum archives.

About the Graystone Museum

The Graystone International Jazz Museum was conceived following the death of the great Duke Ellington in May 1974. The Museum serves as a repository of Jazz memorabilia which documents the history of improvisational music and the musicians who are its creators. The museum promotes and conducts research which traces the development of improvisation from its beginning in traditional African rhythms to its innovative maturation in American African forms and styles.

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