Larry Gabriel, journalist, musician, and author, discusses experience in Detroit music, his musical family, and working with the Graystone Jazz Museum.
Gholz: You are with the Detroit Sound Conservancy Record, October 13th, 2014 at the corner of Grand River and Griswold in the Capitol Park area. This used to be the site of the original capital of the state of Michigan, was just down here. And the first governor of the state of Michigan, I believe, is buried over there, if I’m not mistaken. And now we’re at Urban Bean coffee shop across from the Grind, another coffee shop across the street, was the joke we were making earlier. And we’re so happy to have Larry Gabriel with us tonight. Earlier we had Fred Reif, I’ve been saying his name wrong for a couple of years. This is deeply troubling to me, but Fred is lovely and talking about all sorts of things related to blues history and the history of Saginaw and jazz musicians. But now we turn it over to Larry Gabriel. Larry briefly describe who you are and what is your relationship to Detroit music?
Hometown and Childhood Experiences
Gabriel: Well, I can describe who I am pretty briefly. As far as my relationship to music, that tends to become a long story. But I was born in Detroit, 1953. I was the first kid in my family who was not born in New Orleans, although my older siblings were born in New Orleans. And I was born into a family of musicians. My father is a third generation New Orleans musician. I’m a fourth generation and we stretch out about seven generations now, to our youngest musicians. I was really not involved with music when I was young. I was the one sibling who my mother was going to save from the life of being a terrible musician. All my other brothers and sisters had lessons of some sort when they were children and I did not have any lessons.
And I used to see my brother coming home from my uncle’s house where he was taking his clarinet lessons and he would be crying because my uncle had been hard on him and I thought, “I don’t want anything to do with that.” So then, anyways, as time went on, I got older and started getting interested and, you know, hearing music. And then when I went to college, I heard, I fell in with some guys who were listening to jazz and, you know, they’d be talking and I’d be like, “Oh, my father told me about this person before and that and what not.” And then I realized that, “Hey, my father was a cool jazz musician.” And, so I went back home from school and then I started taking some bass lessons from him. And eventually, you know, I played in my father’s band, and later years and I played with my cousin Charlie and his band.
And I’ve played with Marcus Belgrave when he does his traditional stuff. But also over the years, in the 80s, I had a, well actually before that I played in a bebop band called the Robert Parker Quintet. Or was it a septet? Maybe it was the Robert Parker Septet. It was one of those number names we used. We used to play regularly at Millie’s Lounge over on Fenkell off of Livernois back around 1980 or so. They actually called my Dad for the, for the gig. And my Dad was like, “I’ll send my son over,” which is not an unusual thing, but anyways, I played with them for about a year and a half or so. Then during the 80s, I had a couple of sort of rock bands down in the Cass Corridor. There was one, there was a punk band called The Warm Jets, named after Eno’s album Here Come the Warm Jets.
Gholz: Of course.
Gabriel: So we called ourselves the Warm Jets. And then, there was another band called Bad Crunch. We were sort of a reggae band. And then there was another band called Dry Guitar. And we got that name from the, there’s a style of music in Southwest Africa that’s called la guitare sèche, which is just French for acoustic guitar. But literally the words mean “dry guitar,” I guess, cause you don’t have any electrical juice running through them. So this was sort of an acoustic band and we called ourselves Dry Guitar. So that was kinda like in the 80s. And also I played with the Don’t Look Now Jug Band for awhile in the late eighties into the early nineties. And then I had a whole career as a music writer. I sort of made my living writing about music.
I was a music reviewer. Well I was a writer and editor at the Detroit Free Press in the early nineties. And mostly I wrote about music during my days there. And I was writing a lot about basically Afropop world music, reggae, although I would dip into other things that were happening. Oh, I wrote about Jazz Alive too. I can’t forget that. And I still try to play when my arm isn’t twitching or getting numb or hurting or something like that. I do, I play country blues with Kim Heron, I play guitar and he plays harmonica. Yeah. So we do that together. Try to have some fun. So that’s kind of my relationship
Gholz: And the jazz, and the Gabriel Band as well now.
Gabriel: Well, oh yeah. I play with my cousin, Damien Gabriel, he’s a trumpet player. He’s got the Gabriel Brass Band, which mostly I Grand Marshall with that, but occasionally I’ll play some guitar with them when they’re doing a stage show. That’s kind of a difficult thing for me to try to figure out where a guitar fits in with a brass band because there’s not a whole lot of history back there to show you where to go with that. So I’m trying to work my way into it. The other thing is like, you know, I play acoustic instruments and then when I play with the brass band, I have to pull out the electric guitar and, you know, that electric thing is just weird.
Gholz: What was the first Detroit record that you remember hearing? What was it? How’d you hear it, and what do you, what did you think?
Gabriel: You know what, I couldn’t even tell you what the first Detroit record I remember hearing was. I, you know, I had musicians in my family, probably one of the first ones I heard was a record my father made. He had this song that he did a demo of called, “Don’t Let Our Love Grow Cold Just Because I’m Growing Old.” And I remember the, what’s his, the keyboard player, Joe Hunter was the keyboard player on that record. My father had various, you know, bands back in the 50s. He played jazz, he played R‘n’B and stuff. Joe Hunter was on that record. And it’s a weird little piece of Detroit music history. There was a DJ who was going to promote my Dad’s record and then he ended up getting kicked off the air for payola and he started a car audio company. I can, it’s a well known company his name just won’t come to my mind. He had a place on Woodward out, you know, 10, 11 . . .
Gholz: Like Mickey Shorr?
Gabriel: Mickey Shorr! That’s who he was, Mickey Shorr. He was a DJ and he had to get out of the radio for getting in trouble for payola and he started his car audio business.
And so Mickey Shore was gonna promote my Dad’s record and then Mickey Shorr was gone. And, the record went nowhere.
Gholz: Do you have a copy of it somewhere?
Gabriel: You know what, I don’t even have a copy. We had a 45 that I had and after my Dad died, my mom moved into this senior apartment and I had it and I felt guilty for holding onto it and I thought I should like give it to my mom and let her have it. And I gave it to her and it disappeared. So I always tell my brothers and sisters if they’re ever going through old boxes of stuff to keep their eyes open for that.
Gholz: Yeah yeah yeah. Motown is known the world over. Describe one aspect of Detroit music history that you wished got more attention. Maybe the Warm Jets?
Gabriel: Probably not, you know, I have a copy of Barrett Strong‘s “Money,” which was on Anna Records, I believe. It was even before Motown. And I had older brothers and sisters and so I was listening to Motown music in 1958-59. As soon as Motown was out there. I was listening to it. And this isn’t an answer to your question, but by the time the late sixties came around I was tired of it. You know, everybody was hot for the Jackson Five and whatever else.
And it’s like, “Hey, I’ve been listening to this for a decade, give them, give me some Jimi Hendrix or Funkadelic or something like that.” But anyways, as far as the aspect of Detroit music history that I think needs to come to light more, it’s not so much that there is something that I feel is under appreciated. All musicians are under appreciated pretty much. You know, they put in countless hours and years and heart and soul into what they do. And I don’t know, maybe 2% of them make it big or something. But my thing is that there’s always another band, always another musician that nobody’s really heard of who did something significant. And so you have to keep like digging and asking and finding those people who did something really cool that it was worth saving and give them a little more publicity too. So that’s what I would say.
Gabriel: So vigilance, vigilance.
Gabriel: Yeah, it’s find those people who got lost.
Gholz: Yeah. This last weekend the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was in town and your cousin Charlie Gabriel is the sort of senior member of the band right now and a clarinetist and a long time Detroiter and you were there supporting him and supporting the family as well. What is the, tell me a little bit about the book, the blues book, the…
Why a book?
Could you just talk a little bit about that book and why you wrote it and sort of what motivated you to do that piece?
Gabriel: Well what motivated me to write my book was because I’ve got all these musicians in my family and I grew up with a lot of stories and as our family used to be very concentrated in small areas. In New Orleans, my family, if you moved, you might move three or four houses down the block into the next block, maybe, just around the corner, that kind of thing. And when my family started moving to Detroit, we had the same thing. We had a relatively small area where there’s a couple of hundred Gabriels’ living. And that was…
Gholz: Near the West side.
Gabriel: Yeah. It was pretty much between Michigan Avenue and West Grand Boulevard and kind of, where the Boulevard kind of turns and goes South. So it was kind of like in that little U between there.
But anyways as the family that was back in the fifties and then as the family started going other places and spreading out and I just felt a need to save these stories. And part of it was just to verify that these things were true. You know, some of the things when I was a kid, my father would tell me stuff, “well, I did that and I did this” and I’d be like, “Oh yeah, right.” You know, and when I got older, I started finding out it was true. So, a lot of that stuff was just going down and getting the, but as a journalist, I knew that still other people wouldn’t accept that unless I documented it. And so it was about documenting it and maintaining the family heritage and also having it for…we have a big family.
I got cousins and second cousins and third cousins and people who are related to, I don’t even know, this is the root of the family. You know, this is where we all came from. So that’s why I did that. Regarding Charlie and the Preservation Hall Band, Charlie’s the fourth member of my family who’s been in the Preservation Hall band. So it seems like that’s becoming a family legacy. My father married my mother in 1943. He had a friend who was a drummer that married my mother’s sister. That would be Dave Oxley, my Uncle Dave, so he was on my mother’s side of the family, not on my father’s side of the family. My Uncle Dave played with Fats Domino before Fats was famous. It was like when Fats was just starting to get famous.
My uncle left the band because he was married and had kids, and had a job and he didn’t want to be going on the road, traveling around. In 1960 or ‘61, when Preservation Hall first started, my uncle Dave was in the Preservation Hall Jazz band then. And, then when he died, later on, his son, my cousin Frank, was a drummer. He was in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for a while. I have a cousin on my father’s side, Clarence Ford, he’s a saxophonist. He was actually with Fats Domino from about 1958 till 1971. He was the band director for many of those years. He was in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for a very, for one night. He died his first night he played there’s the Humphrey Brothers who were Preservation Hall Jazz Band trumpeter and clarinetist for years and years. Finally retired. And my cousin Clarence got called to be the clarinet player and replacement and he went to play at Preservation Hall.
And he had been in an accident when he was on the road with Fats Domino. That’s why he left Fats Domino in 1971, he’d been in an accident. He was almost killed. As a matter of fact, it was reported that he had died. He hadn’t died, but he never ever truly recovered from that. That happened in 1971, I think. And around 19, ‘87, ‘88, I talked to him. And I said, “well, how long did it take you to recover from that?” And he was like, “I’m still suffering from that”. And he walked with a limp for the rest of his life, and he died in about ‘94 or something. But he went to play his gig at Preservation Hall that night and he became ill and they rushed him to the hospital and he died.
And actually on that night, my cousin, his son, Louis Ford, who is a saxophonist in New Orleans right now, he ended up finishing that gig for him. So that’s something that’s known in our family, it’s like when one family member goes down, somebody else steps in. When my father was, in his last days, I used to go and play gigs for him. Uh, I remember one day, it was a Super Bowl Sunday, back in the early 90s. And my father was in the hospital. And I went to see him in the hospital early in the day. And then that afternoon I went to play a gig that he had lined up that he couldn’t make it to and it was a Super Bowl party and played the Super Bowl party gig for him.
So that’s kinda there’s always another Gabriel standing in the wings kind of thing that we’ve worked over the years. My Uncle Manny back in the 40s, Charlie’s Dad. I had four or five cousins, Charlie’s brothers and sisters. They were all musicians. So Uncle Manny, what he would do is he would take gigs. He would take three or four gigs in one night and he’d send this kid to that one, send this kid to that one, send this kid to that one. And then Uncle Manny would go from gig to gig each night adding it was like, “okay, you know four or five songs, you know four or five songs, you know four or five songs. And so you go there, you play these songs and then I’ll come in and I’ll play some other stuff to fill in for you.”
Gabriel: But he could collect three salaries in a night. That was what he did.
Gholz: And child services were never called….
Gabriel: No, not back then. Charlie played his first gigs when he was like 10, 11 years old. It was a funeral, a parade in New Orleans. He would go out and play. I think Charlie might’ve mentioned it when he spoke the other day, but he was talking about how during World War II, a lot of the musicians were in the military, so they’re out of town. So, hey, they filled in the bands with kids.
Gholz: That’s how he got his break. He was saying, yeah,
Gabriel: That’s how he got started.
Being a Writer
Gholz: In the piece that was excerpted in the Metro Times a couple of years ago. You have this great line where you say that you say you were discussing talking to your Dad and your father saying, “a good song tells a story” and you say, “that night made an impression on me. I remember it decades later. It was the lesson I eventually learned for myself as a promotional writer. Regardless of the form, a great story makes great art.”
And I just thought just a second, just talk about your own writing as a writer, as a practice. How is it different or similar than making music? If you could just maybe just talk a little bit more about how they’re similar, how they’re different when you’re, when you’re writing a piece, when you’re on deadline, when you’ve got something to get done as opposed to, I got a gig tonight, or you’re gathering up for a gig. What’s similar and what’s different between them?
Gabriel: Well, for me, I’m a much better writer than I am a musician. I mean, that’s just the way it is. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 12 years old. It’s a skill that I have worked at. I have been schooled at. It’s what my adult career has been around that. So it’s just writing. I know things. And I am a narrative writer. I tell stories. I write poetry, I write narrative poetry. I tell stories. I think stories in music, stories in dance, stories in visual art. I think that’s what touches the widest amount of people. And I’m not saying that other more abstract stuff isn’t good. There’s a lot of abstract music or abstract art that I enjoy.
However, I don’t think people are drawn to that as well or as widely as a well-told story. There are stories that touch people because they’ve experienced something like that or it reminds them of something. The kinds of metaphors I try to work with are sometimes very, very pointedly the archetypical are archetypal metaphors, which I know talks to people across cultures over time and those metaphors are like darkness and light, birth and death, water, fire, earth. Those are the metaphors that speak to people. Love. I think love is overdone in pop music, but that’s, I’ll work with something else. But anyways, I tried to work with those as a writer. As a musician, I’m still just trying to learn stuff.
Gabriel: I didn’t apply myself as a musician when I was younger because I was writing and also because I just really didn’t understand that when you develop a skill, it’s because you put in the work. There’s no magic trick that oh, “if I learned this, I used to think that, Oh, they’re there, there’s a trick. I just don’t know the trick, you know? I just, you know, I just don’t understand this. One day something is going to open up and I’m going to understand music and how to do it.” And now I realize it’s just, you just learn it piece by piece, riff by riff, note by note, just like as a writer I learned word by word and phrase by phrase and build it from there. And now I understand that. Unfortunately I don’t have decades of working hard at my craft of building up that bag of tricks. And so I said, I know I have a bag of tricks as a writer that I can just dip into and say, “well, I’ll do this and I’ll do that and I’ll do this and I’ll do that”. But I don’t have that bag of tricks as a musician. I just have to basically bear down and learn this and learn that and use it when I can.
Music as a Job
Gholz: Well there’s a conference this weekend, the North American Labor History Conference at Wayne State university. Fran Shor is putting that together and we’ve got a panel on Thursday afternoon about the relationship between music and labor. Music and work. And you seem to have, you were part of the, if I may say, you were part of the strikes in the nineties, and as a writer in the Free Press and news strikes and all those kinds of things. Can you just talk a little bit about the importance of realizing these things? Arts. That’s metaphorical, but it’s also work. It’s labor.
Gabriel: Well, in my family, music was your job. We weren’t artists, we were workers and music was your job. And my Dad went out and he played music and he made money for the family. I mean, that was it. It was, that’s a theme that really goes back through the generations in my family is that this is your job. You know? And it was, it’s really odd because like almost any other family you go into and you say you want to be a musician or something. It’s like, that’s not work. That’s just playing around. My family, that’s a job. My father had a bass and a big standup bass and it used to sit in the corner behind the stuffed chair. And you did not touch Dad’s bass because that was his tool that he took to work and brought home money and got us food and paid for the housing and whatever it is that we needed.
And so it was always work, from my point of view. I can relate to people who are like, “okay, I’m an artist and I don’t do this and I don’t do that.” In my family, if you’re a musician, it’s your job, and you need to be able to play as many different kinds of music as you can so that you can work more. And I mean, that’s always, always been the case. I’m a 30 plus year member of the musicians union here.
Gholz: Local 5.
Gabriel: Yeah. My father was a union musician from age 17 something at one point. It was cool because after he’d been in the Union 50 years, they sent him to like a gold-plated card and he didn’t have to pay union dues anymore. So that was nice. I have like a bronze, a 30 year card from the Union that I’m very proud of. Even though I haven’t been as active a musician as other people, I’ve always maintained my Musicians Union membership and that just opens up more avenues for you.
Being Grand Marshall
Gholz: Two more quick questions. One is what does it take to be a good Grand Marshal?
Gabriel: A lot of energy. I tell you that. If you look at the Grand Marshals in New Orleans, they don’t do a whole lot hoppin’ around. Here, I ended up doing a whole lot of hopping around and I got to say that as I get older, it’s not as easy or I feel it for days afterwards. However, I do have one interesting story. We had a family reunion in New Orleans, I don’t know, five, six years ago. And Charlie and a couple of my cousins and they got some other musicians and we were doing a second line parade at the family reunion picnic and I was a Grand Marshal. And here in Detroit when you do a parade, people kind of stand there and look at you. Sometimes you can urge them to get up and take part in the parade.
In New Orleans, you start walking down the street playing music and people just jump in there, want to be inside the band. And so I’m dancing around and these people are coming into the band and you know, the horn guys are trying to avoid getting hit so they didn’t hurt their mouths and stuff. So my cousin, one of my cousins down there in comes to me, he says, “how come you’re not doing your job?” I said, “well what do you mean I’m doing my job? I’m dancing around up here with the umbrella.” It’s like “your job is to keep these people from out of the band,” you know?
And so that’s one thing I learned about the difference between playing in New Orleans and playing in Detroit is the Grand Marshal has a function up there to protect the musicians in the band from the people coming in that I wasn’t used to doing because up here people don’t do that.
Gholz: Off that, the first time I saw you as a Grand Marshal was at Blair’s funeral when you guys went up…
Gabriel: Up Cass.
Gholz: Up Cass. Was that the first time that wasn’t the first, the new your new sort of group had gotten together? Was that the first time or was there a time before that?
Gabriel: No, that was the Gabriel Brass Band. Actually they’ve been around 4-5 years. When Dameon first started doing the brass band they would come down and play in Greektown or something and just trying to get established and I was kind of like, “well, you know, yeah, you young guys, enjoy yourselves. I’m not running, I can’t go out there and do stuff all the time with you.” But over time they kind of persevered and, I don’t know, couple of years ago I started saying, “okay, I need to like, you know, get in here closer with them.” And part of it is just passing through me from the older generations, me being able to pass what I know onto Dameon. Dameon’s Dad was a great trumpet player, but he’s been dead since Dameon was a little kid.
And Charlie is down in New Orleans now cause he went to Preservation. Hall. I’m one of the few connections to the older generation of musicians that is in Detroit right now. And so I like to be able to be near Dameon and be able to talk to him about stuff in the family. It’s interesting because Dameon got very excited about the brass bands, which are kind of a modern manifestation. At least like stuff like the Dirty Dozens and the Rebel Souls and Rebirth. Those are, they play a more modern thing. They’re not just like funeral marching bands. Like you had the marching band back in 30s and 40s and 20s and whatnot.
Gholz: The Danny Barker era…
Gabriel: Yeah, the Danny Barker era. Danny Barker helped me name my book. Now that you’ve brought him up.
I was in New Orleans doing research in 1987. My father and Danny Barker were on the road together as musicians back in the 1940s. My mom was actually a friend of Blue Barker, his wife, she was a blues singer. My mother never called her “Blue Lou.” She didn’t like the blues. My mom always called her “Louise.” So anyways, I was down there and I went by Danny Barker’s house to talk to him. And I told him, “Hey, I’m writing the book and I, and I’m going to call it Daddy Plays Old Time Music. And Danny Parker told me, “no, you have to say ‘jazz’. You always want to promote jazz. He says, so you should name it, Daddy Plays Old Time Jazz.” And, and then I decided, if I’m going to say ‘jazz,’ then I need to say what kind of jazz.
So I ended up naming it. Daddy Plays Old Time New Orleans jazz, so I got that name from Danny Barker. But anyways, Danny Barker helped create this new wave of brass bands. Back when he started. There was a Baptist church that he was teaching at. My father collected old brass instruments from around here, packed ‘em up in a crate and send them down to Danny Barker when he was training the guys who later on became the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Gholz: So they’ve got our horns.
Gabriel: Yeah, they’ve got our horns and we want them back.
Gholz: We want them back.
Gholz: Last question. Advise us. What should the DSC be concentrating most in the coming years? We’re young, give us some blues wisdom, if you would.
Gabriel: Well, there’s, there’s two things that I would take as a lesson from the Greystone Jazz Museum, which is no more. And that is you need to be bringing up the next level of people who are gonna help run this in the future. And I would take a lesson from my family on that as we were always bringing along the next generation. The Greystone didn’t have that going on for it. And so I would think you need to work on establishing the organization and doing things to make sure that the organization will continue into the future.
Gholz: Intergenerational work.
Gholz: Yeah, absolutely. Everybody, Larry Gabriel, my former editor.
Thanks for coming to Record the Detroit Sound Conservancy night. Monday nights. We’ll be back here next week with Paul Schauert from DIME and hopefully Marsha Music, Marsha Philpot will be here as well. And whoever else we can figure out with some music. We’ll be here till 9:00. Make sure you tip your baristas.