I feel a special sympathy for Mark Stryker’s outlook on music, and blurbed his new book, Jazz from Detroit, which will be published July 8, by the University of Michigan Press. This interview was done at his house in metro Detroit in May 2019. To order the book, visit his website at www.jazzfromdetroit.com. Thanks to Helena Kay for transcribing the interview.
Update: Part two is “Mark Stryker and the Saxes.”
Ethan Iverson: I’m looking at a collection of 78s. I’m guessing these were your father’s.
Mark Stryker: Yes.
EI: Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, “Hot House” and “Salt Peanuts.” Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” and “Fine and Mellow’” with Frankie Newton. “It’s Sand, Man!” by Count Basie. Benny Goodman Sextet, “After You’ve Gone” and “Body and Soul” with great Teddy Wilson on that. Illinois Jacquet All Stars on the Apollo label. Fabulous.
MS: There’s one other one here, it’s really something to see.
EI: The Atomic label! “Mellow Mood” by Dodo Marmarosa with Ray Brown, Jackie Mills, and look at that: Lucky Thompson on tenor sax.
MS: Lucky Thompson was a Detroiter! My father — Sheldon Stryker — had excellent taste. I discovered these when I was young and played them a bunch. My dad grew up in Saint Paul. He saw Oscar Pettiford in Saint Paul before Oscar moved to New York. Then, when my dad was in the army during the war, he saw Oscar on 52nd Street, and said to him, “You’re the guy from Saint Paul!” He always told me that Oscar was the first bass player he ever heard play double stops. My dad saw Lionel Hampton at the Apollo, and he saw Monk at the Five Spot.
EI: Was he a player as well?
MS: No, he was a distinguished sociologist at Indiana University — a pioneer of what’s called “identity theory” — but he loved the music. My parents’ first date was at a Stan Kenton dance. I grew up in Bloomington, and music was always in the house. My parents subscribed to the opera at IU, and I remember hearing La Traviata, Rigoletto and La Boheme on the stereo at home. I saw Porgy and Bess at IU in 1976. I was 13.
I wanted you to see my dad’s 78s, because I keep them downstairs with my 6,000 LPs, and it shows how lucky I was to get off on the right foot.
EI: Those are such great cuts, too, Frankie Newton is on that Billie Holiday record.
MS: I had this long, odd relationship with Frankie Newton, because when I was a sophomore in high school, I had an honors English class in which we did individual projects. I was already interested in writing about jazz. The teacher hooked us up with mentors in the community. One thing I did was work with Michael Bourne, the jazz radio host who’s been on WBGO in Newark for 35 years. But in the ‘70s, Michael was on the air at WFIU in Bloomington, and he wrote for Downbeat. My teacher also happened to know Frankie Newton’s widow in suburban Boston, so I started this correspondence with Ethel Newton about her husband.
EI: How old were you?
MS: I was 15. I knew Frankie Newton’s name, because my father had the record of “Fine and Mellow” and the label says, “Trumpet obbligato by Frankie Newton.”
I’m certain I was the only 15-year-old on the planet in 1979 who knew who Frankie Newton was. A unique, swing era player. He came out of Louis Armstrong but had a dark, highly personalized sound and a lyrical conception of melody streaked with melancholy. We talk a lot in this music about being an individual or a school of one. Frankie Newton was a school of one.
One thing I asked Ethel Newton about was what her husband thought of the bebop “advances” — that was a word I picked up reading liner notes. Her response was restrained. She said that Frankie didn’t think the bebop players were as advanced as they thought they were. That perplexed me, and while I could not have articulated it at the time, what Ethel was telling me was that history is more complicated than the reductive way it’s often transmitted in liner notes, magazines and the like. Years later in 1984, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, I took a graduate seminar in jazz history with Larry Gushee, a seminal scholar of early jazz. I wrote a paper with the grandiose title: “Frankie Newton and the Rejection of Bebop.” Newton was socially and politically progressive. He traveled in leftwing political circles, his wife was white, and he was the musical director for Billie Holiday at the Café Society, where she first sang “Strange Fruit.” I reconnected with Ethel Newton by phone. She told me that Frankie was the person who introduced Billie Holiday to “Strange Fruit” by the poet/songwriter Lewis Allen — the pen name of Abel Meeropol — and that her husband had strongly encouraged Billie to sing it. Newton is never mentioned in the history in this context, but I’m confident he had an important role as a catalyst.
EI: Makes sense.
MS: I had also gotten curious about why Newton had taken such a cool stance toward bebop given that he was a social progressive and there were musically progressive ideas in his playing. My theory was that he didn’t need bebop musically, politically or culturally. His music had already attained such a high degree of individual style, and he had spent almost his entire career in small groups, so he had creative freedom. And he was already so aware in terms of politics, race, economics, and culture that he didn’t need bebop on the social front either. He was already more sophisticated than the beboppers who were now thinking of themselves as artists and connecting to politics as a kind of cultural stance. That’s what Ethel Newton was getting at. The idea of bebop “advancement” was a chimera in the context of a man and musician already as liberated as her husband.
EI: You mentioned that you were already interested in writing about jazz when you started corresponding with Newton’s widow. What do you mean?
MS: Let me back up. I was introduced to jazz at 9 when I heard my older brother Jeff’s high school jazz band. I was already taking piano lessons, because we were a Jewish family, and I think it’s the law. My sister, Robin, was a good pianist. She was ten years older than me, and I used to sit on the piano bench next to her and watch her practice. I loved the slow movement of the Beethoven Pathetique, and I was mesmerized by the crisscrossing hands when she played Scarlatti sonatas. When I heard my brother’s jazz band, I wanted to play saxophone like he did. There was something about the excitement of the music and the stage lights reflecting off the instruments. I started playing the alto in 6th grade. The first jazz record I owned was Buddy Rich’s Big Swing Face, because my brother’s band played that chart. The second record I got was Kind of Blue, the third record was Milestones. I quickly got to the core of the music. I started to play in jazz band when I was in 7th grade, and I started reading about the music, devouring liner notes and memorizing who played with whom and who was on what records. It came easy. I was already the kind of kid who could remember batting averages, and that Willie Mays had 660 career home runs and all that.
When I turned 13, my parents gave me a subscription to Downbeat. On my 15th birthday they gave me Jazz Is by Nat Hentoff. That book changed my life. It made me want to write about the music, because I was so captivated by how Nat wrote about Ellington, Bird, Trane, Miles, Lady Day and the rest. He made them come alive not just as musicians but as flesh-and-blood people. He wrote with such sensitivity about their lives. He showed how smart they were, and how they moved through the world with such grace and commitment. He got at the heart of the emotional content of their music, and his keen eye for the political economy and sociology of the music fired my imagination. He was a big influence. There are definitely parts of Nat’s book in my book.
EI: I have a similar relationship with Jazz Is! I got it from the college library and kept re-checking it out, reading every page many, many times. If you’re into jazz, you still have to believe in the mythologies to some extent.
MS: Part of the mythology is true. These were giants of American culture, who created this magical art because of — and in spite of — conditions. These musicians and this art form represent America at its best. I couldn’t have articulated that at 15, but I recognized that jazz was something special.
EI: What was the first thing you wrote about jazz?
MS: As part of that high school English project, I interviewed David Baker. I lugged this bulky old tape recorder down to David’s office at IU, and he graciously spent about 45 minutes with me. I wrote it up, and then Michael Bourne took a red pencil to it and edited it. First thing he did was cross out the clichés — good lesson. I learned a lot from Michael. He said a critic should always ask three questions: What is an artist trying to do? How well is he or she doing it? And was it worth doing in the first place? I still use that approach when writing reviews.
In the David Baker interview — again aping something I had read — I framed a question about the 1960s avant-garde in terms of a divide, with traditionalists on one side and free players on the other and musicians having to choose one camp or the other without a middle ground. David gently corrected me. He said there was a middle ground, and that he and many musicians felt they could draw from both camps. That was the Ethel Newton lesson again: History is more complicated than the reductive way it often gets transmitted.
EI: Baker is a particularly good one to make that point, because he traveled in so many different worlds himself.
EI: A lot of controversies are stirred up by writers that need new stuff to talk about.
MS: Well, what gets lost is nuance. The challenge for writers is to get on paper as much of the nuance as possible about the music and history and still write with clarity and style. I want to be as accurate as possible but also communicate to a broad audience as well as experts. And I want to be fun to read. Sometimes writers don’t understand the history or culture. Or they don’t understand how the music works on a formal level. Or they don’t have the skills needed as writers. Look, this shit is hard. I struggle. We all struggle.
EI: Tell me more about growing up as an alto player.
MS: I had some important experiences that were like a trampoline in terms of development. When I was in 8th grade, I was in a special enrichment program. There were three of us who were interested in jazz, and the school brought in a guy from IU to teach us. His name was Alan Bern. He was a pianist who ended up being a big deal in the Klezmer world and co-founded Brave New World. Alan taught us harmony and showed us how the ii-V-I progression works. That opened the door to a big room. He taught us improvisation. He would go to New York and come back and tell us stories about what he had heard. I remember him talking about hearing Thad and Mel at the Vanguard and how Roland Hanna laid out a lot on piano but would drop in these little melodic fragments, chords or rhythms that were like commas or periods. Alan had gone to the Creative Music Studio at Woodstock. At one point he tried to teach us some of the concepts that he had learned from Wadada Leo Smith — then just Leo Smith. It was the “rhythm unit” concept. The basic idea, if I remember correctly, is that whatever sounds are played, they should be followed by an equal amount of silence. That’s probably super-reductive, but it’s about the balance of sound and silence — very Cagean. Those are advanced concepts for 13-year-old kids, but it opened my mind.
When I was a freshman at Bloomington High School North, I was in the jazz band with saxophonist Matt Darriau, who was a senior. Matt was a tremendous talent; he’s been on the New York scene for decades, particularly known for his Eastern European flavored Paradox Trio. Matt had a lot of jazz language together in high school, and I followed him around for a year like a puppy. I heard Dexter Gordon live at IU when I was 14, and I got my first Jackie McLean record when I was 15. Bird, Dexter, Jackie and Sonny Rollins were my first heroes. They still are.
My high school had a great jazz band with teachers steeped in the Right Stuff; it’s been turning out jazz musicians for 45 years. I got Aebersold play-along records, learned Charlie Parker tunes, and took some saxophone lessons. By the time I was a senior, I was writing big band arrangements. I was a good student, but music was my passion. When I was 15, I started taking the city bus downtown after school to go to a record store and hang out. I guy who worked there, David Miller, was a trumpet player, and he started playing stuff for me, He shadowed me through the store, picking out records for me — Wayne Shorter’s Adam’s Apple, Joe Henderson’s Page One and things like that.
One time I was flipping through the bins, and I pulled out this Grant Green record, Solid, which had come out on the Blue Note LT series with the white covers. I looked at the cover but put it back. David practically yelled, “Man, you gotta be curious!” He grabbed the record and turned it over and pointed to the personnel: Joe Henderson, McCoy, Elvin, James Spaulding, Bob Cranshaw. Great lesson: Always turn the fucking record over!
EI: How did you decide where you wanted to go to college?
MS: My father strongly encouraged me to get a liberal arts education. He said that if I wanted to do music, I could do that later, but I should have a general education. That made sense to me. I looked at IU, but it was such a huge factory that it was hard to be involved if you weren’t in the music school.
I knew some people who had a good musical experience at the University of Illinois, so I went to Urbana to visit a friend who was a year older than me. One night we went to a restaurant/jazz club called Nature’s Table. When I heard the caliber of music there, I said immediately: “I want to come here!” There was no jazz department or degree program; but there was an incredible jazz tradition at the University of Illinois. It turned out to be the best possible place for me. I was an American history major, but I played in school big bands, led my own small groups, and Nature’s Table became my home. I could have had my mail delivered there. It was a community of musicians, artists, campus progressives and misfits of all types: a place where you could go and express yourself. It was run by two beautiful souls who started the sandwich shop, began having jazz at night, and fell in love with the music.
I always say that I went to school at the University of Illinois, but I got my education at Nature’s Table. I heard tremendous music there — pianist John Campbell, bassist Kelly Sill, and drummer Joel Spencer were a first-call trio in Chicago, and they had U of I roots, so they’d come down regularly and tear it up; they set a high bar. I heard Dave Liebman at Nature’s Table. I heard Herb Ellis, Steve McCall, Von Freeman, John McNeil, Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, and a Rufus Reid Quartet with Victor Lewis just killing it on drums. I heard a soulful local organ band called Sorgum (sic) all the time. I heard New Orleans hot music. hard bop, post-bop, and free playing. I also heard a 14-year-old Allison Krauss, who grew up in Champaign — what a voice she had! And I was learning from gifted peers every night. I played a lot with pianist Mike Kocour, a beautiful musician steeped in all the Detroit pianists. I met Mike on the first day of jazz band when I was a freshman; he’s now director of jazz studies at Arizona State. I played in big bands with pianist Laurence Hobgood, a creative cat who’s had a big career with Kurt Elling and now on his own. Another friend from those days, Ryan Shultz, is a tremendous bass trumpeter in Chicago; he plays so great it’ll scare you to death. Several of my friends went on the road with Ray Charles.
I had some key mentors. John Garvey led the top jazz band at U of I. He was a one-of-a-kind polyglot. He played viola and went on the road with the Jan Savitt Orchestra when he was young. Then he joined the Walden String Quartet, which was in residence at U of I. It was the first to play Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 1, and the Walden recorded it for Columbia. John used to say that it was the first piece you couldn’t sight read and tell if it was good or not. You had to actually learn it and then decide if it was good.
John started the jazz band at the school around 1960. He had this heavy background in classical and experimental music — when Harry Partch came to Illinois in the early ‘60s, John conducted his theater pieces like The Bewitched and Water! Water! At the same time, John embodied a jazz aesthetic shaped by Ellington, Basie, and Lunceford, and he encouraged musicians in the band to write for the group across a range of idioms, including modernist abstraction.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, John’s band was arguably the best college band in the country. It was certainly the most unique. Downbeat covered the band’s State Department tours of Russia and behind the Iron Curtain. Jim McNeely came out of there, a remarkable composer-arranger named Jim Knapp came from there. Don Smith, Cecil Bridgewater, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Howie Smith, Jon Burr, and many others. There was a brilliant saxophonist named Ron Dewar, who remains one of the greatest tenor players that hardly anyone knows — he was a guru who influenced everyone who came through Urbana for two generations.
John was a miracle conductor and an eccentric personality. He was never without his pipe. He was a heavy set guy, and he’d motor around campus on this little scooter wearing a helmet, and then he’d take off the helmet, and he’d have his pipe in his mouth. But John was a heavy musician. He taught us that there was fundamentally no difference in making a phrase in a Brahms symphony and making a phrase in an Ellington ballad. The idiom may be different, but the emotional content of the music and the elements of phrasing, the sense of movement, line, and momentum were all the same. He allowed no amplification, and he demanded a nuanced ensemble blend and dynamics more typical of a symphony orchestra. He’d rehearse us to death — that was an issue sometimes — but his band didn’t sound like any other jazz band, in the same way that Ellington’s band never sounded like any other jazz band.
EI: That’s for sure!
MS: It’s a vernacular symphony orchestra. That was John’s approach. I also spent a couple of years in a big band led by Ray Sasaki, a creative, witty trumpet player who was into Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, and Thad Jones. He had the whole big band phrasing like K.D. The other thing so interesting about Ray — who just retired from the University of Texas at Austin — was that he played avant-garde classical music. You’d go hear Ray one night playing experimental, notated scores or free improvisation with dancers, and the next night you’d hear him play Wayne Shorter’s “The Chess Players” and the whole Blue Note repertoire.
There were lots of people like that at Illinois. I got to be friends with the contemporary composers on the faculty, many of whom were avocational jazz musicians. Sal Martirano wrote wild, post-Cagean conceptual and multimedia works like L’s GA, a famous anti-war piece for a narrator wearing a gas mask, sporadically inhaling helium and nitrous oxide, and reciting the Gettysburg Address with film projections and electronics. Fantastic piece. But Sal also played bebop piano coming out of Bud Powell. I’d go hear a new music concert with something by Sal, then the next day I’d see him in a practice room, and we’d play “Cherokee” together.
There were two other musicians in the community who were important to me. One was an alto player named Guido Sinclair — his full name was Sinclair Greenwell Jr. but everyone called him Ghee-Doh. He was an African American cat who was originally from Texas. He was on the West Coast where he was part of Horace Tapscott’s circle — Horace talks about him in his autobiography. Then he was part of the South Side scene in Chicago, but he had a drug problem. He came down to Champaign to cool out and never left. He was about 46 when I met him. Guido was one of these Charlie Parker-influenced players who kept his fingers super close to the keys, with a lit cigarette in his hand as he played. Stone-cold bebopper with an authentic sound and phrasing. He was limited in many ways but could fly through “I’ll Remember April” and played the hell out of a ballad like “Lover Man” or “Round Midnight.” He was a complicated cat. Half of Guido was the Truth and half was a bullshit rap. It took me a while to learn how all of this could be bound up in one person — like I said, I went to school at the University of Illinois, but I got my education at Nature’s Table.
When I was a freshman, I would go over to Guido’s apartment. I’d get there around noon, and he’d barely be awake. The first thing we would do is walk to the corner liquor store, and I’d buy him a big bottle of malt liquor. We’d go back to his crib, and he’d drink that and start to come to life. I haven’t even opened my saxophone case and I’ve already gotten a lesson about life, you dig? Then we’d get out our horns and we’d play through Charlie Parker solos together. I would try to copy his phrasing and articulation as we read through the Charlie Parker Omnibook. The first gig I ever played at Nature’s Table was as a freshman with Guido. Two altos and rhythm. We played all Monk tunes, and his charts were chicken-scratch lead sheets. There was a cover bucket, and it cost a $1 to get in. At the end of the night Guido was in the back counting the bread. I asked him excitedly: “How much do I get?” And the look he gave me was so full of despair and disappointment that I’ve never forgotten it. It was like, “Man, you too?!” In retrospect, I get it. He needed every dollar. I was a privileged kid. What did that $10 or whatever really mean to me? And the reality is that I probably shouldn’t have even been on the bandstand yet.
There was a generosity about Guido, but he would also take advantage of people. I’ve often contemplated a novel about the relationship between a young musician like I was and an older cat like Guido. The arc of the story would be how the apprentice comes under the older musician’s spell and makes him out to be a God. Then the apprentice becomes disillusioned by the bullshit and drifts away. In the end, the young player comes to a deeper understanding of his mentor and the vagaries of not only the jazz life but of all aging lives and how there are multitudes contained within each of us.
EI: When did he die?
MS: 1992. He was 56, the same age I turn in August. The other person who was important musically to me was a trumpet player and composer named John Scott. He had gone to Grinnell with Herbie Hancock and later co-wrote two tunes with Herbie, “The Maze” and “A Tribute to Someone,” both of which Herbie recorded on Blue Note. John went to Berklee in the early ‘60s and bounced around various cities — Boston, Detroit, Chicago. Eventually, he became a dentist in Champaign, but he played regularly and was a mentor to many of us. He was a post-bopper. Great composer. Memorable melodies, interesting structures, colorful harmony, modal and open but also a lot of changes depending on the piece, and fun to play. A few of his tunes have been recorded by my peers. Folks should look up “You’re the Berries” recorded by saxophonist Steve Griggs with Elvin Jones on drums; “Scooter” and “Alone Again” recorded by bass trumpeter Ryan Shultz, and “Chameleon Eyes” recorded by drummer Jeff Stitely. John took the time to show me how his music worked, taught me about pentatonic scales and modal playing, and helped me understand the John Coltrane Quartet.
I’m going on and on about some of these people, but they were important.
EI: In retrospect, these early mentors gain in importance. You realize after you go out in the world and do all sorts of stuff, “Thank goodness I met that person way back when.”
EI: How did you learn classical music?
MS: I learned the classical tradition backwards. I started with all this far-out stuff by the composers I knew on campus and then went backwards to Messiaen, Bartok, Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel, Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Bach. Most people start with Bach and Mozart and go forward but never get past Bartok. An excellent alto player named Mark Kirk, about 12 years older than me and a Phil Woods protégé, played lead alto in the Garvey band when I was playing second. Mark introduced me to Ravel’s String Quartet and Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste on the same night. Those are still desert island pieces for me. After I graduated, I worked in a classical record store in Champaign. I had a fantastic boss, Morgan Usadel, who systematically took me through the repertoire. I’d come in every day and ask: “What should I know?”
Morgan would say, “Do you know the Beethoven symphonies?”
“OK, let’s start there.”
And in a couple of years we went through the standard rep. Morgan was also a jazz guy. He was a childhood friend of Ben Sidran in Madison, Wisc., and he had been in the record business forever. He had one of the largest collections I’ve ever seen, and he taped a lot of LPs for me that were super-rare in those days — Blue Note sides by Freddie Redd, Sam Rivers, Grant Green, Larry Young, and the like.
Learning the classical literature backward had a huge impact on my later career as a classical critic. First, it meant that I championed contemporary music. Second, it meant that I didn’t grow up thinking that a piece like, say, the Brahms Fourth Symphony goes one way. I was open to all kinds of interpretations. It wasn’t about right or wrong so much as the point of view being expressed and whether it could be justified and whether it sounded good. Now, there’s another layer to this in which, yes, some choices are, in fact, not just subjectively bad but objectively wrong. But tempo, phrasing, character, dynamics — all that stuff is contextual and negotiable. The part of me that comes from jazz allows for interpretive freedom. Also, I watched the composers I knew workshop pieces. A performer might say, “You know, this isn’t working. Why don’t we change it to this?” And the composers invariably said, “Yeah, great. Let’s make it work better.”
Interpretive decisions should absolutely be rooted in the score, but as pianist Jeremy Denk once told me: “Interpreting the score is a creative act.” It’s not an act of slavish devotion that limits imagination. You’ve got the score, and you’ve got the performer. The music is somewhere in between them.
EI: Part of what I’m taking away from this is that you were always interested in the old as well as the new.
MS: Yes. When I was in school, jazz to me was not trying to play like Michael Brecker. I’m not trying to diss Michael Brecker. It’s just that I feel fortunate to have been in an environment with a much bigger world view. You know, it’s hard to remember, but pre-Wynton Marsalis championing Ellington, Duke was not a central figure in jazz education. I went to a place where Ellington was revered. Armstrong too. But also Ornette. Thank God.
EI: So you’re a history major in Illinois. Let’s get you to Detroit. What was the trajectory there?
MS: After I graduated, I spent a couple of years in Champaign-Urbana. I worked in the record store. I worked in a bookstore. I worked behind the counter at Nature’s Table. I worked as a musician playing jobbing gigs and jazz gigs. I did some volunteer on-air jazz programming at a community radio station. I played in John Garvey’s Russian Orchestra — a balalaika and domra orchestra! I learned to play alto balalaika. Nobody should be impressed. It’s by no means a skill instrument. You basically just play two-note chords on the backbeats. But I wanted to keep working with John, and he liked jazz musicians in the group because we played with good time. I started to do a little writing. The musicologist Larry Gushee recommended me to the journal Percussive Notes, and I wrote the obituary for Buddy Rich. That was my first published piece. I also wrote a “Pro Session” piece for Downbeat about “How to Be a House Musician” with Kelly Sill and Joel Spencer, who at the time were playing with everybody in Chicago — Liebman one week, Barney Kessel the next, and maybe Billy Eckstine the next.
Eventually, I realized that as much as I loved music, I hated the business of music. I knew I was just an average musician. I loved jazz, but I didn’t love the saxophone. I had also seen enough to know that unless you can’t live without being a musician, you have no business trying to be a musician for a living. Reading and writing were the other things I’d always been good at, and I had always thought about journalism and music writing. If you come from my family, you go to school. My parents had five children. Three have Ph.Ds., and my brother David is a lawyer. Even my fraternal twin, Michael, who is a pianist and director of jazz studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has a doctorate from Eastman. I have a master’s degree, and I’m the least formally educated child — the slacker.
I went back home to graduate school in journalism at Indiana University, where there was a curriculum in arts writing. My main professor, Peter Jacobi, stressed that quality arts journalism meant not only thoughtful criticism but also reporting the arts as a news beat — covering culture the way we cover education, politics, business, etc. I got my first job as an arts writer at the South Bend Tribune in December 1989. I moved to the Dayton Daily News in 1993. I came to the Detroit Free Press in October 1995. In South Bend, I wrote about everything from the South Bend Symphony to the Ice Capades , censorship issues, and lots of community theater. I also reviewed the bus-and-truck Broadway shows. In Dayton, I focused more on classical music, broader arts reporting, and began doing more jazz. My duties in Detroit started out the same, and I did as much jazz writing as I could. When we lost our visual arts writer in 2006, museums and art were added to my beat. I took a voluntary buyout from the Free Press after 21 years — 100% my choice — in December 2016.
I wore both the critic’s hat and the reporter’s hat. I reviewed the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, opera, and chamber music; went on tour with the symphony to Europe and Japan; wrote profiles of people like William Bolcom, Elliott Carter, Barry Harris and Herbie Hancock; reviewed classical and jazz recordings; covered arts funding issues and the intersection of the arts with politics and business; wrote about museum exhibitions, artists like Shirin Neshat and David Hammons, street art, and Nazi-era restitution cases; and chronicled the key role that culture is playing in redeveloping and reinventing Detroit. When the Detroit Symphony went on strike in 2010, that was my story. When the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013 — and the city-owned Detroit Institute of Arts got caught in the legal web with the possibility of being forced to sell masterpieces to satisfy creditors — that was my story too. I was part of the paper’s bankruptcy team. That was the most challenging and rewarding reporting work of my career: a two-year saga with the highest possible stakes imaginable for our city and an insanely complicated story with intense competition from national and local media. I’m so proud of the work my colleagues and I did. The museum ended up at the core of the story, the crux of the legal resolution in court. If ever there was a story that showed how crucial it is to have arts reporters on the beat to be able to tell the full and textured story of civic life, it was this one.
EI: Detroit culture is really connected to Afro American culture: not just music, but visual artists and poets.
MS: Music has always retained primacy within the African American community here. A sizable black population still goes out to hear live jazz, and jazz is still social music here in a way that it is not in many other cities. You feel that on the scene. Talk to traveling musicians and they’ll tell you the best jazz audience in America is in Detroit. People here are incredibly knowledgeable and have always been that way. Joe Henderson told me that when he was coming up here in the late ‘50s, that you couldn’t get up on the bandstand jiving. “That could be injurious to one’s ego,” he said.
It’s not just that you’re playing for folks who heard Miles and Trane back in the day. You’re playing for people who went to school with Barry Harris or Geri Allen, and you might be playing for members of Tommy Flanagan’s extended family. I heard Roland Hanna play solo piano outdoors in front of thousands of people at the Detroit Jazz Festival. A free outdoor festival in the middle of the afternoon and you could hear a fucking pin drop. You don’t get that everywhere. Standards are high, but the scene is also nurturing. It’s always been like that. There’s a quote from Elvin Jones in my book, when he was interviewed by Art Taylor for Notes and Tones. Elvin compares the reverence Detroit audiences had for jazz in the ‘50s to what you might feel at Carnegie Hall. He said, “I’ve never seen anything like it before or since — a whole community actively participating in the development of the form.” Jazz is part of a larger environment here in which all kinds of music is revered.
EI: Literally Motown, it’s in the name.
MS: Right, it’s Motown, but it’s also John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, and techno’s Belleville Three — Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson — and Carl Craig. It’s the MC5, Iggy Pop, and Bob Seger. We also have the market cornered on white rappers. It’s classical musicians from here like Ida and Ani Kavafian, Kim Kashkashian, Ruth Laredo, James Tocco, and composer Robert Ashley. Plus, the important conductors of the Detroit Symphony — Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Paul Paray, Antal Dorati, Neeme Jarvi, Leonard Slatkin.
Here’s when I first knew that it was different in Detroit. I had been at the Free Press for only a few months when I reviewed a concert by the Detroit Symphony with Kathleen Battle. This is early 1996. The phone rang at my desk. I answered: “Mark Stryker.” The woman on the other end said, “This is Aretha Franklin. I read what you wrote about Kathleen Battle and I thought it was one of the most poetic things I’d ever read. And I was wondering if you would be interested in re-writing parts of my autobiography.”
My first thought was that this was some sort of ruse. But it wasn’t. I thanked her, but I couldn’t quite unpack what she was asking. She was already working with David Ritz on her autobiography, and he’s everybody’s top choice for the as-told-to genre of pop-star memoir. You don’t simply bring in a pinch hitter in the middle of a project, and what in the hell did “re-writing parts of my autobiography” mean? But I said I’d be delighted to work with her in anyway she’d like. I asked for a contact name and number so I could stay in touch. She gave me her lawyer’s name, and I called him as soon as I got off the phone. I said, “I just got the strangest call from Aretha.” I remember he said, “Y-e-s,” slowly drawing out the word with a wariness in his voice that suggested that I might have been the third call he had gotten that morning from someone claiming that they had just gotten a strange call from Aretha.
The point is: classical music critics don’t get calls out of the blue from Aretha Franklin in Dayton, Ohio, or South Bend, Indiana. A couple days later, I got telegram from her summarizing our conversation. I never heard from her again, but I framed the telegram.
EI: There’s no story of jazz without the story of Detroit jazz musicians.
MS: That’s the basic theme of my book: You cannot tell the story of jazz in America without telling the story of jazz from Detroit. It’s indivisible. There are so many major figures from Detroit and their influence from the middle of the 20th Century until the present day has been profound. The book tells the story through substantial profiles of more than two dozen key players. But there are also thematic chapters that go deep on what the social, economic, cultural, and economic factors were that led to a bebop explosion here in the 1940s and ‘50s and how Detroit managed to keep producing influential musicians generation after generation — even as the city lost economic might and its population fell precipitously.
EI: As a piano player, when I started getting interested in this music, I’d keep reading the phrase, “the Detroit pianists.”
MS: Right. Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, and Roland Hanna are the big four. But there’s also Will Davis, Terry Pollard, Alice Coltrane, Hugh Lawson, Kirk Lightsey, Johnny O’Neal, and Geri Allen. When you start listing the players from here, it’s kind of a holy-shit moment. Hank, Thad, and Elvin Jones, Lucky Thompson, Wardell Gray, Howard McGhee, Gerald Wilson, Yusef Lateef, Milt Jackson, Sheila Jordan, Betty Carter, Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Paul Chambers, Doug Watkins, Ron Carter, Pepper Adams, Joe Henderson, Sonny Red, Louis Hayes, Roy Brooks, Charles McPherson, Marcus Belgrave, Robert Hurst, Regina Carter, James Carter, Rodney Whitaker, Gerald Cleaver, Karriem Riggins, JD Allen. I’ve got an appendix in the book of players either from Detroit or nurtured by the city, or who made important contributions to the scene, even if their time here was short. There are about 175 names, and I had to leave out scores of others.
EI: I remember I was at the Vanguard talking to Bill Charlap — a long time ago now, in the ’90s I guess — talking about an early Pepper Adams record. He told me it was a great document of the Detroit sound. I thought, Okay. this is something I need to become more aware of. Charlap is pulling my coat here. There’s a “Detroit way” of doing things.
MS: I talk in the book about a Detroit approach that transcends eras and styles. It has to do with a respect for tradition, especially bebop, an allegiance to swing and blues, the balance of head and heart in the improvisations. It’s polished craftsmanship married to soulful expression, and an eloquent and intelligent way of constructing melody and using harmony. There’s a disciplined versatility among the musicians, but also a drive to create an individual voice. A lot of this can be traced back to the influence of the two most important jazz teachers in Detroit — Barry Harris in the ‘50s and Marcus Belgrave in more recent decades.
We think of geography as an important factor early on in jazz. Think of New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City. New York, and Los Angeles as the music progresses. But then after the 1950s, we mostly forget about these regional scenes and how important they were.
EI: I guess New York became so dominant that it was a little harder to see everywhere else.
MS: Yes. Also, the world becomes smaller after World War II —air travel, the explosion in jazz recording. I think the last major stylistic change in the music associated with a city would be the AACM in Chicago. But places like Boston, Detroit, and Philadelphia have strong individual identities. They have their own jazz micro-climates defined by a shared history among the musicians, training, repertoire, and the cultural and economic fabrics of each city.
EI: Let’s talk about Marcus Belgrave, who gets a whole section in your book, not just about his playing, but his teaching.
MS: “Marcus Belgrave and his Children” is the name of that section. Marcus settles in Detroit in 1963, after getting off the road with Ray Charles. He’s a dynamite trumpet player and through the years develops into a deeply personal player. Swinging, soulful, committed to the road less traveled in his solos. He starts teaching in the early ‘70s and becomes a key mentor to Geri Allen, Kenny Garrett, Bob Hurst, Regina Carter, Gerald Cleaver, Karriem Riggins, Rodney Whitaker, and countless others. Marcus was a link to the aristocracy. He had played with Mingus, with Max Roach, spent years on the bus with Brother Ray, played as a kid in a concert band with Clifford Brown, recorded with Booker Little, was a charter member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center band, and a lot more.
Marcus would come across talented kids and adopt them musically. That’s what he did with Geri, Bob and Kenny. Here’s an example: Marcus came to do a master class and concert at Rochester High School north of Detroit when Bob was 15. They played a trumpet-bass duet on “Confirmation” and Marcus was knocked out when Bob played the demanding melody on the bass. Marcus immediately went to Bob’s parents and asked permission to work with their son. Soon Bob was rehearsing all day at Marcus’ house. That basic story is repeated over and over. A culture of mentorship is deeply embedded in the community. Regina Carter says in the book: “This community raised us.”
That culture goes back to Barry Harris in the ‘50s, who was teaching out of his house and nurtured Paul Chambers, Doug Watkins, Curtis Fuller, Donald Byrd, Pepper, JoeHen, Charles McPherson, Yusef and many others. He’s almost 90 and still teaching basically the same way in New York.
EI: For a pittance. If you have 10 bucks you can go to hear Barry talk about jazz harmony. It’s the least elitist thing you can imagine.
MS: Barry’s theories about harmony and the grammar of bebop and all that — he’s figuring all of that stuff out while teaching in the early ’50s.
EI: Charles McPherson told me this story that’s difficult for me to comprehend, but I guess it’s true, because Charles is a reliable source. Charles told me he was there the day Coltrane went over to Barry Harris’s house. Coltrane’s says to Barry, “Show me something, I need some new stuff.” Barry responds, “Well, instead of playing ii-V, you could try to play on V, and here’s a scale with a half step that you can use for that.”
And that actually becomes a key sound in Coltrane after that. When Coltrane is filling in every corner with scales that have a half step, he apparently got that from Barry. If there’s someone in jazz who took away the ii from the ii-V, it’s John Coltrane. So, Barry might be far more important than we usually give him credit for!
MS: That story is absolutely true. Everybody that came to Detroit went by Barry’s house. Charles remembers seeing Sonny Rollins there, Trane, Cannonball, everybody.
EI: I like to badmouth jazz education, and sometimes I do it on social media. When I do, you are always the first person to show up and say, what about Barry Harris? Fair enough! But Barry’s not part of the jazz education complex, partly because he still teaches it for 10 bucks. He’s never had an attitude other than, “I love this music. I have these ideas, and I must share these ideas with the people.”
MS: Barry is the quintessence of the oral tradition. My good friend Michael Weiss, a fantastic pianist, points out that Barry’s theory is derived directly from the practice, and too often in formalized jazz education they have it the other way around. By now, some of Barry’s ideas have been absorbed into mainstream jazz education, but it’s not at all the same as going to the source.
EI: One thing I realized about Barry — rather belatedly — was how much he loves American pop songs. When he plays “All The Things You Are” at mid-tempo, he doesn’t play it as a bebop steeplechase or as a Tristano-ish invitation to harmonic discovery. Barry plays “All the Things You Are” because he loves the song, like how a musical theater person loves the song,
That’s an interesting piece of the puzzle. I didn’t know Belgrave, but I was on sort of an all-star concert with a workshop with him. I knew there was going to be a lot of noisy jazz all night, so I asked Marcus Belgrave if we could play a ballad duo. He said, how about “Violets For Your Furs?” Then Belgrave asked, “Do you want to take a solo?” and I said, “No, I just want to comp and listen to you play.”
That night he played two choruses on “Violets For Your Furs” and time stopped at that moment. That was one of the best things I’ve ever done on stage. I could feel the audience afterwards just sort of sit back and sigh with happiness. There’s something about jazz and the popular song that is so crucial, really.
MS: Well, it’s a link to popular culture, a link to the audience, a link to strong and memorable melodies, a link to songs that are like exquisitely structured poems, a link to something that’s fundamental to the DNA of American music and culture, even though we’re more than a half century past the golden age of the Great American Songbook. A jazz musician like Barry improvises on a sophisticated level but does so within a frame and language that’s still accessible.
EI: To learn “Violets for Your Furs” I had to listen to the Frank Sinatra record. Your obituary for Frank Sinatra was so striking, with an opening that culminates by calling him a saloon singer.
It’s easy for jazz fans to be just in our most private world of the most obscure things. However, someone like Sinatra (who is also great in whatever pure musical terms you want to look at) also has this impact on the larger culture.
MS: The connections between high culture, middle brow culture, and vernacular culture in America — the blending and the fluidity with which American musicians traverse these strata and dance along the fault lines — is unique to our culture. Jazz exists at all these levels. In American music it’s the intersections where things really get interesting. The intersection of black and white, of rural and urban, of art music and popular music. You listen to the Sinatra ballads with Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins and the craft level is off the fucking charts in terms of the arrangements, execution, singing, and musicianship. It’s like vernacular lieder — art songs for a mass audience. Riddle knew his Ravel and Schoenberg. Jenkins knew his Rachmaninoff and Sibelius. Listen to the long orchestral opening of Riddle’s chart on “Lost in the Stars” from 1963 on The Concert Sinatra. It’s a series of stacked fourths that comes out of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony. The opening of Jenkins’ arrangement of “The Night We Called it a Day” from 1957 is right out of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony.
These things are great not because they imitate classical music; they’re great because these musicians were pulling in so much language from across the cultural spectrum to create personal, organic and artful settings in which Sinatra could do his thing. And, of course, Sinatra was peerless at communicating a lyric with depth and feeling. The phrasing is extraordinary — where he breathes, how he extends lines to not violate the meaning of the lyric, the way he shapes his vowel sounds, how the consonants accentuate rhythms, the nuance of expression in his voice that you can’t even articulate because it just goes so far beyond words. If I ran the world, I’d make every jazz student learn to play ballads by copying Sinatra’s phrasing.
EI: No doubt about it. It’s on record that Miles Davis, Lester Young and Lee Konitz agree with you. They all loved Sinatra records.
MS: Marcus came up in that era He learned to play ballads by playing behind Ray Charles. To be a jazz musician was to know all those songs — to really know the intricacies of the melody, harmony and lyrics. You can’t learn that by reading them out of a Real Book. I think that all jazz musicians should know these songs, even if you don’t want to play them. Even if you want to play in a completely abstract idiom — because they’re part of the DNA of the art form, like blues and swing. I’m not trying to prescribe a narrow reading of what is and isn’t jazz. I’m saying that you’ll have a better understanding of the construction of melody and the expressive power of formal details of melody and harmony if you know these songs. You’ll be a more coherent and communicative improviser. And you will be more connected to the jazz tradition, even if those influences are so sublimated that most folks would not even know they’re present.
EI: All those composers of the American pop song, they fought for every note that they put on the score. Sure, you could play Bach, Mozart or Beethoven from a lead sheet, but would you really want to?
MS: Cole Porter had a particular thing. Gershwin had a particular thing. Richard Rodgers had a particular thing. Hoagy Carmichael had a particular thing. Miles Okazaki and I had a conversation about this recently. He put it this way: All those subtle differences in the language of these composers get flattened out when the music gets reduced to a lead sheet in a fake book. Musicians should know that there’s a big difference between Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael. Not just in the musical details. They were both from Indiana but came from completely different cultural backgrounds. One ends up a creature of the city, writing some of the most urbane songs we have. The other writes about lazy rivers with a jazzy accent. If you know the difference, you’ll play with more depth.
EI: I never saw “Violets For Your Furs” in any fake book. I wonder if Marcus Belgrave was giving me a lesson there, suggesting something I’d have to know from recordings by Frank Sinatra and John Coltrane.
MS: Knowing Marcus, I suspect that was intentional.
EI: It was a wonderful lesson.
Tell me about the Detroit schools that produced all these Detroit musicians, the actual structural schooling must be a part of it.
MS: It’s a big part of the story. By the 1920s and ‘30s, the Detroit Public Schools were already renowned for music education. The most famous was Cass Technical High School. There were great music programs at Miller High School, Northwestern, Northern, and other schools, but Cass Tech was the jewel. Schools were integrated, and Cass Tech was what today we would call a magnet school. Howard McGhee, Gerald Wilson, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Donald Byrd, Ron Cater, Geri Allen and many others went there. I go into detail in the book about the specifics of the training at Cass and the other schools, but the bottom line is that kids really learned how to play their instruments in the classical tradition, and they learned theory. It was high-level music education, college training.
EI: In the European fashion.
MS: Absolutely. When you combine that level of formal training in the schools with the informal mentorship in jazz by Barry Harris — and that happens within the context of inexhaustible nightlife fueled by an auto industry offering some of the highest wages for blacks in America — that’s a powerful combination of forces that leads to the mid-century explosion of modern jazz in Detroit.
EI: As someone who knows a fair amount of jazz history, the chapter on self-determination in Jazz from Detroit was revelatory.
MS: In the 1960s and ‘70s. cooperatives like the Detroit Artists Workshop, Strata Corporation, Tribe, and the Detroit Creative Musicians Association grew out of the same impulse toward self-determination that gave rise to the AACM in Chicago, the Black Artists’ Group in St. Louis and others. The Detroit organizations are still obscure. How many people know that James Blood Ulmer and Doug Hammond were in an experimental Detroit band called Focus Novi that created multimedia pieces under the umbrella of the Detroit Creative Musicians Association? All of this played out in Detroit in ways unique to the city’s own history and culture. The Detroit groups, for example, were progressive, but less focused on free jazz per se than in other cities. There were white musicians involved here in ways they were not in other cities. And the Detroiters created unique business ventures, from record companies and Strata’s corporate model that sold stock, to the Afrocentric magazine published by Tribe.
EI: I’ve had Strata-East records my whole life, but I had never realized they were responding to people in Detroit who did it first.
MS: There had been talk for a minute that Strata-East would be a business subsidiary to Strata in Detroit, but Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell ,who started Strata-East, ended up going their own way — but they took inspiration and the name from the Detroiters. Stanley had been a graduate student at the University of Michigan and was an important part of the scene here for a couple years in the mid ‘60s. He had been involved in the Detroit Artists Workshop that included painters, poets, film makers and jazz musicians like trumpeter Charles Moore and drummer Danny Spencer. Both of those guys became integral members of the Contemporary Jazz Quintet a few years later.
EI: They made records for Blue Note.
MS: Right. Two of them in 1968-69 with Moore, Spencer, pianist Kenn Cox, tenor saxophonist Leon Henderson, who was Joe Henderson’s younger brother, and bassist Ron Brooks. Those records are fascinating because you’re hearing musicians absorbing the lessons of Miles’ ‘60s quintet in real time, especially Miles in the Sky, The Sorcerer, and Nefertiti.
EI: The first time I heard one of those Contemporary Jazz Quintet records I was in Rodney Green’s car. Rodney put one on to give me a kind of blindfold test. I had no idea who it was, but I could tell it was people playing in their era, rather than kids imitating the late 60s. It had that authenticity. Very cool music.
MS: Agreed. The originals are compelling. They were coming out of things like Wayne’s “Paraphernalia” and Tony’s “Black Comedy” with cuing systems and meter changes built into the compositions.
EI: I wanted to ask you about Larry Gushee, because I saw his book on your shelf and you said he was a very important influence. He’s someone that I don’t really know and probably a lot of people don’t know.
MS: Larry was unique. He had two areas of study as a musicologist: early jazz and medieval music. He also played clarinet, and I heard his band, the New Golden Rule Orchestra, countless times. Larry loved the fact that nothing in the group’s repertoire was post-1920, if I remember the cutoff correctly. Late in the game he wrote an important book, Pioneers of Jazz, which is about the Creole Band, the first jazz group to travel widely outside of New Orleans. Some might also recognize Larry’s byline from the pages of the influential Jazz Review in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. As I said earlier, I took Larry’s graduate seminar in jazz history at Illinois, even though I was only a junior.
Larry drilled into us that the level of scholarship in jazz should be every bit as high as the level of scholarship in classical music. Jazz history had until that point largely been written by enthusiastic fans, partisan critics and record collectors. Larry was on the front lines of bringing a kind of scholarly rigor and authority to jazz that was largely new to the field — really digging into documentary evidence and archival research, always questioning conventional wisdom, and cross-checking first-person accounts to better get at the historical truth. We are still dealing in jazz history with an extraordinary amount of mythology and misunderstandings that have been repeated for generations because of shoddy scholarship, hearsay, and misguided formal analysis.
Obviously, I did not become a musicologist, but I did become a reporter, I have always tried to bring a meticulous care and respect for verifiable facts and solid musical analysis to my writing in ways that Larry would approve of. The other major lesson I learned from Larry was that the history of jazz and the history of jazz on record are different. You cannot forget that. First, many influential or distinctive bands and musicians did not record at all — like the Creole Band that Larry documents in Pioneers of Jazz — or they were under-recorded or made defining contributions on other fronts. Barry Harris and Marcus Belgrave are the heroes of Jazz from Detroit not because of their records — which of course are great — but because they were catalytic teachers. If you’re simply chronicling the music as a linear series of recordings and a progression of musical styles, then you’re leaving too much on the table.
Records are critical; they are primary documents. But they are also snapshots. They do not tell the entire story of how musicians led their lives, the web of musical, social and economic relationships between people and institutions that affected the music. And records do not tell the full story of how information was transmitted. They don’t tell you how this music exists within the larger frame of American culture, the entertainment industry, race, and class. Too much writing about jazz boils down to little more than a progression of recordings. The opposite problem also exists: There are academics who burrow so deeply into the rabbit hole of cultural studies that they end up completely disconnected from the music as the music. Whether academic or popular in form, we need more jazz writing that better integrates musicology or criticism on the one hand with scholarly rigor and cultural context on the other. The gestalt is important.
EI: I read my whole life that Monk stops his piano solo on “The Man I Love” with Miles Davis because he got lost in the form, because Monk was playing so abstract. Recently Ben Street told me that he was talking to Charlie Persip who was there at the session, Christmas day 1954, and Persip said Monk had a beer on the piano and he lost control of it, he was chasing the beer bottle around. The other musicians were looking at Monk like, you know, should they stop the take or not, and Miles plays the bridge to save the take and so Monk jumps back in: “OK, we’ll save the take.” That’s actually kind of an important detail, especially if you’re just mythologizing Monk as a savant who is so far out that he gets lost in the form.
MS: I love the moments on records when you can hear the studio chatter, like at the end of Miles’ “Woody’n You” when you hear how pissed off Miles is with the prospect of having to do another take and then Trane chimes in: “Could I have the beer opener?” Those things are so startling because it’s like a veil suddenly drops away from this marble edifice and suddenly you realize that these are human beings making this music and not Gods on pedestals.
I’m sorry that Larry did not live long enough to read my book. I thought of him many times while writing. Though Jazz from Detroit is not an academic book per se, I wanted to combine scholarship, reporting, criticism, and imaginative writing to bring these musicians alive on the page in a way that would speak to both aficionados and general readers. I wanted to offer a degree of formal analysis of the music without losing the average reader. I wanted to capture the sound and feeling of their music in words and present their lives on and off the bandstand. And I wanted to dig into culture and history, placing the musicians and Detroit into a larger context reflecting the music’s African American roots and relationship to a specific time and place. Others can decide if I was successful, but that’s what I was going for.
EI: Do you still regard any of Gushee’s books as a good read today?
MS: I wish Larry had published more books, but Pioneers of Jazz is essential. It connects dots between early jazz and vaudeville and minstrel shows and offers lessons in scrupulous historical research and how a scholar as deeply informed and balanced as Larry can legitimately fill in the blanks when sources fail — and when you just have to give up and say we’ll never be able to answer a particular question definitively. He wrote a revelatory essay on Jelly Roll Morton — A Preliminary Chronology of the Early Career of Ferd “Jelly Roll” Morton — that appeared in both Storyville magazine and the journal American Music in the mid ‘80s. There are essays about King Oliver and Sonny Rollins from The Jazz Review that were anthologized in Jazz Panorama. There’s an essay about Louis Armstrong included in the book In the Course of Performance: Studies in the World of Musical Improvisation, which was co-edited by Larry’s brilliant U of I colleague Bruno Nettl. There are smart entries in the Grove dictionaries and superb liner notes for Smithsonian reissues devoted to King Oliver and Freddie Keppard. He also wrote a set of notes for a Jelly Roll Morton reissue on Bluebird that I haven’t seen.
EI: I pulled a book off your shelf by Douglas Henry Daniels about the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. There’s a lot of reception history about Lester Young, but Douglas Henry Daniels is the only black author to write a book length study on Pres, and there is information that Daniels presents that you can’t find in any of the other Lester Young books. Daniels is not in a normal zone of the jazz critic. He describes himself as a professor of black studies. In my own trajectory I’ve found the black voices who wrote about jazz more and more important. As Mr. Detroit, you are really sort of on the sharp end of thinking about this stuff.
MS: There needs to be more voices of African Americans at all levels of jazz writing — scholarly works, criticism, popular media. Robin D. G. Kelley’s Monk biography is an extraordinary document. So is George Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself about the AACM. Greg Tate is a helluva critic across the spectrum. For myself, I try to interact with the broadest range of black culture that I can. We’re sitting at my dining room table, but just over there in the bedroom are bookshelf after bookshelf filled with African American literature, poetry, history, and culture. I think a lot about the connections between black music and literature and art. It’s all connected, and it’s all important.
EI: I get frustrated sometimes in my own community. There can be a real knee jerk reaction against Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch. I’m always wanting to say to certain friends, “Don’t you think you have something to learn from these guys?”
MS: Murray is really important to me. Stomping the Blues, of course, but The Omni-Americans is a deeply profound book that gets better and better, and I love the idiosyncratic literary memoir South to a Very Old Place. The way Murray sees his way through the thicket of race, culture and identity is needed more today than ever — particularly how he delineates culture in defining feeling and consciousness, the centrality of black culture to mainstream America, and the way in which American culture is a composite — “incontestably Mulatto” in his memorable phrase. There’s a famous line in The Omni-Americans where he says: “For all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world as they resemble each other.” That’s not a popular view these days, but it’s true.
I owe Stanley Crouch a debt. His first book of essays, Notes of a Hanging Judge, is such a rich book that explores culture, politics, jazz, art, literature, race and more. I don’t agree with everything, but it’s an amazing document and his most disciplined work. Those essays opened my eyes when I read them in the Village Voice in the 1980s. It was Stanley who introduced me to Albert Murray, and over there on the wall is a small oil on paper by the remarkable painter Bob Thompson, who I first learned about through Stanley’s essay about him in Notes of a Hanging Judge. For me, it’s not about whether I agree with Stanley about Wynton Marsalis or the jazz avant-garde or whatever. His best work helps you understand America.
On a related front, I’d add that Gerald Early has been extremely important to me. So has James Baldwin. And above all Ralph Ellison — Invisible Man and Shadow and Act are inexhaustible in their greatness. There are many other black writers and artists who I’ve spent a lot of time with — Du Bois, Baraka, Hurston, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, John A. Williams, Michael Harper, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kevin Young, the painters Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Bob Thompson, Norman Lewis, Kerry James Marshall. I could go on.
EI: Two of the big George Walker fans are sitting together across a table. In terms of the online representation, the DTM interview with Walker alongside your reprinted Detroit Free Press articles is significant.
George Walker has now sadly passed. It’s odd how he somehow never really got recognized. When there was a New York Times piece about black composers a few years ago his name wasn’t in it. That surprising omission seemed to be symptomatic of George’s life on this planet. Considering how great he was, it’s really kind of a mystery.
MS: The first thing to say is that everybody reading this should go listen to George’s Piano Concerto, Lilacs for voice and orchestra, Lyric for Strings, the piano sonatas, the Violin Concerto, the two violin sonatas, the Trombone Concerto. These are sage works. George wrote honest, modernist music with a fresh, melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic imagination, a muscular lyricism, and an expressive use of form. I think he connects to Murray and Ellison, because the lesson of George Walker is that the responsibility and goal of an artist and human being is to become the most honest and greatest individual that you can be — to follow that voice that resides deep within you. One of the problems George faced is that he was an African American composer writing notated music and did not want to reference vernacular African American music. The expectations in his era were, first, that African Americans didn’t write classical music. So George was already pushing against cultural norms. Second, the expectation for blacks who were writing in the classical idiom was that the music would reference African American themes and vernacular sources like spirituals, blues, or jazz. George didn’t do that. He might reference something occasionally, but it’s rare.
EI: He puts “Satin Doll” in one of his piano pieces, Guido’s Hand, but it’s very abstract.
I made a mistake with George in my first correspondence with him. I admire his first piano sonata. The middle set of variations is on a folk song, and I wrote that it was on a spiritual. I just thought, “Here is this black composer, the title sounds like spiritual, the music sounds like a spiritual to me, so it’s a spiritual.” The first line of the curt email I got back was, “It’s a folk song, not a spiritual.”
MS: George resented the implication that because he was black, he needed to write in a certain way. This is what Invisible Man is about — inventing your own identity, not letting society define a limited vision of who you should be, and how difficult it is do that as an African American. It’s hard enough for anyone to do this, but especially for African Americans and especially for artists. George’s prickly personality did not do him any favors, but whatever bitterness was there was earned legitimately. He was trapped. Classical composers of his generation were supposed to write serial music. Black composers weren’t supposed to write classical music at all, and if they did, they were supposed reference vernacular styles. George went his own way. He was a school of one.
EI: There was no 80th birthday George Walker concert in New York, there was no 90th birthday concert. What the heck are we doing in our cultural institutions if we don’t honor somebody like that? How badass do you need to be? Talk about an individual! And he’s so prolific. I’ll never get to hear all of his music.
MS: He did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. Still, even after the Pulitzer he didn’t get the commissions that he should have been getting.
EI: His recording of the Emperor Concerto also shows that he was a composer/pianist who could play Beethoven at the highest level with an orchestra.
MS: It was out-and-out racism that prevented him from developing a career as a pianist, and, look, our culture does not value contemporary composition to the degree that it should. All composers struggle but it’s been worse for African Americans, and for women too. As the black composer Hale Smith once told me: “Let everybody take their lumps equally.”
I’m grateful that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has played more of George’s music than any other orchestra going back to the ‘70s. The DSO and its black associate conductor Paul Freeman were part of the landmark black composers series on Columbia. The DSO has also celebrated black composers and performers for more than 40 years through its annual Classical Roots concerts. Just this past winter I moderated a panel on a program celebrating George with performances of his music by his son Gregory, who is an excellent violinist, and the DSO’s fantastic principal trombonist Ken Thompkins. This orchestra has done many important things, but championing George Walker is at the top of the list.
[Part 2: “Mark Stryker and the Saxes.”]