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Cover Story

Serious Bell

How a trumpeter from Chester, Pa., became the face of Detroit jazz.

Photo/ Dr. Jazz
Backstage with Kenny Garret at the '99 Detroit Jazz fest.
Metro Times Photo/Jahki
Marcus Belgrave with the DSO Civic Jazz Orchestra.
Metro Times Photo/Jahki
Photo/ W. Kim Heron
With son Kasan at the Museum of African American History.
Photo/ W. Kim Heron
Shooting video at WTVS-TV.
Metro Times photos/ Jahki
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Published 8/27/2003

The pre-teens and teens in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Civic Jazz Orchestra are taking Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “The Star-Crossed Lovers” from the top, then from this bar and that, when Marcus Belgrave bustles into the room. He’s wearing a Sun Ra T-shirt, khaki pants and a straw golf hat with the brim riding low on his forehead; there’s a toothpick rakishly angled in an engaging smile that’s rimmed by a salt-and-pepper moustache above and an all-salt goatee below. Under his arms are the tools of the day: A Kanstul brand trumpet in leather traveling bag, a manila folder of sheet music, a personal CD player loaded with a disc by the rather obscure trumpeter Carmel Jones, headphones, a cell phone, and a clear flask of Inner Light Super Greens (a purportedly healthful concoction resembling pond water).

He nods to all, then strides away from the activity to the empty side of the rehearsal room in Wayne State University’s music building. He begins setting down his gear while obviously tuning into the sound of the orchestra. To a reporter, he explains softly in his growly voice that it’s a long day already — and it’s not yet 10 a.m. He dreamed about an old bandmate last night, a bass player from Belgrave’s days with Ray Charles. The guy died in the dream, which was a perplex because the guy’s been dead for years — and Belgrave’s narrow eyes widen as if bolting upright in bed all over again.

So there was Serious Bell — as one bandleader once referred to him — the trumpet king, talent scout and teacher, awake at 4 a.m., and unable to get back to sleep. He did some house cleaning, went searching for a tune that Kenny Garrett, one of his protégés, had called him about. And this Carmel Jones tune had been bugging him for a while, so he says he sat down and wrote out band parts for Jones’ take on “Deep Purple” — reborn as “Bleep Durple.”

On the other side of the room, the band’s collegiate saxophone instructor is trying to energize the reed section’s take on one passage; she bobs on the balls of her feet to give a sense of how to articulate and emphasize the right points. Then Belgrave scat-sings the part from the back of the room, underscoring her point in what, with that simple little phrase, becomes his rehearsal. The buck stops here, with Marcus Belgrave. More importantly, the pluck starts here, with Marcus Belgrave.

Over the next couple hours, he’ll take the band through changes, pounding rhythms on a tabletop like a poor man’s conga drum and demonstrating parts by scat singing with Fred Flintstone’s “Yabba-dabba-do” enthusiasm. He’ll impart advice (“play soft, then the accent is going to stand out” … “keep your ears wide open, listen to everything” … “Duke swings, and that’s what we’re trying to do”). He’ll praise, scold and even mock the band (gently) when one stab at the tune peters out like a toy balloon losing air.

All this to prepare for the band’s next performance, which for Belgrave is just one more gig in what he says seems like one long musical day that began 67 years ago in the Philadelphia area; this long day has seen him out on the road with Ray Charles, freelancing in New York and finally adopting Detroit as home. He came because of the city’s rep as a good music town, he says, and he’s stayed to become emblematic of that music, the immigrant who out-natives the natives. And in addition to the slew of honors and awards that recognize that, this year’s Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival grants him a new emeritus status and presents him with up-and-coming trumpeters all three days.

He’s Detroit’s Mr. Jazz.

Laid up in Egypt

“Are you familiar with the term hippie? Or beatnik? He’s a real beatnik when it comes to art. He’d rather play music than eat,” says saxophonist Wendell Harrison, who’s been observing Belgrave’s musical fixations for four decades, beginning with a cross-country tour with saxophonist Hank Crawford.

That time Harrison and Belgrave rode in the back of the band’s station wagon and saw nothing but receding highway from coast to coast. But in the ’90s, they toured Africa and the Middle East in style for the U.S. State Department as part of the Michigan Jazz Masters group. That tour had its challenges, though, and they put Belgrave’s life priorities in perspective.

“We got real sick, we got laid up in Egypt and Turkey,” says Harrison. “He had a temperature that was higher than mine, but that’s when he played his best.

“I said, ‘Aren’t you sick?’ He said, ‘I can’t even think about that now. The music has got me.’”

As Belgrave tells his life story, the music started getting him at age 4 — in 1940 — in his hometown of Chester, Pa., a steel town near Philly. He remembers the Italian sandwich shop proprietor who, between customers, closed shop and put on Louis Armstrong’s “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” The sandwich man shook his head at the beauty; little Belgrave wept.

That same year Belgrave accompanied his father to New York, and at the home of Marcus’ first cousin, Cecil — baritone whiz Cecil Payne — Belgrave heard Dizzy Gillespie’s saxophone section rehearse. But when it came time for the gig, the tot was left home.

“You talk about having a fit,” he says. “I guess that’s why I play now. I couldn’t get that out of my ear.”

When Marcus was 6, the elder Belgrave began teaching him trumpet. His father, Belgrave recalls, would rise at 5:30 a.m., and by 6:15 a.m. young Marcus would be up a practicing while Dad ate breakfast before heading a block and a half up the street to the steel plant where he worked.

There were similar regimens for the succeeding Belgrave children — 10 in all — and eventually there was a family band. “We played for all the churches, all the denominations,” he says.

There were a number of epiphanies in the years that followed.

He saw firsthand the death knell of vaudeville, joining a tour to Virginia with a group that included the then-renowned Peg Leg Bates, who danced on one good leg and a prosthesis, and “picked up tables with his teeth.”

“The band was larger than the audience,” Belgrave says. “It was like the end of an era.”

When he was 12 he played a solo in one church so touching that “they took up a collection and gave me $25. I said, ‘Oooh, this is … this is good.’”

For a while, he was a member of a 13-piece German-style circus band that played “blind folks homes, places like that” weekly in nearby Wilmington, Del. Also in the band was Clifford Brown, then in high school and destined to become a jazz giant during his short life. (He died in a car crash at age 25.)

“This particular day, [Brown] put his mute in while we were playing this particular song, ‘One of These Days,’ and I couldn’t play anymore,” Belgrave says. “I’m supposed to be playing the melody … and I couldn’t believe what he was doing was music. It opened up a whole new world for me in terms of improvisation. From then on, my ears were wide open.”

Ray and the road

Belgrave did a forgettable stint in the Air Force and soon after, in 1958, joined Ray Charles. Those were the years when Charles, arguably the original soul singer, barnstormed the chitlin’ circuit and broke into the concert houses. Belgrave was an accomplice, off and on, until 1962. “That was really the beginning of my musical life,” says Belgrave.

The one-nighters were grueling. Charles rode in a Caddy, the band in a limo outfitted with “leather seats — but no padding.”

“Some days, you wouldn’t see the bed. Sometimes you’d see the bed two or three times a week,” Belgrave says. “You’d jump out of the car, go to the bathroom, throw some water on your face, get in your uniform and hit the stage.”

But with tunes like “Drown in My Own Tears,” and “Night Time is the Right Time,” says Belgrave, “the music was fantastic. That was a school in itself. He had such ears and such soul that it was like dealing with God,” Belgrave says of Charles.

Charles also had a knack for writing arrangements superbly fit for musicians like David “Fathead” Newman and Hank Crawford — and Marcus Belgrave. A jaunty arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” included a solo spot for Belgrave that gave him his first big success on record. Since members of the Basie and Ellington bands — “all the guys I had been listening to years” — had been recruited for that session, Belgrave assumed there’d been a mistake when he got the sheet music intended for the trumpet soloist. He gave the chart to veteran Clark Terry. As Belgrave remembers, Terry started to solo, Charles stopped the session and a discussion ensued.

Charles: “That’s Marcus’ solo. What’s the matter? You don’t want your solo?”

Belgrave: “I just thought it should be Clark Terry.”

Charles: “No, that’s your solo.”

“He said it like he knew what I was going to play. We did one take and it came out a classic. I’ve played that solo ever since,” says Belgrave. “And that’s the way he wrote. He knew exactly how you were going to play.”

Periodically, Belgrave would get fed up with the pay and the grind of the travel with Charles. Once, he was blackmailed back into the group with the threat of expulsion from the union over a uniform left behind at a dry cleaner in Washington, D.C. Other times, he’d buckle under Charles’ persuasions. “He’d say, ‘This is your career, son. You’re gonna give up your life?’ The preacher came out in Ray whenever he wanted something. He would preach for hours.”

During his breaks from Charles he’d freelance around New York and dig on the city sounds. He played briefly with transplanted Detroiter Yusef Lateef and spent many nights listening to Charles Mingus’ Jazz Workshop. He even played one recording session with Mingus, who later claimed that if only he had Belgrave, he’d have the best band in the world.

But Belgrave had a notion to leave both Ray Charles and the New York scene behind. He finally broke with Ray Charles for the last time, resisted the preacher’s admonitions and decamped for Detroit in late 1962.

Motown’s mecca

He had run into the Motown acts on the road and gotten to know them and about the Motown assembly line on West Grand Boulevard.

“This was just a natural place for me to come. This was probably the only place in the country where music was No. 1,” says Belgrave. “Berry [Gordy] drew the greatest people in the industry, the greatest black people. This became the mecca of the music world as far as I was concerned.”

And if $15 a tune sounds like robbery today, then it was in contrast to $25 a day (less living expenses) with Charles on the road. Cutting three tunes a day, sometimes four, Belgrave could rack up $300 a week at a time when rent was $20 a week.

He stayed in Detroit a couple years, then moved back East, partly to attend to his father’s ailing health.

It was during that period that Belgrave solidified his ties to another transplanted Detroiter, saxophonist Harrison. Both of them were recruited to tour with saxophonist Hank Crawford, then a star soloist following his high-profile work with Charles. Harrison joined the band at the last minute — replacing David “Fathead” Newman, another Charles band alum — as the group left New York. The recruitment-rehearsal call came at midnight, and at 6 a.m. they were on the road, headed first to Philadelphia to pick up a trumpet player who turned out to be Belgave.

“They had to run around and get Marcus,” Harrison recalls. “He was late as usual, and they were mad about that. He joined me in the backseat and we rode all over the country.”

Harrison quickly noted the qualities — musical and social — that mark Belgrave to this day. For one thing, Belgrave was and is a master of what would later be dubbed the art of networking.

“He knew everybody in every town, every kid, every adult,” says Harrison. “He would hunt up other horn players in different cities and they’d come to the hotel early in the morning, like 10-11 o’clock in the morning, and we’d have horn rehearsals.”

The new recruits would be folded into that evening’s show that quickly.

“He was kind of like a rebel,” adds Harrison. “He wanted to be on the cutting edge of music and always trying out something new.”

Belgrave inspired everyone in the group to write — which meant submitting everyone else’s work to his scrutiny.

“Marcus would take the music and tear it all apart and rearrange it on the spot,” says Harrison. “We were mad at him, but it worked, it really worked. He was kind of like our taskmaster.”

Given the boredom of the road, Harrison adds with a laugh, “If we didn’t have the music, we’d probably be in jail today.”

After the tour, Harrison lost track of Belgrave. As Harrison tells the story, his mother, who ran a boarding house for musicians in Detroit, kept talking about a trumpet player who claimed to know him.

When Harrison moved back to Detroit in ’67, he quickly found out how well ensconced the trumpeter from Chester had become in the Detroit scene on his return.

Harrison says, laughing again, “It was Marcus, staying in my bed. I couldn’t believe it.”

And neither could Belgrave. His memory is that he was living at the Y and moved to the boarding house later. The exact succession of addresses aside, though, he was quickly weaving himself into the fabric of Detroit jazz.

Transition time

Belgrave’s connections with Detroit were made stronger in the wake of a near tragedy in 1970. On tour with Buddy Lamp and the Lamp Sisters in Montreal he was hospitalized for a thyroid breakdown. “If it hadn’t been for a fellow room partner I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “I expired and they called ‘Code Blue’ and they pumped me back to life.”

Aretha Franklin sent a dozen yellow roses, making him a hospital celebrity. More importantly, Motown’s music community put on a benefit and took him in when he came back to town after six weeks in the hospital.

“Detroit musicians came to my rescue,” says Belgrave. “So it was a renaissance for me to come back to Detroit.”

It was a transitional time in the city. With Motown pulling out, musicians were increasingly turning to their own organizations and initiatives, and reaching out to the next generation.

Detroit Metro Arts Complex, Creative Profile, Strata, Tribe, Jazz Development Workshop, the Detroit Jazz Center, Musicians United to Save Indigenous Culture … Belgrave worked with all of them, and was the founder of the workshop.

“It was like a survival technique that all us creative musicians were expressing ourselves back then,” trombonist Phil Ranelin says of Tribe in particular, though that ethos applies to the scene in general.

“It gave us an opportunity to expand ourselves,” says Belgrave. “We believed in what we had to do.”

The impact on young musicians was immediate and profound, even if it would take years for its impact to be fully felt. Some of Belgrave’s closest protégés — such as pianist Geri Allen, former “Tonight Show” bassist Bob Hurst and former Miles Davis saxophonist Kenny Garrett — are national stars who routinely sing Belgrave’s praises in the jazz press.

Others remain in Detroit. Bassist and group leader Marion Hayden observes that the musicians influenced by Belgrave — herself included — are everywhere.

Belgrave has the patience to hear potential. He explains that if you’ve got soul in your chest, you’ve got it in your instrument, which is “just a barometer to project what’s inside.” But Hayden emphasizes something else: the self-assurance to play alongside the young players “who were stunning right out of the box.”

Rayse Biggs recalls being a student at Detroit’s Foch Junior High School and seeing a band including Belgrave and the late Harold McKinney on piano. (Belgrave speaks of McKinney as “the spiritual leader” of the musicians’ movement.)

“I remember being just overwhelmed,” Biggs says. He ran up to Belgrave as the performance ended. “I said, ‘I’m playing tuba, and I don’t want to play it no more. I want to play trumpet like you.’ And he said, ‘Oh, man, you’ll do it, you’ll do it.’”

And a couple years later, when Biggs started taking classes at Metro Arts, Belgrave recalled the meeting.

“I thought this guy is something, he remembers me,” says Biggs. “I started hanging around, studying with him and hanging on his coattails. After that we became really close. He would send me to gigs for him and drag me around to all the different little orchestras and bands that he had.

“You know he’s got a heart of gold,” says Biggs, now 49, who’ll lead his own band (as will Hayden) as part of this year’s jazz festival. He’ll be playing trumpet, of course, not tuba.

Breaking boundaries

Belgrave is one of many African-American artists whose career is tracked with a vertical file in the Azalea Hackley Collection of the Detroit Public Library. And beginning in the late ’70s — when the city’s dailies belatedly discovered there was jazz in Detroit — his triumphs and setbacks are chronicled. Through the ’80s, there were times when he’d exhausted himself and withdrawn from the scene, even dropped out of sight. There are squabbles within the jazz community and rapprochement. There was talk of reviving Belgrave’s Jazz Development Workshop. There are tributes and “comebacks” and reviews of shows where he’d light a fire under bandmates, from local peers to stars like Dizzy.

But as the timeline nears the present there is more good news and less bad. Former students like Allen and Hurst gave more than lip service to their mentor, recruiting him for projects such as Allen’s 1991 tribute recording The Nurturer. When Wynton Marsalis first organized his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra — a milestone for the institutional recognition of jazz — he tapped Belgrave. (“He said he wanted to sit next to me in the trumpet section,” Belgrave was once quoted as saying.) When Branford Marsalis headed the “Tonight Show” band, he invited Belgrave to sit in with Hurst and the crew.

Belgrave’s discography kept getting longer, and now includes work with artists from Parliament-Funkadelic and Joe Cocker to the Joe Henderson Big Band. His most recent discs are testament to his musical range: The Detroit Experiment, a multi-artist project, celebrates the music of Tribe and features collaborations with techno pioneer Carl Craig. Marcus and Charlie: Detroit’s New Orleans Connection celebrates Belgrave’s comfort with the roots of jazz and his long friendship with the New Orleans-born Charlie Gabriel.

Among numerous tributes and awards, he was named a “Jazz Master” by the group Arts Midwest and received the Michigan Artist Award as part of the Governor’s Arts Awards. For an Orchestra Hall gig alongside his old boss Ray Charles, Belgrave shared the marquee billing. A Chene Park tribute concert had David “Fathead” Newman on stage and a list of co-chairs on the program ranging from U.S. Rep. John Conyers to mogul Don Barden.

Earlier this year, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra made Belgrave the first Fred A. Erb Jazz Creative Director Chair. And this year’s jazz fest gives him what festival director Frank Malfitano calls “emeritus status.”

Belgrave will perform each day, showcasing young musicians discovered through the International Association of Jazz Educators. Both as a musician and educator, says Malfitano, Belgrave “just personifies and symbolizes what the Detroit jazz scene is all about.”

Basement blues

The summer day that began with the youth orchestra rehearsal winds down with two more practices. That evening finds him in the cramped basement of Harrison’s home near the New Center. He’s the lone brass instrument alongside saxophonists Donald Walden, Teddy Harris and Harrison in a reunion of the Michigan Jazz Masters horn section that wowed them in Cairo and other exotic locales.

They practice with a Chicago blues singer they’ll perform with at the Afro-American Music Festival at Hart Plaza. Her name is Grana Louise, an ample, built-for-comfort mama who sits barefoot on a kitchen chair in the middle of the room with horns to her left, guitar and piano to her right, drums behind her and bass in front. When it gets to rocking and rollicking, it might as well be a juke joint. It’s roots music, explained in simple codes that everyone understands. “No crazy changes,” she says, laying out the road map for one tune, “just I-IV-V but a long I and regular 12-bar for the solos.”

“I’ll take you all home to Chicago with me,” she exclaims with a laugh after one run-through. Then she chides them: “You can’t be laughing up on the stage.” Which, naturally, provokes even more laughter.

After running through her set, they move to the knottier jazz portion of the program, poring over the scores to original tunes by band members. There’s less laughter now as they work through the intricacies of the arrangements. “As long as we’re all wrong together, we’re right,” quips Walden at one point.

Through this rehearsal, Belgrave’s 6-year-old son Kasan has been patiently, sometimes not so patiently, playing outside, peering through the windows, rapping at the basement door. (Belgrave’s third marriage, to Kasan's mother, ended in divorce last year.*)

But he and Kasan have one more stop to make before returning to Belgrave’s east-side Detroit home: At Bert’s Marketplace in Eastern Market everyone on the patio knows Belgrave.

“Tell me you’re gonna play and I’ll stay,” says a woman who slings an arm over his shoulder and reminisces about a long-ago watering hole and music spot in the Book Cadillac Hotel. Like others in earshot, she’s disappointed that Belgrave has purposefully left his trumpet in his van.

He and Kasan slip inside and rather than head toward the action on the bandstand, they skirt the back of the room to the pool table. Though Kasan’s shoulders barely top the table, his dad positions him to shoot. First he folds his hands over his son’s. Then he steps back and watches as the lad, stretched on tiptoes, tries it on his own.

And when they’ve had enough, Belgrave says, “Let’s go home and play some basketball.”

It’s been a long day, but Serious Bell is still on the case.

 

Marcus Belgrave leads trumpet summits with young players Saturday-Monday at the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival (see the schedule). He’ll also present extensions of the trumpet program Sunday night at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, Bert’s Marketplace and the Serengeti Ballroom.

Videotaped oral history of Marcus Belgrave and other Detroiters in the arts are being collected through the Michigan Opera Theatre’s Learning at the Opera House program for archiving at the Detroit Public Library. This article draws, in part, on the Belgrave history.

 

Read about the big names on the festival bill.

 

* An earlier version of this sentence referred to Belgrave as a "single parent," which could be misconstrued as sole custody.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail wkheron@metrotimes.com.

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