Marcus Belgrave: Preserver of Jazz
AAJ: At what time in your career did you move to Detroit?
MB: I came to Detroit to save my life [and] get away from New York. [Laughs] New York was moving kind of fast for me in those days. I did a whole year with Ray Charles, but I got disenchanted, came to New York and stayed from 1959 to 1961, and then went back to Ray. So when Ray was ready to go back to work in 1963, I decided to stay in Detroit.
AAJ: Why did you decide to remain in Detroit?
MB: When I left Ray doing 600 miles a night, I was able to sit there in Detroit, make more money working at Motown and be home every night, so that was a revelation. It's probably one of the reasons why I'm still there. I was running up and down that road so much. Also, it allowed me to meet a gentleman by the name of Harold McKinney, who was a fantastic pianist. He was one of the only ones from Detroit during that time [that] didn't leave. Most of the guys left. There was a big exodus from Detroit in 1958 and 1959. A lot of really great musicians moved to New York. In fact, that's where I lived. I was inspired by a gentleman who told me if you don't make it in this business you might as well live in Detroit. Now I don't know why he said that but that was on my mind also because all the great jazz musicians I knew were from DetroitHank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Charles McPherson. and Lonnie Hillyer came to New York about a couple of months after I did. And fortunately they got to play with Charles Mingus.
[Harold] McKinney was working with lots of young musicians. He worked with a group called The Six Lads. He trained these young gentlemen and they became like the toast of the town. So I picked it up from Harold, working with young people. He had gotten sick in 1970 and I didn't know what I was going to do. Harold had a program called Metropolitan Arts, a [federally funded] project in the inner city that fostered the development of young artists as well as took care of the old folks. It was like a program to revitalize a certain area within Detroit. That was an opportunity for me to test my teaching skills. So I got into the educational aspect of this music, trying to keep jazz alive.
AAJ: Please tell us about your work with Motown Records.
MB: The executive secretary to the first black radio stations to play black music 24 hours, WCHB and WDET, encouraged me to come here. And she was very close with Berry Gordy, so she introduced me to him at the end of 1962. They had the same capacity for that small group sound that Ray Charles had, however, they elevated to a big band as well. It was a natural thing for us to be in the studio with producers. So we would bring the musicians in the studio. They had three trumpets, two saxophones and two trombones. And then the rhythm section, who became The Funk Brothers; Johnny Griffith, Earl Van Dyke, The Williams/Roberti/White Trio and Eddie Willis were the guitar players; (bassist) James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin. So that was the foundation of "The Motown Sound." A lot of bands around that same time had that similar combination like Jerry "The Iceman" Butler and Bobby Blue Bland. With Berry, I wasn't as close with him. I was close with the artistsThe Four Tops, The Temptations and Mary Wells. I left before Diana [Ross] came to Motown. I would see her every day, but they hadn't formed [The Supremes] when I left in 1964, involuntarily when my father had gotten sick. So I took care of him until he passed, and then I came back to Detroit in 1967a couple of days before the riots.
AAJ: There's quite a stellar list of jazz figures that you've trained, like violinist Regina Carter, pianist Geri Allen and saxophonist Kenny Garrett. How does it feel to know that you've helped create these newer voices in jazz today?
MB: Geri Allen and (bassist) Marion Hayden were two of my first protégées. And we discovered another young lady by the name of [clarinetist] Elrita Dodds. Elrita was born on Eric Dolphy's birthday and Geri was born on my birthday [June 12th]. So it was a natural thing to be involved with those people because they had the same kind of symmetry. Kenny Garrett asked me more questions than the law allowed. [Laughs] Even when he was with Miles Davis, I said, "Kenny, you're with the greatest trumpeter in the world. Ask him." [Laughs] I've got a bunch of babies I'm working with tonight. I just got done talking with a group of them. One of them happens to be my son, who's turning 15 soon. He plays the clarinet and saxophone. He's working with a group of guys his age, maybe a couple of years older. They are the next breed. And I'm training them, showing them how to conduct themselves on the bandstand and how they should research the music that they play. Because they want to play everything, know what I mean? That's why Kenny, Geri and Regina are all so great, because they've been writing their own music. And that's one of the things I encourage most of all. If you want to be in this business, it's not just good enough to play; you've got to write.