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Marcus Belgrave: Preserver of Jazz

Shannon J. Effinger By

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If you trace the careers of many of today's jazz artists, you'll discover that they all converge around one man—trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. He gave Karriem Riggins his very first drum set. Ray Parker, Jr. got his first gig thanks to him. He even took a then 15- year-old James Carter to Europe for the first time. And throughout the years, Belgrave has continued to give so much to jazz because he himself learned from many of the originators of this music—trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Cecil Payne, even one of Belgrave's primary mentors, trumpeter Clifford Brown.

In talking with Belgrave before taking the stage at this year's Detroit Jazz Festival, I not only learned how "Detroit saved his life"—from his work with the Ray Charles Orchestra to ultimately becoming a staff trumpeter at Motown Records in its prime—but as he continues to educate other aspiring musicians, it reassured me that perhaps this music will not die with him and the other great figures who helped to create it.

All About Jazz: Did you come from a musical background growing up?

Marcus Belgrave: I definitely came from a musical background. I grew up in a town called Chester, Pennsylvania, right outside of Philadelphia where all the big hitters are. [Laughs] It's a very lively music town [where] every major musical entity of the 1940s and 1950s came through that town because of the Second World War. Chester built battleships for the war. So it was a very happening town back [then]—I was born in 1936. It seemed like everyone had a piano or an instrument in their house in those days, especially a piano because it kept the spirits alive. The musical environment was definitely a part of my growing up.

AAJ: When did you ultimately decide to become a jazz trumpeter?

MB: Well that was in my blood from the very beginning. Cecil Payne, my cousin, was an alto and baritone saxophone player. He played with the Dizzy Gillespie Band. They used to rehearse at Cecil's house in Brooklyn. Ultimately I was around the music when I was three or four, so I heard it from the real thing. It inspired me. Dizzy Gillespie was my first idol and then of course Miles [Davis]. My father played the bugle in the Second World War and he taught me all the bugle calls when I was like four years old. So I had a natural matriculation to the trumpet at six. He bought me a trumpet at six-and-a-half for Christmas and it's been my instrument ever since.

AAJ: Another one of your early mentors was the late Clifford Brown. Please talk about your experience in studying with him.

MB: He was one of my main mentors. I had the privilege of sitting next to him in my [concert] band when I was 12 years old. I learned a lot just being close to him. He took a liking to me even in those days. [He was] part of the reason why I decided to come to Detroit. I had heard that there was a guy in Detroit that could play rings around Clifford. [Laughs] The person that I'm talking about was Thad Jones. But that's another reason why I came to Detroit—I wanted to see what was in the water. [Laughs] As far as I was concerned, Clifford was a major era [for me]. The main thing that I learned is that you take this music very serious. When you think of [jazz], you think of it as being something special and set aside, which is, but it's still music. So talking to Clifford on many occasions, he has impressed upon me that probably I should play all kinds of music. After hearing people like Dizzy and Miles and then Clifford, it was very easy for me to make a transition to Louis Armstrong. There's a direct lineage from all the trumpet players. Sometimes I used to wonder "where am I going to fit in." [When] my peers—Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Booker Little —came on, there I was again wondering "where do I fit in." Johnny Coles, my god, was second person that made me cry. Even James Moody. Back in those days, being around those kinds of guys, you turned out to be inspired and just enamored by what they did.

AAJ: Please talk about your tenure with the Ray Charles Orchestra. When did you first meet Ray Charles?

MB: I met Ray Charles in Wichita Falls, Texas. That's when he was coming through there after I had gotten out of the service —I was in the Air Force. I waited for him for three weeks. So I had a chance to sit in with them, but I didn't get the job then. And then three months later, they came through my hometown. I ran into them in November in Texas, and [by the] end of January, they came and played at a place called The Harlem Club in Chester. The Raelettes joined the band about a month before me so I was the new young boy in the band in 1958. And Ray latched on to me—he loved me, loved the way I sounded.

And we had a nice run. I was with the Ray Charles Orchestra for five years. At that time, it was a small (seven-piece) band, before he got the big band. It was a hard job because we did a lot of traveling. I mean we traveled 500 to 600 miles a night—all one- nighters. So that was the hard part about it. But the glorious part is that I learned that Ray had a system of dealing with people. He could reach out and stretch your imagination. And then the way he played, he would pick the people the same way. So that amazed me and in my fastidiousness, I've tried to approach music the same way. I've tried to reach out to the public without denying myself. Ray featured me on a Ralph Burns [arrangement] called "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in his first big band album. It's on a recording called The Genius of Ray Charles (Atlantic, 1959), which featured several members of a three-band combination. He had members from the Duke Ellington Band, the Count Basie [Orchestra] and his band, the small band. "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was one that he featured mainly me, which kind of made me famous with trumpet players. I'm one of the last living members of the Ray Charles original small band. I really learned so much from Ray and I'm very happy for the time that he gave me.


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