Honoring Motown Founder Berry Gordy
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Marian Anderson Award
November 19, 2013
The Marian Anderson Awards Concert is a yearly Philadelphia gala honoring a show business individual who has contributed notably to American cultural, artistic, and/or charitable development. Marian Anderson was, of course, the great African American contralto singer who overcame racism to become a cultural icon who had a profound impact on music, race relations, and young people's aspirations. Initiated by then mayor Ed Rendell, the first recipient of the Marian Anderson Award in 1998 was Harry Belafonte, followed by Gregory Peck, Dame Elizabeth Taylor, Quincy Jones
, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, Richard Gere, Maya Angelou and Norman Lear, Bill Cosby, and Mia Farrow. Quincy Jones is the only jazz notable on the list. Bill Cosby has long had a passion for jazz, and his awards concert featured many local jazz musicians who count themselves among his friends.
The reason this year's award show deserves a review is that the current recipient, Berry Gordy, founded Motown Records, which, while not a jazz label as such, was rooted musically and geographically in Detroit
, which around the time of Motown's conception (1959) was one of the hottest jazz cities on the map, with the likes of Milt Jackson
, the Jones Brothers (Thad, Elvin, and Hank), Yusef Lateef
, and Alice Coltrane
among the many others to be heard at Detroit clubs before and during the beginnings of the Motown era. Motown also subsumed several jazz labels (Workshop Jazz; Blaze Records; and Motown Jazz Records, for example) that are now owned by other companies such as Verve.
This concert featured a number of the most famous Motown groups and musicians: Cody Wise, Boyz II Men, Kool and the Gang, and Smokey Robinson, with the latter singing a heartfelt original song he dedicated to Gordy and which had the sound of one of Lester Young
's gorgeously lyrical jazz cadenzas. While the feeling was strictly Motown, the jazz influence could be heard throughout as both an overtone and underbelly. Cody Wise sang with the panache and embellishments that Billie Holiday
and Sarah Vaughan
brought to jazz vocals and which was assimilated in many ways by Motown's Diana Ross and the Temptations. Boys II Men used jazz techniques like delaying the downbeat and the use of strong accentuations. They showed surprising mastery of rhythmic and harmonic changes. Their arrangements of "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," "Water Runs Dry," and "End of the Road" had a touch of the finesse that you would usually expect from a jazz ensemble. You might not call it jazz, but it was obvious they had learned a lot from jazz musicians. Brandon Victor Dixon stars as Berry Gordy himself in the current Broadway hit, Motown: The Musical
. His rendition of a beautiful ballad from the show, "Can I Close the Door," had all the expressiveness of a seasoned jazz singer. This tune could end up becoming a jazz standard. Later on in the program, it was striking to hear the change in the Motown style that took place with Kool and the Gang. They, and Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five made the transition to the disco era, and you could feel the cool down they brought about. Such music influenced jazz fusion approaches. Kool and the Gang's renditions of their classics, "Ladies Night," "Get Down on It," and "Celebration" reflected a shift in youth culture and popular music from sheer emotionality to smooth execution.
In addition to the enormous talent and stunning voices of these performers, what came across vividly in these singers and groups were the deep connecting links between gospel music, rhythm and blues, and Motown. If Motown alumni like The Temptations and Stevie Wonder had been on the bill, those connections would have been further reinforced. And jazz aficianados would have recognized something of historical importance, namely that the transition from bebop to hard bop was fueled by and in turn influenced the Motown style of popular music. The emotionality and gospel-like riffs of John Coltrane
in particular reflected the confluence of what came out of Detroit (Motown) and Philadelphia
(Coltrane) during that exciting period in musical evolution. Bebop came in at the tail end of the swing band era, and hard bop commenced with both rock 'n roll and Motown, all of which heralded a return to the African American gospel roots.
In addition to the music, there were several inspiring speeches and testimonials. Those of former Mayor (and Governor) Rendell and by Motown rivals Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, brought in the Philadelphia connection, which Gordy himself acknowledged in his acceptance speech. Gordy recalled the early days of Motown and the lessons learned. He honestly shared about the conflicting roles of love and competition in promoting the development of the musicians and their careers. He compared the bringing up of the musicians to the automotive assembly line, which starts with a frame that gradually turns into a spanking new car. It was a novel way of depicting a musician's growth and development that fits well with the many stories about how the great ones emerged from humble origins.