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Two Losses to Detroit Jazz: Bess Bonnier and Brad Felt


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One of the great and unusual combinations of jazz voices hereabouts was the big-horn/little- horn thing that Steve Wood|| and {{Brad Felt had going at least since the '80s, with Steve on sax (especially the relatively small soprano) and Brad on tuba or euphonium, romping through tunes like “Second Balcony Jump," a Jerry Valentine composition from the Billy Eckstine band. (Steve and Brad liked to give credit where it was due like that.) Steve sent out an e-mail Thursday afternoon marking the end of that collaboration:

It is with great sadness that I must inform you that Brad Felt passed away this morning. He died of cancer which had been diagnosed late in August and was untreatable. He is survived by his brother Doug with whom he spent his last days at home and then at St. Joseph's Hospital in Pontiac. Doug is a wonderful and devoted caregiver, and Brad passed his last weeks in an atmosphere of comfort and warmth. As you can imagine, Brad endured this ordeal with great strength and dignity right through his final hours.

Brad was a master of the tuba and its more compact cousin the euphonium. One sign of his prowess is that he had worked Howard Johnson's band Gravity. Johnson is arguably the best and certainly the most prominent tuba player in jazz. To get the nod for Gravity's all-tuba- family horn section means a tuba player really has arrived on the national level. Not that Brad's music didn't speak eloquently for itself on efforts like his CD First Call a few years back, or in appearances like a memorable jazz fest tribute to Yusef Lateef headed by Steve at the Detroit Jazz Fest some years ago. Brad was a big voice (in several senses of the word) in this spring's New Beginnings concert performing the music of Detroiter Doug Halladay, lending color to ensemble harmonies and soloing with passion and aplomb. Which will be evident when the recording of that date comes out later this year. Visitation for Brad will be at Lynch and Sons Funeral Home, 1368 N. Crooks in Clawson south of Maple Rd., on Friday, Oct. 14 from 4-8 p.m. There will be a service at Lynch and Sons Saturday, Oct. 15 at 2 p.m.

Just hours after posting the above, word came that pianist Bess Bonnier has also passed. Bess was part of the great generation of bopping Detroit pianists. Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna, Barry Harris and (the somewhat older) Hank Jones took their craft to New York and the world stage; Bess remained in the Detroit area, raising a family, only occasionally venturing the New York and other high-profile stages. Not to say that in-the-know folks nationally and beyond weren't aware of her.

In 1981, for instance, jazz critic Ira Gitler arranged a joint New York appearance by Flanagan, Harris, Hanna and Bonnier. In anticipation of that, the New York Times' John S. Wilson wrote about this keyboard cadre and the scene from which they emerged:

At the concert on Sunday, the four pianists, using two pianos, will demonstrate what they call the Detroit style. And what is that? “Detroit tells a story," Mr. Hanna explained. “You hear other pianists running notes and changes. But a musician from Detroit makes an effort to arrive at his own story and tell it in his music. You'll hear a kind of similarity in approach, in emphasis. But when Tommy or Barry or Bess or I stretch out, you have to be right in the music. Many pianists don't grab your attention. But we do."

Flanagan, Hanna and Jones have all passed, and now Bonnier, leaving only Harris carrying their flame.

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