Various ArtistsMessage from the Tribe: An Anthology of Tribe Records 1972-1976Soul Jazz Records
"It seems to me that Black musicians are always on top of the issues." So wrote critic Betty L. Holloway in a mid-1970s number of Tribe magazine. It's easy to assume that Holloway meant the bleak litany of issuesunemployment, poverty, social disintegrationpermeating the socially-conscious African-American music that dominated the airwaves at the time: the Temptations' "Papa Was A Rolling Stone," Donny Hathaway's "The Ghetto," Stevie Wonder's "Living For the City," Sly and the Family Stone's "Family Affair."
But even if she meant to include those negative social ills in the sweep of her statement, Holloway also refers to a different set of issues, a cluster of concerns that makes her remark more profoundly true than it appears at first. In fact, Holloway was writing about a record by trumpeter Charles Tolliver that emerged from the collective of New York musicians known as Strata East. The aims of that group would have held a pressing interest for Holloway, as she was part of a Detroit-based version of the same experiment, the Tribe Records/Tribe magazine project. The issue, for Stata East and for Tribe, was the following: how to put in place the economic basis that generates a robust community with a vibrant autonomous cultural activity at its heart?
Holloway's review is reprinted in an lovingly compiled collection of articles from Tribe magazine that accompanies this single-disc sampler of recordings from the label. The artists at the core of the collective included saxophonist Wendell Harrison, trombonist Phil Ranelin, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and pianist Harold McKinney. Many of these musicians had earned a living as session musicians for Detroit's Motown Records, but also had extensive jazz pedigrees. The liner notes point out that the Tribe musicians worked regularly with both singer Marvin Gaye and keyboard player/bandleader Sun Ra, a circumstance that by itself would make this record eminently worth a listen. With the exception of the late McKinney, all of these Tribe founders are still musically active in 2010; some are still in Detroit, others have moved on to other climes.
The emphasis on community self-sufficiency that underlies the Tribe experiment was in part a business strategy. A strong DIY ethos infuses this music. If Detroit was to be left behind by inadequate sources of working-class employment and other opportunities, entrepreneurs like the Tribe musicians would grow their own businesses. If national record labels would not record and distribute the jazz these artists were playing, those musicians would create their own label. And they would do so as part of a coherent effort to raise awareness about the need for a locally-based African-American capitalism. Wendell Harrison, every inch the businessman in a suit and tie, authored an editorial in the magazine laying out the business model.
But DIY self-sufficiency was, for Harrison and his fellow musicians, an aesthetic strategy as well, evident in the music heard on this disc. The extent to which this music does not choose between the artistic avant-garde and a broad appeal is striking. This is sophisticated, intelligent jazz that quite obviously wants at the same time to be enjoyed beyond the jazz cognoscenti. Clearly, the Tribe musicians, in addition to wanting to sell records, wanted to provide the musical soundtrack for the inner-city life that surrounded them. Most of the tracks here likely would have met with a much warmer public reception than the more challenging music emerging from similarand today, better knowncollectives in New York, Chicago and St. Louis.
The Tribe musicians were no doubt encouraged by the contemporaneous electric jazz-funk of keyboard player Herbie Hancock . The Tribe tracks frequently develop over funk grooves of varying depth, with a rich bed of percussion, and often feature electric basses, keyboards and guitars (and even some suitably spacey electronic effects on "Space Odyssey"). But the Tribe musicians consistently brandish their acoustic, post-bop credentials more visibly than Hancock and his Head Hunters group. Sometimes the unison horn partson "Beneficent" and "Farewell to the Welfare (Parts 1 & 2)," for examplesound a bit like 1970s cop-show theme, but that's not in itself a bad thing.
Ranelin's trombone receives (and merits) generous solo space, and there is fluent soloing by Harrison on sax ("Beneficent") and Belgrave on trumpet and flugelhorn (various cuts). A couple of numbers feature vocalist Doug Hammond's urbane singing and vaguely political, vaguely spiritual subject matterthink a mix of Jon Hendricks and Earth, Wind & Fire. Despite a handful of standout individual contributions, however, these performances emphasize collective effort, in keeping with the ideology underlying the Tribe project.
The magazine articles provide a snapshot into the zeitgeist of Tribe's time and place. Articles on jazz and record reviews alternate with analyses of Watergate and unemployment; there are profiles of Detroit Tigers slugger Nate Colbert and jazz spaceman Sun Ra. (Did "Jessie" (sic) Jackson really claim that the early-1970s energy crisis was orchestrated to divert attention from unemployment besieging urban America? And, moreover, was he right?)
Almost as evocative are the advertisements, largely for local, black-owned business, with earnest layout and copy: Fayette Wholesale ("complete line of candy, cigarettes and cigars, sundry items, Afro products"); WJZZ stereo; Mama's Palace & Mama's Country Kitchen ("with her sparkling table settings and comfortable, serene atmosphere, 'Mama's' becomes the ultimate place to be while waiting for the clan to arrive"); Harris Collision; but also an ad from Ford, featuring Bill Cosby, suggesting that the magazine had landed a national account, and that huge corporations were also targeting African-American consumers. (National advertisers even drew the ire of a reader, whose letter, reprinted here, complains of advertisements from Gulf Oil, whom he identifies as "one of the biggest exploiters in South Africa.")
The Tribe project, noble as it may have been, had to confront some very unpleasant economics. The label and magazine folded in 1977. There are at least three economic dimensions of this unfortunate outcome. First, in Detroit in the early 1970s, de-industrialization hollowed out the job base that might support the livelihoodsand the record purchasesof the African-American working class to whom these recordings were originally aimed. The subsequent unemployment with inflation is perceptively analyzed in an article in Tribe magazine, in the middle of which appears an advertisement for a business called Bean Pie Fish Heaven, open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The second sad economic fact has to do with the nature of cultural industries like publishing, movies and records, known as increasing returns to scale. To make a pair of shoes, the materials and labor might cost twenty bucks; to make two pairs, forty bucks; three pairs, sixty. That's constant returns to scale. Not so with entertainment. In order for one person to hear singer Michael Jackson's Thriller (Epic, 1983), for example, the cost ran to the millions of dollars. In order for a second person to hear it, the cost was a couple of dollarsthe cost of pressing a second copy of the LP. So too, for the third listener, and so on. The situation is the same for books and movies: the first unit supplied has an enormous cost, the second and subsequent units are virtually costless to supply. In such situations, the market tends to be dominated by a small number of huge companies, and small, would-be entrants are severely hampered. The problem is only accentuated if there are high marketing coststo get consumers to know about your new mystery novel or action adventure movie or jazz recordand high distribution coststo make sure that consumers can find your product once they've heard about it.
For a small, community-based venture like Tribe, the combination of high production costs, costly marketing and distribution, had to have been a constant struggle. To put it in concrete terms, Tribe might very well have been able to sell records in Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalonot so very far away from Detroitbut Wendell Harrison would have had to convince a bank to lend him the working capital needed to travel to those places to meet with radio stations and record-shop owners, pay for the records to be shipped, and incur other costs, all before a single copy of the records were sold in those cities. (The internet and digital storage may yet fundamentally change this economic logic.)
The third economic fact is more subtle, and also has to do with the peculiarity of cultural products. And that has to do with the capacity of cultural producers to change the tastes of consumers. People lined up around the block to see the second Star Wars movie because they liked the first one. The effect was even more pronounced for the third. More generally, tastes are ever changing, and if you can get people to buy and appreciate your first record, it's more likely that they'll seek out the second. If, by contrast, you can't get your first record into stores where people can find it, or onto the radio where they can hear it, then they are unlikely to show much enthusiasm for your second record. And so on. Such was the taste-making challenge facing Harrison and Ranelin in the pre-MySpace days.
The contrast could not be more striking between Tribe and the great Detroit success story: Motown. Motown eagerly conquered markets outside inner-city Detroit, reaping the gains from increasing returns to scale, and molding the taste of teen-aged listeners across the nation. In so doing, by the way, they subsidized the Tribe project, by providing session gigs to many of its musicians. But that was not enough; and by the early 1970s, Motown, like the automobile manufacturers, had left Detroit.
The efforts of Tribe, Strata East, Chicago's AACM, and St. Louis' BAG form a difficult episode of jazz history; difficult, because these musicians' creative and entrepreneurial energy, confronting impossible economic odds, met ultimately with failure. This compilation convincingly establishes that the Tribe Records experiment was an important, if too-often overlooked, part of the story. Thanks to this release, moreover, the music is once again available; and for as long as it's playing, the Tribe musicians' short-term business failure is transformed into a long-term creative victory.
Tracks: David Durrah: Space 2; Phil Ranelin & Tribe: Vibes from the Tribe; Phil Ranelin & Tribe: Sounds from the Village; Doug Hammond: Moves; Tribe: Beneficent; Tribe: What We Need; Marcus Belgrave: Space Odyssey; Phil Ranelin & Tribe: For the Children; The Mixed Bag: La Margarita; Doug Hammond: Wake Up Brothers; Wendell Harrison & Tribe: Tons and Tons of B.S.; Tribe: Farewell to the Welfare.
Personnel: Marcus Belgrave: trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion, miscellaneous instruments (2, 3, 5-7); Charles Moore: trumpet, flugelhorn, miscellaneous instruments (5, 6); Phil Ranelin: trombone, vocal, percussion, miscellaneous instruments (2, 3, 5-8, 11); Kareem Harris: tuba (11); Ralph Jones: soprano saxophone (11); Otis Harris (or Harrison): alto saxophone (4, 10); Wendell Harrison: tenor saxophone, flute, miscellaneous instruments (2, 3, 5-8, 11); Aaron Neal: bass clarinet, miscellaneous instruments (5); Larry Nozero: reeds, flute, cuica (9); Buddy Budson: electric piano (3); Kenny Cox: electric piano (2); Geoff Dunsun: keyboards (9); David Durrah: Moog & Arp synthesizer, piano, Fender Rhodes (1, 4, 10); Daryl Dybka: mini Moog synthesizer (7); Charles Eubanks: electric piano, miscellaneous instruments (6); Harold McKinney: piano, electric piano (7, 8, 11); Keith Vreeland: electric piano, miscellaneous instruments (5); Ralph Armstrong: electric guitar, bass (3, 8); Jerry Glassel: guitar (9); Charles Burnhorn: violin (4, 10); Travis Mickeel: violin (4, 10); Charles Metcalf: bass violin, electric bass (4, 10); Will Austin: electric bass, acoustic bass (6, 11); Ron Brookes: bass (9); Ron English: electric bass (2); Reggie (Sho Be Doo) Fields: acoustic bass (5); Lopez Leon: electric bass (2, 3); Ed Pickens: electric bass (7); Frederick Boon: percussion (4, 10); Roy Brooks: percussion, miscellaneous instruments (7); Lorenzo Brown: bongos (7); Ike Daney: drums, miscellaneous instruments (6); George Davidson: drums (2, 3, 8, 11); Barbara Huby (or Hubie): congas, percussion (3, 8, 11); Dave Koether: percussion (9); Bud Spangler: percussion (8); Dan Spencer: drums, percussion (9); Thomas (Turk) Trayler: percussion (4); Billy Turner: drums, percussion, miscellaneous instruments (5, 7, 11); Lawrence Williams: congas (11); Doug Hammond: drums, melodica & Arp synthesizer, vocals (1, 4, 10); Jeamel Lee: vocals (6).