Detroit is a city that is no stranger to bad news. This last weekend delivered some of the saddest news for Jazz lovers and music fans of all sorts. The godfather of jazz in Detroit, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, died on Sunday, May 24 of complications from congestive heart failure and COPD. At 78 years old, and dependent on oxygen 24 hours a day, this saint of a man still practiced trumpet for two hours every day! He had been in and out of the hospital for the last month or so, and there was some hope that his condition was improving. His passing will leave a crater-sized hole in the music scene in Detroit.
Belgrave was born in Chester, PA in 1936, and settled in Detroit in 1963 after touring with Ray Charles for about five years. Most musicians would have looked to New York for the biggest opportunities, but Marcus came to Detroit. Belgrave once even turned down a chance to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra because he did not want to go back to the grind of being on the road. He wanted to set down some roots. In his own words, “ I had to find a place where I belonged, and where I could have an impact. Being around all of this young talent gave me a sense of community and a purpose. I became a catalyst.”
Marcus became a teacher and mentor to …. well, to everybody. He touched the lives of every jazz musician in Detroit for the last 40+ years. He would hire advanced students for gigs where they got exposure and vital experience, and use his connections to the national music scene to introduce them to important people outside of Detroit. The list of names of people he mentored is too long to begin to enumerate here.
I met Marcus while I was in the audience of a concert at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall. Wynton Marsalis was performing with his small group that night. I had some pleasant conversation with the couple seated next to me for the performance. At intermission, Marcus was wandering around and recognized the couple. He came over to talk with them, and they introduced me to Belgrave. He was warm and cordial to me as we spoke for a few minutes. I was too embarrassed at the time to admit to him that I attempt to play trumpet myself. If I were any good at playing jazz on the trumpet, he would have already known who I was.
I last saw Belgrave perform on the Waterfront Stage of the Detroit Jazz Festival. He took the stage with his wife Joan Belgrave, a talented jazz vocalist with whom he often appeared. He walked onstage, all of five feet, four inches tall, and sat on a stool with his oxygen tank at his side. He picked up his trumpet and played with the crystal clear tone for which he was famous, and whipped off bebop licks like there was no such thing as COPD. There was masterful interplay between Joan’s singing and Marcus on trumpet, with Marcus providing the tasteful touches of a mature musician. Straight ahead bebop and hard bop were always the foundation of Marcus playing the trumpet. Years ago, his first recording under his own name as leader was actually a jazz/funk/fusion record named Gemini II. That was the sort of thing that was cutting edge in 1974, when the album was recorded.
The article by Mark Stryker in the Detroit Free Press is a good summary of what Belgrave meant to the city of Detroit. Marcus Belgrave WAS Jazz in Detroit, Body and Soul.