DETROIT — From Berry Gordy’s Hitsville, U.S.A., to Eminem’s “8 Mile,” Detroit’s geography is strewn with music history. But the legacy of Detroit’s music runs far deeper than the names that first come to mind. It runs from the methodic din of factories, from unsatisfied suburban teens and from clubs now shuttered.
It’s nearly impossible to name a genre that isn’t rooted in Detroit this history still affects musicians and venues working in the city today — from jazz to rock to techno.
Detroit jazz and a ‘Culture of Mentorship’
Every Tuesday night at Cliff Bell’s, the Marcus Elliot Quartet takes the stage. Audience members order drinks and chat while the guys on stage play — eyes closed, fingers dancing. Elliot leads on saxophone, throwing out rolling, brassy swells. He dips off stage every now and then to give space for another musician to solo: Michael Malis on the piano, Steven Boegehold on the drums or Ben Rolston on the bass.
The quartet all came up together in Detroit’s close-knit jazz scene, and while they’re all still in their early to mid-twenties, they credit much of their development and success to the long lineage of musicians that played jazz before them.
“Detroit has such a deep history, not only in jazz, but in Motown, techno, hip-hop — everything,” Elliot said. “It’s just really, really deep and I just wanted to make sure I tapped into that.”
Detroit’s jazz scene stretches back to the early 1920s when 11- or 12-piece bands like the Jean Goldkette Orchestra and the nationally famed McKinney’s Cotton Pickers played for crowds in huge ballrooms like the Graystone.
Elliot said he searches through record stores to listen to new “old” musicians all the time. As a Detroit jazz artist, understanding his predecessors is crucial, he said, because it helps contextualize his creative development.
“This music’s been passed down and passed down and passed down, and it would be foolish for me to think what I’m doing is new,” Elliot said.
Detroit’s greatest contribution to jazz, according to historian Lars Bjorn’s “Before Motown,” is its role in developing “modern” or “bebop” jazz.
In the 1950s, much of the innovation in jazz was coming out of predominantly Black communities establishing their own entertainment districts like Paradise Valley. The former intersection of Adams and St. Antoine fostered clusters of bars and “jazz spots,” giving musicians a community to jam and experiment. While in Detroit, artists like Milt Jackson and Yusef Lateef worked to further elevate the technical difficulty and artistry of their style. Bjorn describes the shift as moving from “jazz for listeners” to “jazz for musicians.”
While Paradise Valley was one of the areas destroyed by freeway construction in the 1960s, the community of music has survived.
Elliot met his bandmate and pianist Michael Malis while the two were both still in high school playing in the Detroit Civic Jazz Ensemble. The Civic gave them the opportunity to start gigging — performing professionally — at a young age, and with that came the opportunity to play with musicians that “define the tradition,” Malis said.
Malis said the “king” of nurturing young jazz talent is Marcus Belgrave, trumpet player and Detroit’s Jazz Master Laureate. Malis remembered auditioning for Belgrave at age 13, but said he was wholly underprepared to play in a jazz band at the time.
“I thought he was just going to send me home with my tail between my legs,” he remembered. “He looked down at me from above the piano and ‘Yeah, you’ll do.’ ”
And that meant Malis “was in” even though the group already had a piano player. Malis said Belgrave even played with him that day. That willingness of a seasoned professional taking the time to play with a kid exemplifies the culture of mentorship that exists in Detroit jazz. The culture can be traced back almost like a family tree.
“The people who he’s come from directly are people who define what the word jazz means,” Malis said.
Ian Finkelstein, a pianist that was already in the group that Malis joined, said the weight of that lineage is important.
“We had the privilege of coming up in that lineage and by extension we are continuing it,” he said.
All of these young musicians have, at one point or another, thought about leaving Detroit for a bigger city like New York or Chicago, but they all stuck around because of the people they’ve met. The connections and opportunities are great, they said, but so is the opportunity to continue the legacy that raised them.
Punk, rock, Detroit, Ann Arbor
At the outset of the 1960s, the sound of Detroit ballrooms began shifting to something a little bit harder. Bands like Iggy & the Stooges and the Motor City Five were bringing suburban-spun discontent and an entirely new music scene into the city.
“(It is) a scene that screams for its righteous recognition every weekend at every ballroom, every shopping center teen club, every free concert in the park, every time the music is heard anywhere,” MC5 manager John Sinclair wrote in an early manuscript now housed at the Bentley Historical Library.
The MC5 were staples of the punk scene in Detroit throughout the ‘60s and the ‘70s, though much of their development occurred in Ann Arbor. Their music was fast and loud, their practice space was 1510 Hill Street, the location of Luther Co-Op, and their first gigs were at fraternity houses. They were managed by John Sinclair, a legendary poet and activist, who started managing bands under the label “Trans-love International.”
Bands on Trans-love served as some of PJ Ryder’s first introduction to Detroit’s rock scene. Ryder now owns PJ’s Lager House, a bar at the edge of Detroit’s Corktown that showcases live music on deck almost every night. He remembers discovering Detroit’s music scene growing up in the nearby suburb Lathrup Village.
“Do you know what a transistor radio is?” he asked during a recent interview in the Lager House—a narrow space with layers of posters on the wall and deep stage that has hosted the White Stripes and The Von Bondies, among countless local bands.
“With a transistor Radio and a 9 volt battery underneath your pillow at night you could listen to WKNR and CKLW,” he said. “And I listened to those things religiously.”
Ryder remembers seeing his some of favorite rock musicians like The Frost and The UP, another band on Sinclair’s label, play at high school dances and sock hops.
“The thought of it now is just so mind boggling,” he said.
The suburbs were brimming with anti-establishment music, but bands flocked in to play gigs in the same ballrooms that had been hosting big-band jazz concerts a few years earlier.
“I never got out to the Grande to the East Town or Punch and Judy any of that stuff. I was a suburban white kid,” Ryder said.
The Grande Ballroom (pronounced Grand-eee) served as a hotspot for teenagers to dance to jazz until 1961— hanging on to swing even as its audience flow trickled as music tastes changed.
In 1966, the Grande finally made the switch after Russ Gibb, a middle school social studies teacher, bought the ballroom. At the urging of John Sinclair, he let the MC5 play the first show. The group became a mainstay at the Grande and filled the venue up regularly.
But like the jazz musicians before them, Detroit’s rock scene was facing a hard fight to win over the mainstream.
“The established critics had a hard time ‘recognizing’ the ‘value’ of the new long-haired low down music,” Sinclair wrote from Marquette Branch Prison, after being sentenced for possession of marijuana, “just as it had taken them almost 30 years to reconcile themselves to jazz artists that had taken the forefront in the 20s.”
The mainstream didn’t catch on in time, Ryder said, and concerned governments started shutting down the scene’s lifeblood—the venues. He remembered that the Talking Heads were going to play a show at the Punch and Judy in nearby Grosse Pointe.
“The City of Grosse Pointe— this is Talking Heads mind you—went to court and tried to get a stop because they said they didn’t want to have punk bands playing in Grosse Pointe,” he recalled. “And it’s like—punk bands? Really? Talking Heads?”
This crackdown included some drug busts, Ryder explained, and ultimately put the “scene on life support.” Shows were still popping in in “oddball kind of places,” but rock bands were finding less and less space in bars and clubs.
At this point Ryder moved to Ann Arbor, finished his degree at the University and opened up PJ’s Records—an experience he described as a “graduate degree in music.” In the early ‘90s, he decided to move back to Detroit, where the scene was on its way back to health, churning out acts like the White Stripes, Eminem and Kid Rock.
Ryder bought the then-dilapidated Lager House in 1995.
Things have changed a lot since he bought the place and the city seems to be back on the upswing. Today there’s a “healthy scene,” Ryder said, with shows happening almost every night, if you know where to look.
“There’s this whole other level that’s constantly churning with activity,” he said. “And it to me it doesn’t seem like it’s slowing down. If anything it’s picking up.”
The Birthplace of Techno
In the mid ‘80s, halfway between Ann Arbor and Detroit, three teens at Belleville High School were trying something different. Juan Atkins and classmates Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, collectively known as the “Belleville Three,” are widely credited for creating the beginnings of what is today called Detroit Techno.
In an e-mail interview, Atkins said it all began when he talked his grandmother into buying him a Korg MS-10 synthesizer, a keyboard-like instrument that creates electronic bass sounds, when he was a senior in high school. With that gift, he built and layered sounds, making music not grounded in physical instruments, but out of a digital realm.
“I would define techno as being electronic music made or conceived with computers and what have you- electronic equipment, synthesizers,” he wrote.
Today the synthesized, electronic sound that came out of Atkins’ early experiments would not seem out of place at a house party. But at the time, using computers to bring the mechanical sounds to life was an entirely new endeavor.
Atkins’ friends encouraged him to record the new sounds he was experimenting with and in 1981 the trio opened their downtown disco, the Music Institute, where they could play their songs for an audience.
Atkins produced prolifically throughout the ‘80s, working under the name Model 500, and when recording with collaborator Rick Davis, Cybotron. Cybotron’s single, “Techno City,” introduced the term “techno” to brand their futuristic, electronic beat.
By the late ‘80s, Detroit techno had found an enthusiastic audience overseas, and many Detroit artists found themselves touring in Europe.
Alvin Hill, who has lectured at the University, has been a DJ for over 30 years and said Detroit’s place in the history of techno has been critical to his development as a musician.
“When I think of techno, I think of Detroit techno because that was my first introduction to the word,” Hill said. “Detroit techno is very much a reflection of the city itself: urban, industrial, futuristic.”
Hill explained that his involvement in the techno world began when he first met Derrick May of the Belleville Three. They spoke about opening up a club together, and while those plans never came to fruition, Hill ended up staying in contact with May, running May and Saunderson’s record labels in the early ‘90s.
Hill said when he met May, clubs and record stores were the place to go for aspiring DJs. Detroit’s clubs were “where music was happening,” and were what ultimately pushed him to a career as a DJ.
“The more I was out at clubs, the more I thought just how cool DJs were,” Hill said. “They took this music and blended it together and created this sort of journey.”
The Belleville Three’s experimental sounds defined the first wave of Detroit techno, the genre developing a more blank sound in the mid ‘90s, with DJs like Carl Craig defining the second wave.
Today’s Detroit DJs have a quite different experience from DJs of the past. Hill explained that the lines between DJ, producer and music-maker have blurred as the equipment for those jobs becomes more widely available and user-friendly.
“In the 80s, DJs were DJs, there was no expectation that you were going to create music. But now I think it’s very hard to be a DJ if you do not create your own music,” Hill said. “Also in the ‘80s if you wanted to DJ, you had to have records, now you can just have to have a hard drive.”
But accessibility isn’t necessarily a good thing for the techno industry, Atkins said. Easier production methods are a boon for quantity, not necessarily quality.
“I think you have a lot of productions out there coming from people who shouldn’t really be making music,” he said. “However, the technology has allowed them to make songs and I think that what we are feeling now is an onslaught of all of this crap music.”
Techno’s Detroit roots make the city a special place for EDM fans today.
“I think that because this movement was started in Detroit and we are from Detroit, it made Detroit a kind of revered place in electronic music circles,” Atkins said. “I think that just recently have we been getting the accolades that we deserve from the city of Detroit and the people of Detroit.”