"Detroit Was Heavy": Modern Jazz, Bebop, and African American Expressive Culture

Article excerpt

Recognition of Detroit's place in United States history has tended to range from the sensational, such as the two major racial explosions of 1943 and 1967, to the symbolic as in the case of the depression-era struggles of the United Auto Workers, or the 1970s-era deindustrialization. For African Americans in many U.S. cities, Detroit stands in for economic and social processes happening to them elsewhere, To be sure, Detroit has been the site of race riots and labor strikes, but African Americans' participation in these episodes should be seen in the context of the city's long, proud history of sheltering fugitives of the slave regime, educating the free black population, and producing employment, housing, and educational opportunities for southern black migrants and their children. In other words, conflict is not the only lens for viewing black Detroit; community is a powerful lens as well. (1) Within the history of Jazz, as historian Robin D. G. Kelley argues, there is "a general inability to recognize 'community'--a musician's community, a dancer's community, an African American community, and various overlapping communities that make up the world of jazz." Heeding Kelley's reminder that "new ideas come out of collective work, improvisation, and competition, but also from musicians educating each other," this essay focuses on a generational cohort of Jazz instrumentalists and vocalists who created a musically rigorous, but historically underappreciated Bebop scene in the 1940s and 1950s. (2) By continuing and expanding a tradition of communal values, sustained study, collective creativity, and improvisational individuality, these Detroit beboppers enriched and extended African American expressive culture and the world of music.

For the most part, Detroit enters African American cultural history through the entrepreneurial figure of Barry Gordy, his successful black capitalist enterprise, the Motown Record Company, and its slick, soulful "Sound of Young America." As Suzanne Smith demonstrates, the signature Motown sound was tied both to the automobile industry, with the rhythms of the factory floor inspiring the beats of "Hitsville, U.S.A.," and to the larger history of sacred Gospel and secular Blues music. (3) In the matter of Jazz, however, Detroit is often passed by as scholars trace north-south itineraries from New Orleans to Kansas City and Chicago, and east-west circuits from New York to Los Angeles. Yet Detroit has something to tell us about Jazz as a communal, participatory art, just as Jazz has something to tell us about the quotidian experiences of black Detroit. Specifically, examining the rise of Bebop in Detroit sheds light on the intellectual character of working-class cultural production by African American creative personalities, musicians, artists, educators, mentors, and critics. In short, digging deeper into Jazz, rather than the Blues or Motown, yields new insights into Detroit, just as paying greater attention to Detroit expands the social geography of Jazz music, and reveals new facets of African American vernacular culture.

In a speech in 1941 Duke Ellington declared that African Americans had ''recreated in America the desire for true democracy, freedom for all, the brotherhood of man, principles on which this country had been founded." Eric Porter argued that Bebop musicians ''refused" to play the entertainer role of "Uncle Tom," and they sought "to escape the stereotypes and audience expectations of the past," while maintaining an "aversion to musical boundaries." (4) The Bebop movement favored experimental small combos over commercial big bands in an industry that perpetuated an unfair racial differential in terms of musicians' wages, employment opportunities, and critical accolades. As Amiri Baraka argued, "liberal" white music critics, acting as patronizing cultural gatekeepers by privileging bourgeois cultural norms, "descended on the new music with a fanatical fury." (5) Frank Kofsky saw "Jazz criticism as social control," and "the Jazz revolution, in its social aspect," as "an indictment of the very inequalities of class and race that have given these critics their privileged position. …