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Now reading Before Motown: A History of Jazz and Blues in Detroit
 
 

Before Motown: A History of Jazz and Blues in Detroit

 

August 7, 2015

When I got to Detroit, Hastings Street was the best street in town.

Blind Blake, “Hastings Street”
 
Blind Blake - Hastings Street

Young Berry Gordy’s favorite hangout no longer exists. Old Hastings Street was the lively epicenter of Black Bottom, a Detroit cultural community with a storied music legacy now buried beneath the concrete and asphalt of the I-375 Chrysler Freeway. At its height, Old Hastings was longer than Bourbon Street in New Orleans, with jazz and blues drifting from every corner. But the road was razed between 1950 and 1952, and paved several years later. Only a small stretch was spared, and it’s presently dotted with mostly vacant industrial sites. Busted out windows and shuttered doors line the desolate road, their lingering presence all that’s left of the soul of the Motor City’s black culture from the first half of the 20th century.

Like most 20th century Detroit stories, it all started with cars. Detroit’s booming auto industry inspired thousands of African Americans to migrate north in the 1900s, bluesman John Lee Hooker included. Because of racially discriminatory housing, their options were limited to neighborhoods like the lower east side’s Black Bottom, its name arising from the area’s rich, dark soil. As Black Bottom’s population skyrocketed, two parallel streets – Hastings and St. Antoine – emerged as cultural hubs. 

Hastings and St. Antoine led north to Paradise Valley, often called Detroit’s Las Vegas for its extravagant nightlife. It was one of the first neighborhoods in Detroit to facilitate the integration of blacks and whites. In the 1930s and 1940s, Detroiters of all racial and social backgrounds gathered in its nightclubs, cabarets, restaurants and gambling joints, turning Paradise Valley into the city’s primary home for “black and tan” venues (places where black artists performed for both black and white audiences, and where both black and white people could patronize). 

“It wasn’t very uncommon to see wealthy or upper middle class whites from [the affluent neighborhood of] Grosse Pointe partying in Paradise Valley on a Saturday night,” says Ken Coleman, author of Million Dollars Worth of Nerve and an expert on the region. Black musicians who played all over Michigan were often brought back to the Valley after their shows, since most cities and neighborhoods refused to accommodate them. 

Although Black Bottom and Paradise Valley are often remembered as one large cultural hub, they were actually two separate areas on Hastings Street. Paradise Valley is believed to have been located downtown where I-75, Comerica Park and Ford Field now stand, but its exact boundaries are often debated. The last traces of the Valley disappeared when its three remaining buildings were finally razed in 2001. Only a few clues would indicate that it even existed, most notably the single Michigan Historical Site marker on the former intersection of Adams Avenue and St. Antoine Street.

Club Three SixesCourtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Adams and St. Antoine were the center of Paradise Valley and housed several clusters of early jazz clubs in the 1920s. By the 1930s, roughly two dozen jazz clubs filled the area. Places such as 606 Horseshoe Lounge and Club Three Sixes featured national acts including Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, the Ink Spots and Sarah Vaughan, plus other jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine and Count Basie. 

While the rest of America slowly rebuilt from the Great Depression, black-owned venues like Club Plantation, Brown Bomber Chicken Shack and Club Paradise (a favorite of Fitzgerald’s) helped Paradise Valley grow at exponential rates, despite the high level of crime and poverty. The neighborhood itself might have been poor, but its top-notch nightlife gave it an upper hand: word of popular clubs including the El Sino (formerly the B&C Club owned by Roy H. Lightfoot, official mayor of Paradise Valley), Pendennies and the Congo Room in the basement of the Norwood Hotel spread across America, reeling in both gig-seeking musicians and tourists. Before long, Paradise Valley joined the ranks of Harlem and New Orleans in terms of cultural impact on music.

Slightly outside of the Valley’s traditional borders lay the Paradise Theater11Its name and influence were a key trigger for the boundary debate. on Woodward Avenue. It hosted the era’s top black entertainers: Ellington was a regular (and its first booking), along with Holiday, Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Armstrong. Locals could catch up to three shows a day and four on weekends. The Paradise Theater had a successful (albeit short) run from 1941 to 1951 – a changing music industry and competition from venues like the nearby Graystone Ballroom led to smaller and smaller crowds. By 1952, it was sold. Johnny Hodges, the Orioles and Moms Mabley were the final acts that graced its stage under the Paradise Theater name before it became Orchestra Hall.

Marsha Music in the doorway of Joe’s Record Shop circa 1960marshamusic.wordpress.com

The Graystone Ballroom, meanwhile, was the city’s cradle of jazz. Opened in 1922, it was once Detroit’s largest and grandest ballroom. In a 1974 interview with The Detroit News, clarinetist Benny Goodman said he drove all night to catch Bix Beiderbecke play at the Graystone, calling it “a great mecca in those days.” During the height of big band jazz, the Graystone often hosted a battle of the bands, with one in particular between Ellington and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers that drew a record-breaking crowd of around 7,000. 

Following performances at the Graystone, Ellington, Cab Calloway and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra would jam until sunrise at the Band Box. Across the street from the Band Box was the Russell House Hotel, where a side basement entrance led to a blind pig after hours called the Night Club. Jess Faithful’s exclusive Rhythm Club, on the other hand, was a second-floor booking agency that required a membership card past curfew, and it was common for late night parties to continue until noon the following day. Wilson “Stutz” Anderson remembers the many nights he spent there in Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit by Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert: “We’d sit around and play cards and bootleg liquor was served. The police didn’t stop us. They’d walk the beat; you give them $2 and they’d walk out.”

Forest Club: Onliest bar, you have to walk in, you get ready to buy a bottle of beer, you have to walk a mile after you get in the joint to get it.

Detroit Count, “Hastings Street Opera”
 
Detroit Count - Hastings Street Opera

During World War II, entertainment expanded even further into what is now the John R. medical district in present-day Midtown. John R. was known as the “street of music” – often likened to New York City’s 52nd Street – with the perpendicular stretch of Garfield a hotspot for prostitutes and illegal after hours. Some viewed John R. as “North Paradise Valley,” but it was typically recognized as its own separate region. The area surrounding the road was home to several small jazz bars, including Chesterfield Lounge, the Frolic Bar, Café Bohemia and Parrot Lounge, plus Harlem Cave and the Flame Show Bar (another staple for Holiday, Gillespie and Basie). Detroit’s swing generation and emerging bop talent united at these venues, bringing the two sounds together.

Before burning down in a five-alarm fire, the Garfield Hotel was the home to the famous Garfield Lounge, described by The Michigan Chronicle as “glittering behind modern exteriors.” It was a place ahead of its time and luxurious beyond imagination upon opening in 1945: the circular bar was surrounded by 35 chairs and the adjoining Wal-Ha Room (where posh lounges and lavish carpeting greeted patrons) could be entered through accordion doors. At the Mark Twain Hotel – specifically built for musicians – one could find the Swamp Room, which saw the likes of B.B. King and Ray Charles playing well into the night. Also nearby were Club Juana, Club Balfour and The Cozy Corner, where swing, bop and blues drummer J.C. Heard played in the venue’s house band early in his career.

700 E. Forest was the location of the Forest Club, a now non-existent address below the Chrysler Service Drive that allegedly spanned an entire city block. It was managed by one of the valley’s top club proprietors, Sunnie Wilson, who was often regarded as its “unofficial” mayor. “The Forest Club was described as an ‘indoor amusement park,’” says Ken Coleman. “There’s some writing that suggests – in terms of square footage – the club was as big as Madison Square Garden.” It was Bob “Detroit Count” White’s go-to spot: he would raucously play “Hastings Street Opera” on the piano for an hour straight, sometimes to the point of being asked to stop.

Detroit’s jazz scene, by this point, reached across the city. The now-vacant Blue Bird Inn on the city’s west side eventually pulled the bebop crowd from the El Sino as blacks migrated west in the 1950s. The Blue Bird was where jazz musician and trumpeter Miles Davis cultivated his career. In his autobiography, Davis writes about moving to Detroit after quitting heroin, where he befriended the club’s owner Clarence Eddins. Eddins gave him a job with The Blue Bird house band, and as Davis’ solo career blossomed, he frequently returned to play at the venue alongside several groups.

The Blue Bird was also where Charlie Parker and drummer Elvin Jones helped push jazz to new heights: the two often played together, with Parker bringing a then largely unknown Jones into the spotlight. Jones would go on to make some of jazz’s most influential music, thanks to his early days at The Blue Bird. At the height of the club’s popularity, bookings included everyone from John Coltrane to Horace Silver.

Meanwhile, about ten miles north of John R. stands Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, Detroit’s oldest operating jazz club. Opened in 1933, it continued to expand, and by the ’50s featured major acts like Art Tatum, who played there the last two years of his life (including his final performance in 1956). It’s one of only a few historical jazz clubs left standing in the city alongside Cliff Bell’s on Park Avenue, which was established in 1935 and closed in the 1980s, reopening a little under a decade ago.

When I first came to town, people, I was walkin’ down Hastings Street. Everybody was talkin’ about the Henry Swing Club…

John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillen’”

While Detroit’s jazz scene was more widespread, the city’s blues scene was localized to a few specific areas, most notably on Hastings Street. John Lee Hooker made it famous with songs like “Hastings Street Boogie” and the chart-topping “Boogie Chillen’,” where mean electric blues licks and spoken word meshed the sounds of industrial Detroit with laidback Delta blues. Music critic Cub Koda once said that Hooker’s riff in “Boogie Chillen’” “launched a million songs.” 

In a now celebrated picture taken by French music photographer Jacques Demetre, Hooker stands with his Epiphone Les Paul in front of Joe’s Record Shop. The homely record store at 3530 Hastings Street was a key building block for Detroit blues and beyond: owner Joe Von Battle recorded and produced albums in the store’s back room for the likes of Hooker and Jackie Wilson. He was the first to record 14-year-old Aretha Franklin’s voice when she was just a singer in the New Bethel Baptist church choir and subsequently produced her first record.

Von Battle’s daughter Marsha Music recounts nights at her father’s store in Joe Von Battle – Requiem for a Record Shop Man: “Many of his blues recordings were regarded as simple, even crude, done on a basic machine in the back of the storefront, with its simple microphones and an old upright piano. Many a night after church, Ms. Aretha sat playing that piano and having a good time with my older half-brother and three half-sisters, who worked at the shop with my father (in later years, my brother and I surely plunked that old instrument out of tune).”

Joe Von Battle in his record shopmarshamusic.wordpress.com

Music also describes how Berry Gordy would come to Joe’s Record Shop and chat about the industry with her father. At the time, Gordy was in the process of developing a company out of his home on West Grand Boulevard – a place that would later become the world-renowned Hitsville. The influence of Detroit blues (and jazz) on the development of Motown is undeniable. Music by the likes of Hooker, Eddie “Guitar” Burns, Bobo Jenkins, Boogie Woogie Red, Doctor Ross and Washboard Willie went on to influence an entire generation of Motown R&B and soul musicians.

Like the jazz scene, Detroit’s blues scene had scenes within itself. Detroit became an important city for the growth of urban blues, a style typically tied to Chicago and the West Coast. Its roots in the Motor City are mostly forgotten, as the music was under-documented before the late 1940s. Hooker may have been the biggest name to emerge from the city, but Big Maceo (Major Merriweather) was equally important. Maceo was considered one of the greatest blues pianists of his time, writing many World War II blues standards. He was one of four major Detroit blues artists who played in the boogie-woogie style.22Speckled Red, Charlie Spand and Will Ezell were the other three.

Classic blues also helped define the Detroit blues scene, a style of music that stemmed from traditional vaudeville and was typically sung by women with jazz accompaniment. These acts would often perform as part of a complete vaudeville show at the Koppin Theatre on Gratiot Avenue, at the southern edge of Paradise Valley. Bessie Smith, one of the era’s biggest classic blues singers, was known to pack the Koppin to capacity. 

Detroit’s blues scene eventually mimicked the migration patterns of the jazz scene, but on a much smaller scale. Following World War II, the blues scene spread from Hastings to Chene Street in East Detroit. Also like the jazz scene, it’s now mostly non-existent. On the corner of Chene and Farnsworth sits the Raven Lounge and Restaurant, Detroit’s oldest operating blues club. It’s one of the last places in the city to hear live blues, a tiny room lined with old black and white photographs where patrons still dress to impress. It remains unlisted and under the radar, the kind of place a tourist would only know about by word of mouth. In any other major city, the Raven would be a key tourist draw, but its blighted location deep in Detroit keeps audiences small and shows intimate. Opened in the ’50s, the Raven was once part of an entire strip of blues clubs that have since been demolished or gutted.

Instead of making an effort to restore Black Bottom, city officials viewed the slums and dilapidated structures as an excuse to completely clear the area for redevelopment.

A combination of politics, failed urban renewal efforts, racial tension and inner-city housing issues eventually led to the end of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, while the other areas mentioned in this piece were either redeveloped into new districts or left behind for nature to take over.

Brewster-Douglass housing projectsCourtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Black Bottom served as an escape for its residents, who typically worked grueling factory jobs. But with the party atmosphere came vice, crime and gambling. Pimps, prostitutes and drugs – especially heroin – were rampant, and many city employees were paid off to turn a blind eye. Detroit’s Purple Gang mob members were often spotted at the area’s speakeasies, mostly owned by businessman John R. “Buffalo” James and protected by a confidant within the Detroit Police Department. When Buffalo’s connection passed away in 1947, his businesses were suddenly shut down.

Black Bottom’s rapid population growth led to a housing shortage that resulted in slum-like conditions, especially in the 1940s following World War II. In an effort to alleviate overcrowding, the Brewster-Douglass housing projects were built directly north of the area. Many of Motown’s biggest artists called these projects home, including Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, but the idea eventually backfired. The exodus left Black Bottom blighted and abandoned, worsening the neighborhood’s already bleak situation. (Up until their recent demolition, the deserted projects stood as a reminder of Detroit’s decline and failed attempt at urban renewal.)

Army soldiers patrolling the streets of Detroit in 1943 after race riotsGordon Coster / Getty Images

Black Bottom sunk even lower when middle-class blacks left the area for new neighborhoods and racial tension within the city increased. In June of 1943 a Belle Isle fight escalated and nearly 10,000 Detroiters rioted in Cadillac Square, outraged by racism, unemployment and the housing crisis. The uprising left many buildings in desperate need of repair, but instead of making an effort to restore Black Bottom, city officials viewed the slums and dilapidated structures as an excuse to completely clear the area for redevelopment. 

This decision was the final nail in the coffin for one of America’s most important and influential black communities, its musical heritage obliterated as concrete and asphalt were poured over Hastings Street for I-375. “That really just ripped the guts out of the neighborhood,” said urban planner Ed Hustoles in an interview with the Detroit Free Press.

Paradise Valley was also hit hard by the construction of I-375. After the construction of the Fisher Freeway on its northern border, the neighborhood was left in a state of isolation. “You had a freeway not only going north and south, but also east and west – it really choked that small community,” says Coleman. In an ironic twist of fate, the one-mile radius of I-375 that cut through the heart of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley is now up for potential demolition because – according to city officials and business planners – it segregates downtown Detroit neighborhoods. Today’s recognition of Detroit’s unsuccessful urban freeway system won’t bring back the history that once was, however. Both the jazz and blues scenes were forced out alongside residents, and left no choice but to find new places to call home.

 

 

 

 



 
 


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com
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