Wednesday, June 18, 2014

May's Book: Before Motown

Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960 by Lars Bjorn with Jim Gallert
Music (2001 - 207 pp.)

Before Motown is, in Professor Lars Bjorn's own words, "the first book-length treatment of Detroit jazz history." (1, fn 1) That alone makes it a worthy read. The book's thesis, that Detroit was a seminal jazz city for a period of about forty years but especially during the 1950s, is driven home by a breakdown of the people and places that made Detroit music what it was prior to the Motown explosion. My background playing jazz trumpet and my rearing on Motown as a child made this book an obvious read for me.

Before Motown progresses chronologically, roughly by decade, before veering off into related musical forms (blues, early Motown) near the end. It is a setup that works, as most readers will not be starting the book with a good understanding of the artistic and social climate of Detroit in 1920. I surely did not. Race relations factor into the book as much as music does at times, although the artists, clubs and songs that defined Detroit in the jazz era are always at the forefront. An example of race relations shaping early Detroit band music is in the name of McKinney's Cotton Pickers, a 1920s-'30s band named to sound exotic but who were, in reality, from Ohio. (26) Various maps of racial migration throughout the 1920-1960 period are useful.

Within Before Motown, there are dozens of anecdotes intertwined by virtue of jazz and Detroit. A couple stand out. One is of Miles Davis's time spent in Detroit in 1953-1954, when he was coming off some of the most frequent heroin use of his life and therefore specifically wanted to avoid the rampantly abusive New York City scene. When in Detroit, he borrowed a trumpet every night for shows from a then 14-year old Lonnie Hillyer, who would also become a great musician. Hillyer's mother made Davis return the instrument every night so he could not pawn it for drug money, and indeed, Davis kept his word. (137-138) Another is the briefly told life story of John Lee Hooker in the blues chapter. In a reminder of how different the World War II era was from the current financial situation, Hooker remarked in an interview that "At that time jobs weren't hard to get - it was during the war. Good money too. You could go anywhere any day and get a job..." (174) This passage must seem alien to current job seekers.

It is truly a shame that many of the artists featured so prominently in Before Motown have either been recorded sparingly or never been recorded at all. Some, like well-known pianist Phil Hill from the late '40s and early '50s, lack personal pages on sites like Wikipedia or Rate Your Music. It is simultaneously enlightening to learn about what must have been a really interesting scene and frustrating to have to relegate many artists' sounds to the imagination. Reading about clubs like the Blue Bird Inn, the Flame, and so on, it would have been nice to somehow gain a greater appreciation to how the music there sounded in the '40s-'50s heyday. All considered, the reader is blessed with photographic evidence, including a picture of Frank (alto sax) and Gene (bass) Taylor standing on top of a bar. (190) Copies of old concert posters also pop up throughout the book.

My only qualm with Before Motown is that it sometimes takes on an encyclopedic quality, bombarding the reader with snippet-sized life stories that do not always tie into the overarching narrative in an obvious way. That the appendices do not include a list of jazz musicians from different decades or styles compounds this problem. It also has many island quotations, which can become troublesome when there is a sentence followed by a not entirely related quotation. These are minor issues, though, as the book is still very readable. Before Motown contains a lot of information, and digesting it takes longer than the 207-page count implies.

Ease of Reading: 5
Educational Content: 8

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