Detroit jazz trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave dies at 78
By Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press Staff Writer 8:43 p.m. EDT May 24, 2015
Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, the reigning patriarch of Detroit's jazz scene, fought heart and pulmonary issues for years and used oxygen 24 hours a day. But you would hardly know it to hear him play.
Belgrave still lit up bandstands from here to New York with his clarion tone, soulful improvisations and charismatic personality. And just as he had done for 45 years in Detroit, he mentored young musicians, initiating them into the expressive glories of jazz.
Belgrave's heart finally gave out today at age 78. Death has silenced his horn, but his legacy will remain immortal.
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Belgrave died at Glacier Hills, a care and rehabilitation facility in Ann Arbor. His wife, vocalist Joan Belgrave, said he died in his sleep. The cause of death was heart failure. He had been in and out of the hospital since April 19, battling complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure. But he had also shown signs of steady improvement and was practicing daily. His wife said they had spent Saturday preparing for his return to the stage at the Concert of Colors in July.
His last public appearance was April 17 in Durham, N.C., as part of a "trumpet summit" with Russell Gunn and Rayse Biggs, but Belgrave continued to play in his hospital bed, including brief jam sessions with fellow musicians.
It's impossible to overstate the impact that Belgrave has had on musical culture in Detroit as a musician, teacher and standard-bearer of jazz. Like an African griot, he came to embody the soul and mythology of the city's jazz history, handing down the values of swing and blues to multiple generations of students — many of whose fame would eventually outshine his own. Belgrave symbolized Detroit's continued vitality as an incubator and epicenter of jazz, and he remained a key link between the city and the international jazz scene.
"He became a mentor to entire generations of musicians, and a lot of us would not have found the music without him," said bassist Rodney Whitaker. "He brought us together. I have not met one musician from the last 50 years in Detroit that Marcus has not had some sort of impact on."
Belgrave was a world-class trumpeter whose A-list resume included a long tenure with Ray Charles in the 1950s and early '60s and associations with jazz royalty like Max Roach and Charles Mingus. Ultimately, however, Belgrave's greatest contribution was the remarkable honor roll of his former students who graduated to leading roles on the national scene — including pianist Geri Allen, bassists Whitaker and Robert Hurst, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, violinist Regina Carter, and drummers Karriem Riggins, Ali Jackson and Gerald Cleaver.
Belgrave took his advanced students under his wing, hiring them for gigs that provided critical on-the-job training.
"With Marcus there was a pipeline from high school right into a safety zone in the scene," Allen told the Free Press in 2012. "We saw the passion and the professionalism up close. What Marcus has done for Detroit and what he's done for all of us — he truly is a national treasure. How much we all love him can't be expressed in words."
Most of Belgrave's teaching came under the umbrella of his Jazz Development Workshop. a shoestring operation. The students who became stars are by no means the whole story, because Belgrave's influence extends to protegees like bassist Marion Hayden, who has become a pillar of the Detroit scene as a player and teacher. Then there are the countless inner city kids who didn't become professional musicians but whom Belgrave helped keep on the straight and narrow.
"If you factor in those of us who also became mentors because of his example, Marcus has changed the lives of thousands of students," said Whitaker, who directs the jazz program at Michigan State University.
Belgrave — who was born in Pennsylvania but settled in Detroit in 1963 after roughly five years with Ray Charles — could have had a larger national profile had he remained in New York. Mingus once lamented that he couldn't afford to pry the trumpeter out of Detroit. "If I had Marcus Belgrave, I'd have the greatest band going," the bassist-composer told Down Beat magazine in 1975.
But fame and fortune were never Belgrave's goals.
"Actually, I feel famous, because I've been able to survive playing music in Detroit," Belgrave told the Free Press in 2012. "Major musicians would say, 'What is Marcus doing in Detroit?' But 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."
Belgrave's cult status grew once his famous protégés began trumpeting his name in interviews in the 1980s. In the 1990s, work with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, a handful of New York gigs and a few sideman appearances on CDs with Allen and others bumped up his visibility a bit.
Belgrave's identity on the trumpet was unique. Initially inspired by Clifford Brown, his sound was broad and lustrous, and his solos unfolded in complete paragraphs of cogent melody, rhythmic wit and emotional resonance. As he reached his full maturity as an improviser in the 1970s, Belgrave favored the road less traveled, marrying down-home soul with spontaneous, offbeat tangents.
"I'm trying to hear the whole picture of the piece," Belgrave told the Free Press. "The improvisation comes in as a part of being able to feel the whole framework of a song and then you work your way into the flow. I want to play like a singer and feel the rapture of the song."
Belgrave's ability to remain himself in a myriad of styles was a calling card. He's recorded bebop, blues, ballads, funk, fusion, free jazz, post-bop and in recent decades worked all over the country playing and singing the Louis Armstrong songbook with spot-on authenticity.
Belgrave, who stood just 5 feet 4 inches tall, was an elfin figure with twinkling eyes, a gravelly voice and a bebopper's beard that in later years turned more salt than pepper. He commanded a spiritual force that elevated the musicianship of a band even when he was simply in the audience as a listener.
"He's the epitome of soul and taste," Marsalis told the Free Press in 2009. "His sound is just so evocative, and he's a master of swing and blues. When he walks into a room, he brings a good time with him."
Despite his up-and-down health, Belgrave practiced religiously, putting in two hours a day on the horn, even when he landed periodically in the hospital. His doctors said the trumpet kept him alive, helping his respiration and allowing him to get everything he could out of his weakened lungs. The continued vitality of his playing astounded his fellow musicians and earned him critical accolades.
In his appearance at Dizzy's Club in New York last July, Belgrave was especially proud to lead a band comprised of all current Detroiters and proteges. Critic Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times that the show was an example of the kind of music that doesn't often get headlines: "Jazz played with a beautiful sense of proportion, modesty, refinement; using the full range of his instrument but free of aggression, anxiety, overplaying. (Belgrave) let the essence of the songs manifest themselves. It's the result, maybe, of understanding something and then rendering it so that it coheres and can be passed on intact."
A bebop baby
Marcus Belgrave was born on June 12, 1936, in Chester, Pa., a manufacturing town near Philadelphia. He started blowing a bugle at 4 and a trumpet at 6, taught by his father, a fine amateur musician. Belgrave's cousin was baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, who played with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and it wasn't long before Payne was teaching Belgrave to play bebop melodies by Charlie Parker.
At 12, Belgrave began studying with a local teacher and performing with a concert band in nearby Wilmington, Del., that included Clifford Brown, six years older and on his way to becoming a major influence in jazz. Brown took a shine to Belgrave and helped him learn to improvise by writing out a solo for him on the chords to "How High the Moon."
Belgrave joined the Air Force after high school and played in a service band stationed in Wichita Falls, Texas. One night he sat in with the Ray Charles band at a concert. Belgrave was back in Chester in 1958, when Charles offered him a job as second trumpet. He was 21.
Charles had a hot small band working at the intersection of rhythm and blues, jazz and gospel. For Belgrave, the experience was like graduate school.
"I had to learn patience," Belgrave told the Free Press. "I wanted to play bebop, but I had to learn to play the blues. I played too many notes. And Ray would play such slow ballads that I'd be through eight bars before he got through one. But eventually he let me play obbligatos behind him on a ballad."
Belgrave made his first recordings with Charles, playing brassy solos full of bebop curlicues on "Blues Waltz" (1958) and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1959). He can also be heard to good advantage on "Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman," taped with Charles' band in 1958.
Belgrave worked with Charles until 1963, except for a year and a half when he lived in New York. While based in the city, he toured for two months with drummer Max Roach and recorded with Charles Mingus on "Pre-Bird" (1960). He also worked with drummer Charli Persip and saxophonist and former Detroiter Yusef Lateef. Belgrave surely would have found wider fame had he not turned down potentially career-defining opportunities to play with Duke Ellington's big band and Horace Silver's quintet. Belgrave said in both cases he didn't want to return to the grind of life on the road.
Belgrave settled in Detroit in 1963, lured by the city's reputation as a jazz mecca and the former stomping grounds of Pontiac-born Thad Jones, whom Belgrave revered. The promise of steady work in the Motown studios was also a magnet, and he played on numerous Motown sides in 1963-64.
Belgrave fell into teaching in 1970. His friend, pianist Harold McKinney, recruited him to work for Detroit's Metropolitan Arts Complex, a federally funded Model Cities program. Belgrave, a natural communicator, found the energy and excitement of the students intoxicating. Belgrave created the Jazz Development Workshop in the early '70s, and there were also more formal posts along the way at Oakland University and elsewhere.
Belgrave also became involved in Detroit's legendary Tribe, a '70s cooperative that ran a record label and produced concerts. Belgrave's first LP under his own name, "Gemini II," a progressive jazz-rock fusion album, was made for Tribe in 1974.
Belgrave later made numerous recordings for his own Detroit Jazz Musicians Co-Op label, including two exemplary CDs in the 1990s: "Live at the Kerrytown Concert House" (with Detroit pianists Tommy Flanagan, Geri Allen and Gary Schunk) and "Working Together," which documents Belgrave's partnership with the late drummer and composer Lawrence Williams. Limited distribution prevented these recordings from making a bigger splash.
In later decades, Belgrave also appeared on recordings by Allen, Kirk Lightsey, McCoy Tyner, Horace Tapscott, Junko Onishi, Robert Hurst and David Murray.
In recent years, Belgrave found a measure of financial security by accepting a teaching post at Oberlin from 2001-2010, and he was awarded the $50,000 Kresge Eminent Artist prize in 2009.
Belgrave's 2007 marriage to Joan Belgrave, his third wife, a singer with whom he often performed, also brought stability to his life. Joan helped him manage his business affairs and monitored his health.
In addition to his wife, Belgrave is survived by two daughters and two sons. Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Greater Grace Temple, 23500 W. Seven Mile, Detroit. A gathering will follow at the Carr Center, 311 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit.
Belgrave's life stood as a monument to the continuum of jazz history, and he was sustained by a profound understanding of community, character and fellowship. Connecting his trumpet playing and his teaching was a respect for the past as a springboard to the future. The greatest lesson of all in jazz, he once said, was to be an individual.
"In order to get to the future, you have to go to the past," he told the Free Press. "I try to instill that you learn from the masters in your presence and go back and forward from there. In order to find yourself, you have to be cognizant of what went down before you. That's always been my philosophy."
Contact Mark Stryker: 313-222-6459. firstname.lastname@example.org