By Mark Stryker October, 2019
One winter night in 2018, the Carr Center’s Gathering Orchestra rehearsed in a storefront space in downtown Detroit. As the band of gifted students and young professionals dug into the music. Detroit’s remarkable jazz legacy resonated on several fronts — and so did the important role that the Carr Center now plays in helping to sustain that legacy.
Leading the band was Carr Center resident artist Rodney Whitaker, a dynamic Detroit-born bassist who came to fame in the 1990s with Roy Hargrove and Wynton Marsalis and now directs the jazz program at Michigan State University. The music that filled the room was by Thad Jones, the legendary composer- arranger who emerged from Detroit’s modern jazz explosion in the 1950s. A veteran Detroit musician sat among each section of the Gathering — trumpets, trombones, saxophones — to coach their 15 young colleagues. Along with Whitaker’s leadership, this is the heart of the Gathering’s mission: mentorship. Detroit has turned out world-class jazz musicians for more than 70 years in part because the city has been blessed by key mentors, from pianist Barry Harris in the 1950s to the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave in recent decades, who trained multiple generations of jazz musicians.
The Gathering was the late Geri Allen’s idea, hatched during the Detroit-native and pianist’s brief tenure as artistic director of the Carr Center. Allen, among Belgrave’s most famous students, wanted to create a training orchestra to provide apprenticeship opportunities that mirrored those she received growing up in Detroit. The Gathering meets four times a year for weeklong residencies to rehearse and perform. The players each receive stipends of $1,500 per week—significant pay for students and those making the often-fraught transition into fulltime life as a musician.
“This band really means a lot to me,” said Detroit-born baritone saxophonist Erinn Whitsett, then a 22-year-old senior music major at Wayne State University. “It’s special. I see it as a chance to grow as a musician and to be part of the Detroit jazz legacy.”
The Carr Center’s jazz programming represents some of the organization’s most vital work. Its summer training program has provided instruction in improvisation and small ensembles for more than 15 years and many of its former students are now studying jazz in college or on the scene as working pros. The center’s concert series has featured some of the world’s finest jazz musicians, from pianist Mulgrew Miller to the Detroit-born violinist Regina Carter, and an ongoing partnership with Michigan State University has brought stars to Detroit such as pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Moreover, the Gathering performs four times a year in Detroit and environs — 2018 brought a concert of Duke Ellington’s sacred music at Christ Church Cranbrook in suburban Bloomfield Hills. An ambitious performance of Wynton Marsalis’ large-scale “Abyssinian Mass” for big band and community choir was presented in spring 2019 at a Detroit church.
The center’s Grammy-winning co-artistic directors, vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington also perform several times a year in Detroit, and Bridgewater sometimes sings and coaches the Gathering Orchestra. In fact,
Bridgewater was in town to work with the orchestra the week it was rehearsing Thad Jones’ music. (She brought an extra snap of authority since she had worked extensively with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra in the early 1970s.)
Whitaker’s presence in front of the band reinforces the links with Detroit’s storied jazz past. He’s a contemporary embodiment of a tradition that includes such heroes as Paul Chambers, Yusef Lateef, Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Ron Carter and Thad Jones’ brothers Hank and Elvin. “We’re just trying to share the information with the students, the way others shared it with us,” Whitaker said. Early in the rehearsal, the band launched into “The Little Pixie,” a challenging piece that turns on prodigious call-and-response between brass and reeds. Whenever the band started to rush, Whitaker clapped calmly but deliberately on beats two and four, and the ensemble slipped back into the pocket. The students and young pros in the band for the two-year terms encompassing 2017-19 range in age from their late teens to late ‘20s. The major university jazz programs in the region are all represented.
Bridgewater, dressed in chic black, pushed the band to play with a greater range of louds and softs. “If you don’t play with dynamics, it’s hard for the audience to absorb the music,” she said. After another stab at the opening choruses, Vincent Chandler — a Wayne State University professor and the trombone section mentor — told the group, “It’s the accents that make the music speak, not the force with which you play.”
Chandler’s words were like turning on a light switch. The band suddenly radiated swinging intensity and nuanced feeling. It sounded worthy of Detroit. The music soared. The tradition is in good hands.