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Jazz In The Motor City, Detroit

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Jazz Guitar Today guest contributor Joe Barth and team check out the jazz guitar scene in Detroit, Michigan.

In 1899 as a mechanic in his mid-thirties, Henry Ford started a new company called the Detroit Automobile Company whose first product was a gasoline-powered delivery truck.  From that point on Detroit was the center of the automobile industry, and it inspired thousands of African Americans to migrate north. 

A lot of great music also came from this city including music from a songwriter/record executive named Berry Gordy who started Tamla Records in 1959 and added the Motown label in 1960. The influence of Detroit jazz and blues on the development of Motown, and R&B music is undeniable.

To musically support Berry Gordy’s artists, a group of anonymous Detroit jazz musicians were assembled as studio musicians and were later known as The Funk Brothers which included jazz guitarists Joe Messina and Robert White.  Detroit has also been home to several other jazz guitarists. 

The migration of jazz musicians northward to Detroit in the early 20th century was fundamental in the creation of America’s jazz sound.

Early jazz (1917-1922) was a blend of blues and ragtime music.  From 1923 to 1929 jazz music was labeled as carefree and rebellious, as Detroit’s big-band sound emerged in the mid-to-late 1920s.  The shift of performing jazz music from big ballrooms into small cabaret bands led to many diverse entertainment spots for jazz musicians, thus connecting together both gig-seeking musicians and tourists.

Paradise Valley, often called Detroit’s Las Vegas, was one of the first neighborhoods to facilitate the integration of blacks and whites who gathered in its nightclubs, cabarets, restaurants and gambling joints, turning black-owned Paradise Valley businesses into the city’s primary home for “black and tan” venues (places where both black and white people could patronize).

In the 1930s and 40s, Detroit’s Paradise Valley was dominated by the 606 Horseshoe Lounge, Club Three Sixes, Plantation Club, the Chocolate Bar, Club Harlem, and the Brown Bomber Chicken Shack which were all jazz cabarets hosting the most popular music in the Motor City. In the 1950s the Flame became one of the most popular jazz spots in the Motor City. 

In 1953, Miles Davis cultivated his career when he moved into Detroit’s Blue Bird Inn, which was the hippest modern jazz nightspot.  Charlie Parker and drummer Elvin Jones helped push jazz’s influence at the Blue Bird.

Detroit and its surrounding area produced some of the greatest musicians in jazz.  The Jones brothers, pianist Hank, trumpeter Thad, and drummer Elvin all come from nearby Pontiac, Michigan. Vibraphonist Milt Jackson, violinist Regina Carter, pianists Geri Allen, Barry Harris, and Tommy Flanagan, saxophonists Pepper Adams, Yusef Lateef, Kenny Garrett, and Joe Henderson as well as trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, trombonist Curtis Fuller, bassists James Jamerson and Robert Hurst are all from or lived in Detroit for a time.

Cass Technical High School was a Detroit public school with a dedicated music program, launched in 1925, and Cass Tech’s instrumental jazz program was developed by conductor Dr. Harry Begian, who started the school’s concert band program in 1947. Long considered the “musical Harvard” of Detroit producing singer Diana Ross, trumpeters Donald Byrd and Gerald Wilson, pianists Greg Phillinganes and Alice Coltrane, guitarist Jack White, bassists Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, and rapper Big Sean. As the Detroit Historical Society wrote in 2011, “the Cass Tech music program helped put Detroit on the map in the world of jazz, and the city’s Motown music empire wouldn’t have been the same without it.”


Bill Shoemaker of JAZZ TIMES has called A. Spencer Barefield “…an extraordinary guitarist/composer… He melds the techniques of Segovia and Jimi Hendrix…”. Barefield’s active performance schedule keeps him busy both locally in Detroit and beyond. The University of Michigan as well as schools and universities around the country have benefited from his teachings.

Everett Barksdale (1910-1986) was born in Detroit and played the bass and banjo before settling on the guitar.  In the 1930s he moved to Chicago and played with violinist Eddie South. Then later moved to New York City and was in the Benny Carter Big Band.  As a jazz artist, he worked with many of the major artists of the day.  As a studio musician, one of his most famous sessions was for the Drifter’s recording of “Under the Boardwalk.”


Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell was born in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 1931, and started playing guitar at the age of twelve, after first starting with piano and saxophone. During his early years, he was inspired by Charlie Christian’s playing.  As a student at Wayne State University, he quickly became an important part of the Detroit jazz scene until his move to New York in the mid-1950s.  In New York, Kenny was busy with the jazz club and the studio recording scene.  He was also available to play in several leading Broadway musical pit orchestras.  In 1972 he moved to Los Angeles to work in the recording studios, and by 1978 began teaching at UCLA where he developed a course of study “Ellingtonia” on the music of Duke Ellington.  As a player, he is known for his musical sensitivity and ability to tell the story of a ballad.

Ron English (b1941) is still gigging every Tuesday and has been part of many important Detroit bands since the 1960s and 70s, in addition to being the trunk of the “tree” of jazz guitarists in Detroit.  Those that come from Ron English and his most important student, Steve Carryer, and then eventually Chuck Newsome’s students include John Arnold, Kris Kurzawa, Ray Urena, Matt Thibodeau, Jacob Schwandt, Sasha Kashperko, David Dunham, Ian Blunden, Tom Bartelmay, Mark Royzenblat, and Rob Kokochak.

Slim Gaillard (1911-1991) is sometimes credited with being born in Detroit or Cuba but whatever the case he was raised in Detroit.  He was one of the first jazz guitarists to come under the influence of Charlie Christian.  He was more than just a jazz guitarist, he was an entertainer and comedian.  He and bassist Slam Stewart form a quartet, “Slim and Slam” that had several hit records.  In his comedy routine, Slim regularly took a serious guitar solo that demonstrated Charlie Christian’s influence upon him.

Born in 1941 in Detroit, Amos Garrett’s family moved to Toronto and then to Montreal.  Garrett has played with Jerry Garcia, Delaney Bramlett, Todd Rundgren, and others but he is best known for the guitar solo on Maria Muldaur’s 1974 hit “Midnight at the Oasis.”

Though born in Tutwiler, Mississippi in either 1912 or 1917, John Lee Hooker launched his career while living in Detroit.  In 1943 Hooker worked for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit and in his off hours frequented the blues clubs on Detroit’s east side. Hooker was soon performing in those Detroit clubs when his first hit record came out in 1949.  His songs “Boogie Chillen” and “Boom Boom” are considered rock and roll classics.  He appeared in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers and died in California in 2001.

If you are in Detroit and hear a steady Django-style rhythm with soaring improvision above it you are probably listening to the Hot Club of Detroit.  Founded in 2003 by guitarist Evan Perri the group, known well beyond the Motor City, is heard at all the leading Django festivals. Andrew Brown and Erik McIntyre are also incredible Jazz Manouche and Western Swing players.

Born December 31, 1953, Perry Hughes started on the guitar as a Junior High student.  In addition to Bob James, Perry has recorded with Gene Dunlap, Ronnie Laws, Bill Heid, Will Downing, and others. A more funkier call might be a gig or record date with the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin.  When Bob James isn’t touring with Foreplay, he often has Perry Hughes in his band.  Perry is comfortable in both traditional and contemporary jazz settings.  His improvising is fluid and logical and his tone is extremely warm, especially when he puts his pick aside and plays with his thumb.

Randy Johnson was born in Detroit in 1956 but also grew up in Virginia. Randy is a very earthy guitar player whose sound is bluesy, inventive, and always in the pocket.  He has worked with such greats as Jack McDuff, Lou Donaldson, and many others.

Earl Klugh was born in Detroit, Michigan on September 16, 1953.  Always committed to the fingerstyle nylon string guitar, he has developed a style that is fluid and inventive. Earl’s big break came in 1971 when he was invited to play on George Benson’s White Rabbit album. In the 1970s and 80s his many albums were some of the biggest sellers of any instrument in jazz.  Earl’s cousin, Vaughn Klugh is also an outstanding guitarist in the Detroit area and elsewhere.

Sasha Kashperko was born in Belarus then immigrated to New York with his family and later settled in Detroit.  He has been a professional guitarist since age eighteen performing with such great jazz artists as Robert Hurst, Robert Glasper, and many others.

Bill Leavitt was born just north of Detroit in Flint, Michigan in 1926.  He worked with a number of top artists, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Page, Les Paul, and Mary Ford but Bill’s contribution was in teaching and writing guitar curriculum.  In 1965 he became Chair of the Guitar Department at Berklee College.  Some of his students were John Abercrombie, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Steve Vai.  Bill died in 1990.

Matt LoRusso started on the trumpet and then pursued classical guitar before turning to jazz guitar. Matt can be heard regularly around the Detroit area and has worked with a number of major jazz artists.

Born in Detroit in 1928 Joe Messina became a working jazz guitarist in the late 1940s.  In his mid-twenties, he played in the ABC Television Studio Band as well as on the Soupy Sales TV show where he worked jazz artists such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and many more. In 1958 Berry Gordy recruited Messina to play in his Motown studio band that became known as the Funk Brothers.  Messina performed on most of the Motown hits until Berry Gordy moved Motown to Hollywood in 1972 causing him to retire from playing until his death in 2022.

Randy Napoleon

Randy Napoleon was born May 30, 1977, in Brooklyn, NY but grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan when his family moved there.  He and his wife divide their time between Ann Arbor and New York City.  After graduating from the University of Michigan he moved to New York to pursue a career in music.  His first big break was playing with pianist Benny Green.  Randy, for years, was Michael Buble’s guitarist, he traveled the world with Freddy Cole until Cole’s death.  

Detroit native Charles Newsome is busy as a performing guitarist and educator at Wayne State University and elsewhere.  He has performed with Joe Lovano, Eddie Daniels, Kurt Elling, Diane Schuur, and many more. He is also an active composer and arranger with over a hundred works to his name. 

Randy Reszka specializes can be seen playing all over the lower peninsula of Michigan.  A capable guitarist, he prefers playing solo guitar for casual events.

James ‘Blood’ Ulmer (b1940) was born in South Carolina and later lived in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Ohio before moving to Detroit in 1967 only later to move to New York City to eventually work with Ornette Coleman. Ulmer was the first guitarist to work with Ornette and paved the way for other guitarists like Pat Metheny to work with Coleman.

Robert White (1936-1994) was born in Pennsylvania and toured with the Moonglows before settling in Detroit.  Along with Joe Messina and Eddie Willis became one of the three core guitarists in the Motown studio band known as the Funk Brothers.  He played on numerous Motown hits but is best known for the famous guitar riff on The Temptation’s number-one hit “My Girl.”  The third guitarist in the Funk Brothers was Eddie “Chank” Willis who also played on numerous Motown hits.  Willis often muted his guitar riffs and timed them with the snare drum to cultivate his distinctive style.

Barry Zweig (1942-2020) was born in Detroit in 1942.  In 1964 he was drafted into the Army which took him to NORAD in Colorado Springs where he studied with Johnny Smith. After the Army, he joined Buddy Rich’s Band and decided to settle in Los Angeles where he continued as a studio guitarist until almost the day he died.


Just west of Detroit in Kalamazoo Orville Gibson started making musical instruments in 1894 and formed the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company in 1902.

Orville Gibson in essence invented the archtop guitar constructing the guitar similar to the violin and cello.  Later Gibson employee, Lloyd Loar, made significant design modifications developing what became the L-5 archtop guitar.  Gibson guitars were built in Kalamazoo until the mid-1980s when the company moved to Nashville, Memphis, and Bozeman. Montana.  In 1984 when Gibson moved three of their best luthiers, Jim Duerloo, Marv Lamb, and J.P. Moats bought the old Gibson factory and continued to build “Gibson quality” guitars under the new name of Heritage Guitars.

Near Detroit in Allen Park, Michigan Gary Zimnicki has been building fine archtops, steel string acoustics, classical guitars, and mandolins for over thirty years.  


The Detroit Jazz Festival is the largest free jazz festival in the world and is the pinnacle of jazz in Detroit each year over Labor Day weekend. 

One of the premiere jazz clubs in Detroit is Cliff Bells on Park Avenue.  They feature the best local as well as international jazz artists.

Since 1934 Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on Livernois Street has been “the” place to hear great jazz in Detroit, as is Aretha’s Jazz Café at Music Hall on Madison Street. On Thursday nights one can hear great jazz at Bert’s Market Place on Russell Street. To hear great music in an intimate, up close, setting then the Dirty Dog Jazz Café at Grosse Pointe Farms is the place for you.  

Not far away in Ann Arbor is the Blue Llama Jazz Café on Main Street and the Kerrytown Concert House as well as the Zal Gaz Grotto No. 34  are all great places to hear jazz. 

 Of course, Orchestra Hall, where the Detroit Symphony performs offers the occasional jazz concert.


Wayne State University has an excellent jazz department.  Charles Newsome is the jazz guitar professor and leads a number of jazz guitar ensembles in addition to the jazz bands and mixed combos.  Chris Buzzelli teaches jazz guitar and more at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor just west of Detroit.

Both a professor of jazz guitar and Associate Director of the Jazz Studies Department, Randy Napoleon is an excellent guitarist to study with at Michigan State University.  A little further east there is Matt Landon who teaches jazz guitar at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. 

(This article was written with research assistance from Chuck Newsome, Randy Napoleon, and Kathy Parker.)

Dr. Barth is the author of Voices in Jazz Guitar: Great Performers Tell about Their Approach to Playing (Mel Bay) available at Amazon.com and elsewhere.  


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