The earliest reference the Detroit jazz scene I found in the archives was in Monk Rowe’s interview with Billy Mitchell. He describes a relatively active environment in the late 30s and early 40s with jazz bands limited in appeal to black audiences in a handful of clubs around the city. This would change with what he described as the “great white jackpot,” an event I presume to be the beginning of popular consumption of jazz by white audiences. For the most part, according to, Mitchell, the Midwest was divided up into “territorial bands,” itinerant groups who would tour a wide area. As such, it is perhaps futile to speak of the “great names” specific to Detroit until the 1950s. Many artists found it preferable to move to New York or Hollywood as soon as they could, Al Grey, Billy Bauer and Charles McPherson all being examples. If there was one fixed star in Detroit nightlife it was the Paradise Theater, which Eddie Locke likens to the Apollo. Dick Katz claims that 1956 marked a “mass” migration of talented artists to Detroit including such names as Paul Chambers, Kenny Burrell, Pepper Adams, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Billy Mitchell, Thad Jones, Elvin Jones and Miles Davis. Katz goes on to say these artists gave Detroit a distinct style: “you might as well have been in New York.” Any project on Detroit would most likely focus on this time period and these artists.
My raw notes can be found below. They’re not incredibly helpful…
In the navy, Al Grey found himself stationed in Detroit. Upon leaving the service he joined up with Benny Carter’s Band, playing tuba at the Paradise Theatre in 1945. Benny soon leaves for Hollywood and Grey joins up with Jimmy Lunceford, eventually making his way to New York.
Briefly mentions Detroit in a monologue on globalization and the auto industry.
Signed up with Woody Herman’s big band in Detroit… or in Cincinnati, he can’t exactly remember. They must not have stayed for long if he can’t remember.
Grew up in Detroit and found his first professional work there playing saxophone for Nat Towles. He claims that the city had a great deal of jazz music popular primarily with black audiences. This was in the late 30s and early 40s, prior to the “great white jackpot,” presumably when white audiences began to consume jazz. The Midwest at the time was divided up with “territory bands” dominating the scene in a certain region. Moved to New York with Luck Millinder’s band in 1948. He returns to Detroit a year later to start his own band and eventually joins up with Bassie.
Briefly mentions playing a one-nighter in Detroit, attesting to the popularity of one song “Riders of the Night”
Grew up in Detroit where he was heavily influenced by a local jazz club on his street- the “best club in Detroit.” Thad Jones, Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Tommy Flannigan, Barry Harris, Pepper Adams all mentioned as contemporaries. McPherson moves to New York at age 20.
Born in Detroit at least.
Says there was a migration of a handful of highly skilled jazz players to Detroit in 1956 including Paul Chambers, Kenny Burrell Pepper Adams, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Billy Mitchell. Mentions there was a distinct sound to Detroit jazz, a trademark lyrical line.
Played briefly for McKinny’s Cotton Pickers in Detroit in the 1930s
Played briefly at the Paradise Theatre, likens it to the Apollo. Moves to New York in 1954 and stays there.
Likens Detroit to a New York, a Mecca for jazz with such famous names as Kenny Burrell and Donald Byrd.