|Pianist Geri Allen|
The biggest shortcoming of the From Cass Corridor to the World: A Tribute to Detroit’s Musical Golden Years concert Monday evening at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor Michigan was pianist Geri Allen, its musical director, never explained the importance of Cass Corridor as it related to Detroit’s vast jazz history. Not one word from any of the special guests about how the Northwest side neighborhood—once a haven for drugs and for prostitution—impacted Detroit’ jazz community.
From the start, Allen informed the packed auditorium there’d be little talking. There was too much music to get to. The concert went on for nearly three plus hours, and although it brimmed with highlights, I was full midway. The star-studded get together, at times, felt as if Allen crammed four concerts into one. Detroit jazz musicians know how to put on an elaborate production, but they haven’t mastered editing. That’s what the concert needed desperately.
The first set opened with a salute to Dr. Martin Luther King. Professor George Shirley read King’s “On the Importance of Jazz,” speech that King gave at the Berlin Jazz Festival. It wasn’t one of his best. Besides, I founded it unbelievable King was a jazz fan.
As Shirley read King’s words, I tried to picture him checking out some Charlie Parker albums in his study late at night after Coretta and the kids were sleep. I had King pegged as a gospel fan. I never imagined he was into Dexter Gordon and Ornette Coleman or King had a serious jazz record collection.
After Shirley finished the speech, he joined the University of Michigan’s Day Choir and they sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” one of King’s favorite spirituals. Then singers Shahida Nurullah, Joan Belgrave, Ursula Walker and Naima Shamboroguer joined the choir for a selection. The singers performed the horn parts of "I Have A Dream" from pianist Herbie Hancock's last album for Blue Note Records "The Prisoner".
After the singers left the stage, a tribute to saxophonist Yusef Lateef and drummer Roy Brooks followed, which was the concert’s first highlight the drum battle between Karriem Riggins and Ali Jackson. The battle perked up the audience.
The most endearing moment of the set was the nod to trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. He's been ill lately. But he looked and sounded sharp. He was genuinely surprised when the University of Michigan presented him with the King, Chavez-Parks Visiting Professor Award.
The second half of the concert offered the most highlights, starting with a fun tribute to jazz bassist Ron Carter. Bassists Robert Hurst, Marion Hayden, and Ralphe Armstrong showed out. Next, was a kick-butt shout out to trombonist Curtis Fuller and pianist Harold McKinney.
McKinney's daughter, jazz drummer Gayelynn, had the honor of representing her dad. Vincent Chandler, who’s become a master trombonist, gave Fuller proper due.
It took saxophonist James Carter and organist Gerard Gibbs to hit the audience in their souls with a take of “Precious Lord” that would’ve given Jesus goose bumps. Henceforth, the concert turned into a revival. Joan Belgrave followed Carter with a beautiful gospel selection. She damn near caught the Holy Spirit on stage.
If that wasn’t enough, the Motown Legends Gospel Choir took the concert to the streets. I never imagined some of the people who voted for Rich Snyder could catch the Holy Spirit, but the choir had everybody worked up.
The concert should’ve ended there. But there’re three rushed performances one by the original Vandellas, another by the Contours, and the last, a tribute to hip hop icon J Dilla, by a rapper named Invincible. By this point, the concert felt as if Allen was determined to let every performer get a turn at bat. Allen never put the Cass Corridor angle into context, which is forgivable because the music was so damn good, and Allen had so much of it to navigate. But it would’ve been nice to have heard from several of the musicians about what Cass Corridor meant to them.