Sunday, June 9, 2024


The late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and Vocalist Joan Belgrave

The late jazz trumpeter and educator Marcus Belgrave had a storied career known globally as a mentor to jazz titans such as saxophonist Kenny Garrett, violinist Regina Carter, and bassist Robert Hurst. Belgrave spent the bulk of that storied career swinging in landmark ensembles and mentoring generations of jazz musicians, but few were aware of another piece to his overall genius. He was a prolific original music composer inspired by renowned jazz composers such as pianist Horace Silver. Belgrave's widow, the vocalist Joan Belgrave, has been on a mission to put out Belgrave's music for the world to enjoy and learn from. Part of that mission is to have Belgrave's music taught globally at conservatories and universities; a vast undertaking given the severe health concerns that she recently overcame. Belgrave's music has now been collected in a handsome 153-page book, titled the "Marcus Belgrave Songbook." Saturday at the Blue Llama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a capacity audience received the first dibs of Belgrave's original compositions. Joan Belgrave assembled a regional and multi-generational group to present the music. Saxophonists Stephen Grady and Kasan Belgrave and trumpeters Don Hicks and Dwight Adams shared the frontline responsibilities, and drummer Gayelynn McKinney, bassist Marion Hayden, and pianist Mike Malis had the rhythm section on lock. Malis was entrusted with the formidable task of transcribing Belgrave’s composition and saxophonist Cassius Richmond wrote all the arrangements. The evening had to be nerve-wracking for Belgrave, given the musician's limited exposure to the original music and only committing to a day or two of rehearsal. However, the meticulous handling of the music by each musician should've assuaged any concerns Belgrave harbored about the successful outcome of finally putting out Belgrave's work. The group was on fire from start to conclusion. They swung through Belgrave's "Brownie Town," "All My Love," "Glue Fingers," and "Space Odyssey" as if each musician had been raised musically from birth to perform Belgrave's music exclusively. McKinney was the crowd favorite. She was all over the drumkit like an overbearing supervisor. And Adams's earthy and sophisticated trumpeting resembled Belgrave's signature style. Adams was comfortable as a fat man at a breakfast buffet in both the upper and lower register of his horn. The only notable shortcoming was that Joan Belgrave only sang once. She owns one of the world's loveliest voices, and the evening would've been even more special had she performed more. This time, she seemed more comfortable serving as the concert’s MC, explaining the genesis of the music and egging on the musicians. The concert was too short, I complained to myself. Midway through, I hoped the band would perform every composition in the songbook. But isn't wanting more the sign of a well-crafted concert? At the concert’s end, I felt privileged to have first dibs at experiencing Belgrave’s music. Fortunately, Belgrave has scheduled another show on June 15th at Trinosophes in Detroit for those who missed the Blue Llama performance.


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