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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Detroit’s Music Heritage Rises From the Ashes

February 17, 2017

DETROIT – Without any doubt, one of the biggest stories of the last decade has been Detroit’s crash into bankruptcy and its financial rebirth and seeming renaissance today. 

Ten years ago, the streets were mostly dark; Detroit had politics dominated by Kwame Kilpatrick, the hard-partying “hip-hop” mayor, and a withering economy everyone who possibly could was fleeing.  Today the lights are on, the population drain has slowed and the city is at least solvent – even if prosperity is still a dream away.

That saga has a sort of rhythm to it–and while nobody has yet written the “Ballad of Detroit’s Revival,” music has been a big part of the core of the Motor City for much longer than most people know.  There was jazz, and bop, bebop, and more. Yet today, much of that musical heritage is in danger.  “Things are being lost.  Old acetate tapes stored in countless garages are decaying, archives and records disappearing,” said Carleton Gholz.

“So five years ago, we decided to do something about it,” he said.  Do something, they did.  That something was to found the Detroit Sound Conservancy, which has given itself the mission of “preserving Detroit’s musical heritage” by increasing awareness–and by engaging in massive preservation and restoration efforts.

That’s not as simple as it might seem.

Naturally, everyone knows about Motown, where the careers of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and a galaxy of other stars blossomed in the 1960s. Their legacy seems secure; last Fall, the Motown Museum announced a $50 million expansion plan.  But long before Berry Gordy ever sponsored his first wax record, Detroit had an amazing and vibrant musical past.  There was the Bluebird Inn and the Graystone Ballroom and, later, the Graystone International Jazz Museum.

There was Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters lining up to record platters at the United Sound Studios, and artists and night clubs scattered across the city.  Slowly, that era ended, and memories faded.  The old artists died, the old clubs closed, things were lost and scattered.  Carleton Gholz, a youthful 40-year-old who grew up in the nearly all white suburb of Troy, somehow fell in love with the music and the old jazz greats.

He went to the University of Pittsburgh, earned a doctorate by writing a thesis on part of Detroit’s music scene, and launched a career as a teacher and a professional freelance music journalist.  But something was calling to him to save the sound.  His wife, Ceylan Akturk, was supportive, and so he and a group of like-minded people met in front of the now-shuttered Blue Bird Inn and formed the Detroit Sound Conservancy. (Detroitsound,org.) 

Three years later, they found the owner, went in to the collapsing building and, with a team of archaeologists from nearby Wayne State pulled out and restored one of the most famous stages in be-bop.  The story then took a magical turn: Detroit became the first city in the United States to be designated a UNESCO city of design by the United Nations.  The French, who have been in love with American jazz since the days of Josephine Baker, were intrigued.  Today the restored Blue Bird stage is on exhibit at an international design exhibit in Saint Etienne, France.

That’s far from all Gholz’s merry band of music aficionados have done.  For the last three years, they’ve held major conferences on every aspect of music heritage in Detroit.  They fought hard–and apparently successfully–to prevent the legendary United Sound Studios from being torn down for a freeway widening project.  They are currently involved in many other projects: Getting historic marker designations for jazz sites; writing and research, collecting artifacts and oral histories, and marking the forgotten grave of James Jenkins, one of Detroit’s great promoters of jazz.  They even established a scholarship at Wayne State University in memory of Dan Sicko, a pioneer in the techno music craze.

But as a scholar, one of Carleton Gholz’s biggest goals is to have a permanent building devoted to Detroit’s music legacy.  “Ten years from now, the goal is to have a place where the jazz recordings of the greats can be brought in and digitized and made available free of charge to the artists,” he told me.  “We want to be able to display artifacts, but also where scholars can come, and anyone making a Hollywood movie or documentary can come, and research any aspect of the music scene,” he said.

They know that will take money.  So far, they’ve done everything without any help or recognition from Detroit or any government agency, getting by on generosity and a shoestring–though they cheerfully admit that winning a few grants would be nice.  Most of all, they want to help the music survive.  Detroit’s Latin motto for more than two hundred years translates as “we hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”  

When it comes to music, that’s exactly what the Detroit Sound Conservancy is trying to make happen, every day.   

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

February 16, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry


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