Jazz in Detroit Before Motown: A Photographic History

by | Nov 20, 2016

The Charles H. Wright Museum exhibit, “Jazz in Detroit Before Motown: A Photographic History” will be available for public viewing in the Monts Hall Gallery during regular Detroit Center hours: 8 AM – 7 PM, Monday – Thursday; 8 AM – 5 PM, Friday & Saturday from November 28, 2016 thru January 31, 2017.  The exhibit is based on the book, Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960, by U-M Dearborn Professor Emeritus Lars Björn with jazz historian and aficionado Jim Gallert.

There was music in Detroit before Motown in the 1960s. Detroit has a remarkable jazz history, which contributed to the Motown Sound. The exhibit tells the story of jazz in Detroit from 1920-1960 through period photos, maps, and recorded music.

Several photos are those of Detroit native Bob Douglas, now a Los Angeles resident and a nationally known jazz photographer. In the late 1940’s Douglas was a photographer for the Michigan Chronicle and the Detroit edition of the Pittsburgh Courier. Other photos are by James “Beans” Richardson, a veteran Detroit bassist who was a member of the house band at the Blue Bird Inn in the forties and fifties. Richardson is still active as a musician.

The origins of jazz in Detroit involved the mixing of several African American musical traditions: the blues, vaudeville, ragtime, band music, and society bands. In the 1920s big band jazz was played in Detroit’s ballrooms and by the 1930s the music had established a foothold in Paradise Valley, the business and entertainment center of the African American community.

World War II gave birth to the bop style of modern jazz and Detroit was one of its most important centers. The fifties were the Golden Age of jazz in Detroit centered around clubs like the Blue Bird Inn on Detroit’s West Side. The postwar years also saw the birth of rhythm and blues and Detroit played a major role in its development from jump bands to the birth of the Motown Sound.

Validated parking is available in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra structure for gallery visitors.