Trumpeter/Composer Greg Glassman interviews FONT 2013 Honoree Marcus Belgrave

I met Marcus Belgrave when I was 19, and a junior at Oberlin College. My teacher, the late Detroit saxophonist, Donald Walden, made a point to tell me that Mr. Belgrave was coming to Oberlin to be featured with the college big band. I remember he said, “Marcus plays so good, it’s unbelievable.” What is notable about this story is that I had never heard Donald Walden give anyone this kind of compliment. Donald was a breed of Detroiter/bebopper of which some readers may be familiar–serious about chord changes; serious about the music sounding “right”. The look he gave me when speaking about Marcus (like the look of quasi-disgust after tasting some perfect food, maybe) communicated that being around this man might change my life forever.After hearing Marcus’ angelic playing for the first time, I spent my last semesters at Oberlin following Marcus around like a puppydog, trying to soak up as much as possible. I would drive the 3 hours to Detroit every few weekends, where he allowed me to stay with him, travel with him to gigs, and occasionally let me sit in with the bands. I didn’t realize until later that the ease of mentorship I was experiencing had been felt by many before and after me. I would hear of 24-hour-long workshops he would hold in his house for budding Detroit musicians, of whom many have had very accomplished careers. He exudes a love for the music and care for serious students of the music that could be compared to an uncorrupted spiritual leader.Marcus Belgrave is a revelation as a trumpet player. The notes bounce out of his horn as if they are coming from all around the room. His rhythmic sense is one of a kind. He finds the nooks and crannies of the beat and massages them effortlessly. He (as Monk once suggested in a note) makes the drummer sound good. His ears for harmony are unmatched. He stopped thinking about what the chords are a long time ago, and masterfully improvises (truly improvises!) beautiful melodies, worthy of study themselves, utilizing all the chord extensions at one’s disposal. He has his own voice. He maintains this voice across any genre. I have heard him play dixieland, R&B, free jazz, modal jazz, and the deepest bebop you will ever be around, and he sounds simultaneously like he himself might have invented those styles, and unmistakably like himself. At a time when music is conveniently commodified into categories, he lives beyond them.I am lucky beyond words to have become close with him, to share him with many as an aesthetic role model, and you are lucky to get to hear him. We all say, “THANK YOU MARCUS BELGRAVE!”, and hopefully this can return some portion of the joy he has spread in his life. by Trumpeter/Composer Greg Glassman
Marcus Belgrave: Yeah, Greg, this sound like it’s going to be a great project that you’re embarking on here and it seems like I’m going to be happy to be a part of this…in fact, I’m gonna be happy to be a part of anything right now. (laughs)
Greg Glassman: What is your first music memory? 

MB: My very first music memory? Besides when my father taught me the bugle, I would say my first memory is I heard the Dizzy Gillespie band…I think I was about 4 years old at that time, and they rehearsed the saxophone section in my cousin Cecil’s (Cecil Payne) basement in Brooklyn. It wasn’t really the basement it was the second floor.

GG: What do you remember thinking about that?

MB: Well, I thought it was the greatest thing ever, and of course Max Roach…this might have been a different time…Max roach played a paradiddle on my head and when they had a break or whatever…when they were gone I was messin’ with the drums. When he got back he said, “Oh you like those drums?” and he played a paradiddle on top of my head.

GG: You also told me you remembered hearing Tadd Dameron’s band in Atlantic City, right?

MB: Oh yeah…well that was when I was a little older…I was about 6 or 7 then. Wow..6,7…maybe 8…I have to piece that together because…although I can see them…I do know that Clifford Brown AND Johnny Coles were in that band, and I had to stay in the car outside of the club, and I didn’t know til later that it was Tadd Dameron Band. Oh yeah there was another guy from Philadelphia named Johnny Lynch and I think he was in that band. Then, I found out later Tadd Dameron used to hang out in my hometown of Chester and I had met him…then, after I found out who he was, I said to myself, “What is he doing is Chester?” (laughs).

GG: And did you already play trumpet at that time?

MB: Well my father gave me a trumpet when I was 6 and a half, for Christmas, and he stared teaching me trumpet. But like I said he had started teaching me bugle calls when I was about 4.

GG: And so your father played trumpet as a hobby or professionally?

MB: Oh he was a bugler in the second World War…he was in the British army, and came through Panama when they were building the Panama Canal, and that’s how he came to the U.S. I don’t think he ever got his citizenship…he was from Barbados. He may have…I think he may have but when I was growing up he didn’t have it.

GG: OK. Who’s someone you learned music from?

MB: Well, my dad…and Cecil Payne. Cecil turned me on to bebop. First I heard Dizzy, and he said, “Well Dizzy’s great”, but then he put on Miles and the first thing I learned was, “My Old Flame”…and Sonny Rollins was on that recording.

GG: And you were in love with the music from the very beginning?

MB: From the very beginning. When I head it…that was me. (laughs) And I was just talking to a student about that–you learn music mainly through your ears…you have to hear it first. Eyes are something but ears are direct to your heart. Yeah, so that’s the first learning situation…from the ears to the heart. And I remember hearing Charlie Parker, on records of course…and I hate to say this, but I did not like Charlie Parker when I first heard him. It took a little growing on me. You know…he had so much to say (laughs).

GG: Though the years, who have you had a close musical rapport with?

MB: Well, I would say Ray Charles. Mainly because of his ears. When he heard me…I played with him in Witchita Falls, Texas…one of the trumpet players was going home to visit his father who was ill, and that was how I got the chance to play in the band. This was 3 months before I actually got the job, but for me, when Ray had heard me…he had another fellow in mind. But he wanted to form a relationship…and so he came to my hometown and stayed for a whole month! I met him in the end of October and he came to Chester in January, and I joined the band in February…my birthday was February 8th, and it was right around that time.

GG: What year was that?

MB: It as…1955. Well…I think Charlie Parker died in March of 1955…I remember those emotions clearly. Well…close relationships were hard to find because was so young. My son is…before he really even started playing he would go up to everyone and say, “I’m Marcus Belgrave’s son!” (laughs) So…he got to know everybody. And I guess…I wasn’t as outgoing as that, but I would get close to whoever I could hear in person…I ‘d get close to ’em.

GG: So you didn’t have many close relationships, but you’ve a lot of good relationships.

MB: Good relationships and contacts. The first band I sat in with was the guitar player who was…Art Tatum’s guitar player…Tiny Grimes. Was it Tiny Grimes? Yeah, Tiny Grimes. He came through town…Chester was a bubbling center…Did you ever come to Chester?

GG: No, but you’ve told me about how it was a real place that musicians came to.

MB: Oh they came to Chester…it was a town that built and repaired ships there. We had this place called the Sun shipyard..Ships would come to the yard and get repaired there…and the navy was in my hometown all the time. And so there was a lot entertainment there and a lot of clubs. There was one corner, 5th and Edgemont which was only a block and a half from my house where they had jazz on every corner…it would be on one corner, Tiny Grimes, on the other corner I even heard Coltrane…the was another guy, Coachville Harris. People would come from Philadelphia and New York to Chester to party because if your close to the war machine…there’s a lot of money flowing through there. I made my money shining shoes…

GG: What to do you look for in a rhythm section?

MB: Oh boy (laughs)…solidarity and communication between each other. That’s the first thing you gotta be able to do, and Lawrence Williams…I learned a lot from him ’cause he could groove together with the rhythm section like nobody I know. He’d have them on point…the piano and bass…in fact, Geri Allen is so dynamic…she a rhythm king, I call her. She glues herself to the drummer and plays that rhythm like nobody’s business. And of course bass players always key in to the drummer…and so when you have that kind of a relationship (with the rhythm section), you just float.

GG: So you’ve lived through many phases of society and the music. Was there an era or a phase that spoke to you the most?

MB: (laughs) That’s a good question. Like you say…I’ve had a lot relationships, and sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate where the best situation to play is. When I was in the service, after finishing basic training in San Antonio, I was stationed in Wichita Falls, Texas, and that was like leaving heaven and going to hell. There was no music anywhere around–at least I didn’t know it til later. Right when I thought I was about to go crazy with no music or anything, I met this woman, and she said, “Just hold on. My husband’s coming back and I want you to meet him and he’ll take you around.”  And so sure enough, this was the guy who I learned more about how to play from…I didn’t realize it at that time. His name was John Hardee. And so his wife was absolutely right…he took me around, and he could make the worst rhythm section sound good (laughs). He notes the notes that would put them on point…he had so much facility, but he knew how to use it so well…so he would make the audience feel the same way. He could be playing for all redneck type people, and he’d turn them around. That’s where I really started learning to play in the chords…i didn’t know what the chords were…I knew the 7ths and you know the letters…but I learned that from him becasue he would grab those notes, and he’d make you feel good.

GG: And this was what year?

MB: This was ’55 or ’56. And when he came to town, boy…and he took me to Dallas…and before that he lived in New York. And I remember I asked James Moody about him one time, and he said, “Oh yeah, John Hardee”. In fact, he kind of reminds me of Moody. He had his own sound. He took me and I met James Cray, and Bobby Bradford…and Leroy Cooper who played with Ray Charles. Those three were playing in a club in Dallas. And then I met Red Garland. He took me to all places that were paramount in the music in Dallas, and Dallas was a swingin’ little town. And And I just happen to be walking to get something to eat and I walked by this club, when I heard Charlie Parker coming out the door, and I turned around and went in the club…and I didn’t see nobody, like when you walk into a dark club from outside you can’t see…so I went directly to the jukebox, and it was not the jukebox, and it was coming from the stage, and it was Willie Smith. And there wasn’t no people in there–just the band. I guess it was early. So I went to this club every chance I could get. Anyway, John Hardee was really how I learned to play. I play, I was copying Dizzy solos, and Miles’ solos, but that’s how I learned how to play myself.

GG: What is a common mistake made by younger musicians?

MB: Oh, I’ll have to think about that one.

GG: Ok, we can come back to it or skip it.

MB: Yeah, we’ll come back to that one.

GG: Are there particular tonalities or chord sequences you find yourself thinking about or working on?

MB: Well…not really. My main approach to composition…Well I learned from Lawrence Williams…he would either set up the changes first, and find a melody, or set up the melody first, and then find changes. A lot of times he would take the letters of a person’s name, and use those notes, and somehow he would find a melody that fit that person perfectly.

GG: I never heard that before.

MB: Every time it would come out perfect. He would work it, and work it, and finally come up with the melody that suited their personality.

GG: I was more just wondering if there were chord changes or songs you continue to work on.

MB: No, not really. The only time I do that is when I come across a difficult set of changes. You hear a lot of young cats now who have worked Giant Steps into original songs, and so they have a patternistic approach to the improvising. And that seems to be how they decide whether they can play or not. And that goes back to that question you asked about young musicians–that’s what I hear in their playing. Not so much the melody, but into patterns. And it seems like that’s what they’re teaching in the schools–patternistic playing. Which is great. I’m not knocking it, but I like the melodic approach more than anything, and get more feeling from the melodic approach. I like stretching out with modality…with the modes–you can expand your hearing and directions…I like to advocate the fact that you can open up your mind through the modes, and also as you do so, develop your inner soul in relation to the creation of melody. Yeah, cause to me that tells me more about yourself. All the mathematical whatever…everybody gets into that. I try to get my son to learn as many melodies as you can, which will help you develop your heart. The melody is the first thing people hear, and you can’t take yourself away from the people, the listener. I know we have a lot of intellectual listers these days with the jazz music, but the art of jazz is through the melodies, and to allow people to hear what you’re playing and feel it. I kind of proud of my little 15 year-old. You’re gonna have to get a chance to hear him, man. I also have to give credit to his mother–he’s been going to jazz concerts since he was two years old.

GG: I remember him playing drums when he was about 3 along with Monk records.

MB: Right (laughs). Boy, I’m sayin’…he quit playing drums when he was 4.

GG: These days a lot of younger musicians get confused about how jazz is relevant in today’s world. Some people feel jazz is dead, or that it was relevant for a certain culture and time, and so now that time has passed.

MB: Oh yeah, no way.

GG: Right, so what do you think about all that?

MB: Well, I gonna tell you, I just got XM radio in this new car I just bought, and I’m hearing a lot of old stuff, and a lot of new stuff, and there’s a direct correlation between them…and the old stuff seem to be more from the heart, mainly the heart and the social aspect of where the country was when that music was popular. Very popular. And with the new stuff, the young kids, the new breed–you hear this educational thing…you can tell it’s coming out of college. All of these young musicians are very schooled musicians. But they don’t get the opportunity to play in situations where they’re playing for people. And they’re more or less playing for themselves. And so it’s a difference when you’re playing for audiences and when your in the street or on a recording, and have all this technology going for you. It’s a bit different. But I don’t knock it because it’s a new world, you know. And I think the people in this new world will eventually catch on to what they are. But to me it’s still a big problem–not playing for people. Playing for themselves, especially in jazz. I guess that’s why they say jazz is dead but it’s not dead. It’s been reviving itself and reshaping itself. If it comes back to where the people are actually sitting and listening, that’s the hard part of making it a part of the new world. There’s so much going on in the world now, and with the education…there’s a lot of people playing music, but you can’t identify them. They almost all sound the same. The real music–you have to go back to the real masters. But no, it’s not dead. This disc jockey–this was back in 70s when I released my first album on Tribe Records. I had heard Wynton and Branford in New Orleans–they were 14 and 15, 16…so they amazed me. They played all this great stuff with just the two of them and the drummer. The bass player didn’t show up and the guitar player didn’t show up. So it was just the drums, trumpet and tenor. And they play like they had a whole rhythm section (laughs), just the 3 of them. So when I got back to Detroit I was raving about ’em, and then a year later they put out their first record, and I told this DJ he should hear these guys, and he said, “Oh no that’s old jazz”. And I said, “It might be old but that’s the real deal”. He wouldn’t play it…until Wynton won the grammy. Anyway, this music takes you into some different areas, boy. I’ve got a couple students coming from Barbados tomorrow. Did I tell you about them?

GG: Yeah.

MB: Yeah so 2 of these students are coming to stay with me for a couple weeks during the jazz festival.

GG: Very nice.

MB: Yeah, one of them is a drummer and the other is a trumpet player, and so…that’ll be a revelation for me.

GG: Yeah, well thanks, man.

MB: Yeah so you can end this anyway you want (laughs).

Quotes from amazing artists that Marcus Belgrave has mentored:

From Geri Allen:

“Marcus Belgrave is a great artist with the pure spirit of innovation in every note he plays. He is also a mentor to myself, many other fortunate Detroit musicians. A true Cultural Hero, I have been greatly favored to know him, and call him my friend.”

From Sullivan Fortner:

“I met Marcus Belgrave my freshman year at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio. Since that time, Mr. Belgrave has been a musical father to me. Both he and his wife, Joan, have nurtured me and taught  me so much about life and music. Like many others he has come in contact with, I have been effected by him both personally and musically. He is truly a role model for me!!!”

From Arnold Lee:

“Marcus is one of the most kind, inspiring, brilliant and gentle souls I have ever met. When I was in School we would spend hours and hours teaching me songs, music theory, telling amazing stories and everything else after class. that’s the kind of person Marcus is. I can sit and listen to Marcus play and talk for hours he really is awesome. Marcus has inspired me to be myself, word hard and enjoy life.”