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Dowagiac Daily News
October 13, 2008
Actual Story

'Motown jazz' helping turn Franz into a festival

By JOHN EBY / Dowagiac Daily News
Monday, October 13, 2008 10:49 AM EST

Marcus Belgrave, Ray Charles' longtime trumpeter, had an engagement last November which prevented him from taking part in Franz Jackson's 95th birthday gala at Dowagiac Middle School Performing Arts Center.

Belgrave made a video greeting for Jackson, "but he never did see it," Belgrave recalled by phone Friday from Detroit. "He passed that morning" last May.

The tribute instead played at Mr. Jackson's memorial service.

The saxophonist's daughter, Michelle Jewell of Niles, is organizing another special concert at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, in her father's memory "and to build the foundation for an annual (multi-day) jazz festival in his name that we intend to kick off next year in southwestern Michigan."

Belgrave, who Aug. 14 was named Detroit's Jazz Master Laureate by testimonial resolution of the City Council and the Dr. Charles Wright Museum of African American History, will be bringing his seven-piece ensemble, including his wife, Joan, a vocalist, and saxophonist/clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, a fourth-generation New Orleans musician, to Dowagiac for this special event.

A raspy chuckle begins his answer to the question of where his career crossed Jackson's, since he lived in Dowagiac and played around Chicagoland.

"I knew Franz since 1985, maybe before that. Before I stopped smoking," says Belgrave, a Chester, Pa., native.

"My manager, a banjo player, had us play together at a series of concerts in Windsor, Ontario," just across the Detroit River in Canada.

"I was still in my late 50s at the time," he said. "Franz was considered a couple of generations ahead of me, but it worked so well that they made a recording out of it. It was such a joy to meet Franz. He was such a natural musician, a natural jazz player. I was cut from the same type of rug, so to speak. He got in touch with me just before he passed."

"His job on earth was well done," Belgrave eulogized Jackson. "His message was in good hands with the people he involved himself with," such as the young trumpet player Yves Francois.

"His spirit taught a lot of young musicians how to become a part of the music - including myself," Belgrave said.

"Every time he picked up his instrument, he made people happy. I got that from him."

Whether Jackson called the tune or "just started playing" and the other musicians had to try to stay with him, "We had a good time because of Franz and the things he laid down, like to complement each other and don't get in each other's way."

Although Belgrave performs a critically-acclaimed tribute to Louis Armstrong, "Motown Jazz" is how his Dowagiac concert is being billed.

"Detroit always has been the Mecca of the music world," he said, whether it's the Motown soul sound, the rock of Bob Seger or the rapping of Eminem and Kid Rock. Throw in rhythm and blues, country and funk, and that "melting pot" attracted Belgrave.

He joined Charles' band in February 1958 right out of the service in Wichita Falls, Texas.

"I was depressed in the service because there was not the quality of musicians I could learn from. It was dead except for jam sessions on Sundays, when all the cowboys came out," he said.

"When I came here, I had been traveling all over the country, looking for a place to stop. I'd been on the road doing one-nighters for the better part of five years. When I decided I wanted to land somewhere, Detroit won out over Dallas and Washington. Detroit was centrally located. And Detroit produced more recording jazz musicians than any other place I knew about. Most of the musicians in rhythm sections were from Detroit."

Belgrave had the good fortune to meet Motown founder Berry Gordy in the early '60s and "get right in on the ground floor" as a staff trumpeter with his label.

"Berry Gordy was on his way to being a millionaire. The Four Tops started as a jazz vocal group. Detroit always had a strong music program in the schools back then."

When he met Stevie Wonder, "Little" was still in front of the 11-year-old prodigy's name.

Belgrave said his hometown, Chester, during World War II was a thriving industrial town, from shipbuilding to Ford Motor assembly and Scott paper plants.

Years later when he visited the Pearl Harbor museum in Hawaii he was "blown away" to see that an anchor salvaged from one of the ships Japan's attack sank had been made in Chester, Pa.

Belgrave said his father taught him to play when he was about 4 years old, starting with bugle calls. He had been a bugler in World War I and hailed from Barbados, British West Indies.

Marcus was the oldest, with three brothers who played instruments and a sister who sang in their family band. A cousin played with Dizzy Gillespie's band, so "Dizzy was my first mentor, just from hearing him. His music turned me on."

He met Joan when "I heard her singing one night. She ignited my interest with her stage presence. She has such a strong voice for a little person. She had just come from California, even though she's from Ann Arbor. She had her own CD, so I bought one and listened to it. It was good. She was really professional and had it together. I told her I was going to take her under my wing," he laughed.

More recently, at the request of Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Belgrave represented Detroit as part of a Lincoln Center Motor City Jazz Masters Tribute, which included Yusef Lateef, Curtis Fuller, Charles McPherson and Ron Carter.

He is a professor of music at Oberlin, Ohio, University, and co-founded the Jazz Studies Program at The Detroit Metro Arts Complex and the Jazz Development Workshop in Detroit.

Belgrave's career has also intersected with such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Aretha Franklin (1968-1970), Dowagiac visitor Clark Terry and Marvin Gaye.

Belgrave said Mingus cracked he'd have "the greatest band in the world if I could get Marcus Belgrave out of Detroit."

Belgrave said his Jazz Master Laureate title "came along at a weird time. Now we're working out the kinks," since it comes with a budget. "I've been doing a lot with youth for 35 years," he said. "With this new award, I hope to be able to continue the kind of work I do with a more formal edutainment program - education and entertainment. It's been missing for so long" in the Motor City.

Franz Jackson started his professional career at 16 with boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons and played with virtually every renowned jazz great, including Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Noone, Earl Hines, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne.

His resume boasted such credits as repeat command performances for the King of Sweden, a 2005 American Heritage Jazz Series honoree as one of the Greatest Living Jazz Tenor Saxophonists, an appearance on "The Prairie Home Companion" with Garrison Keillor and an interview with 2002 Dowagiac visitor Studs Terkel for Steppenwolf Theater's improvised music series. In 2006, Jackson received a nomination for the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowshiop and received the Jazz Institute of Chicago Walter Dyett Lifetime Achievement Award.

Jackson continued his career until shortly before his death, appearing at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in May 2007.

Last November, his 95th birthday was celebrated in Dowagiac with an almost three-hour gala concert featuring nearly two dozen musicians from across the country.

The benefit raised more than $7,000, which was donated to four non-profit organizations focused on arts education, preservation and promotion.

The Nov. 8 concert is sponsored by Wood Fire Italian Trattoria and Encore School of the Arts, a new performing arts school in the former Lincoln Community Center, which is expanding to offer classes in music, dance and the arts to area children. Tickets start at $25.

An afterglow dinner reception will follow the concert at Wood Fire, with Chicago vocalist and Franz Jackson protege Lisa Roti and her quartet performing.

Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling the Wood Fire at (269) 782-0007. Visit Jackson's Web site or for more information.

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