What is the New Motown Sound?
Detroit's Black music scene may be more diverse than anywhere else in the nation. But, while some artists have household names, others struggle just to be heard.
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Ife Sanchez Mora is the daughter of Francisco Mora, a widely respected Detroit-based Afro-Latin drummer/composer who performed with a long list of jazz royalty including Sun Ra, Max Roach, Marcus Belgrave and Kenny Cox.
Ife's mother, Teresa Mora, frequently performed with her husband at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. When Ife Mora was a youngster, she remembers being surrounded not just by music but by musicians—and learned from many of them. As she got older, she began experimenting with a variety of styles and was active in the Black punk-rock scene, as well as Detroit's techno scene.
"I learned a lot from (techno pioneer) Derrick May," she says.
But despite her family's deep Detroit roots and artistic legacy, Mora left Detroit six years ago, bound for New York City. Although not that enamored with New York as a place to live, she doesn't mention plans to move back here anytime soon. In fact, she'll be heading to Los Angeles later this year.
Still, her love for her birthplace (she grew up near McNichols and Schaefer roads) and its history is evident, and her smile brightens noticeably during a Saturday evening conversation at a Corktown hot spot when she recounts her performance at the Detroit Music Awards the previous day.
She talks about how proud she was to play on the Fillmore Detroit stage—and to be so warmly received by the hometown crowd. On her recent independently released album, "Fire Inside of Me," the raw, hard-edged song "Detroit Blues" incorporates the city's grit directly into its sound and lyrics.
"You know, back home, they breed 'em tough, yeah. You better not mess with a girl that's this rough," she says. "No matter what you may think of this town, you can't keep this girl from Detroit down."
She adds, "I do hope to be able to come back and perform here more often."
Mike Malis, a young jazz pianist raised in Grosse Pointe who recently graduated with a BFA from the University of Michigan in 2011 after studying under his mentor Geri Allen, currently is anchored in the Detroit jazz scene. He also studied with master trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and pianist Bess Bonnier. As a non-Black practitioner of what many would characterize as Black music, he offers a unique perspective.
"My ancestors were all Greek immigrants, all of whom came to America sometime between the 1910s and the 1950s," he says. "The question of what qualifies as Black music is a question that's being hotly debated right now. I play Black music, but I myself am not Black. Does that make me a Black musician? That doesn't seem quite right to me.
"This music that once had clear racial and socioeconomic boundaries simply does not anymore. Perhaps we need another word to define this globalizing art form of ours."
As for Detroit, specifically, the music landscape is a scrambled scene—but one he embraces wholeheartedly.
"At this point, I have to say that Detroit is pretty off the map in terms of the music industry," Malis explains. "For that, you have to be in New York, L.A. or Nashville. Maybe Austin. But that's it. Everyone else is basically off the map.
"But Detroit is an amazing town to experience live music. Some of the best in the world, across genres, are here. That's why I'm here. The fact that the record industry isn't here gives me freedom to be experimental. The fact that there are amazing musicians here gives me the opportunity to grow."
Gisele Caver, a lifelong Detroiter and retired police sergeant, has been heavily involved in the city's music scene for years. She remembers her childhood days on Detroit's eastside, where it wasn't unusual to see a gathering of kids singing doo-wop under the street lights in front of her house as parents observed from the porch. She remembers dancing behind Edwin Starr at the 20 Grand Club with her cousin at the tender age of 13, and she recalls Sunday matinees at big clubs.
Later, as an adult, she managed Detroit jazz trumpeter Rayse Biggs' recording studio for 19 years—and also worked as business manager for David Myles and The Mylestones.
She currently operates Key of Gee, a local music and entertainment information website.
Like Phil Hale, she bemoans the shortage of performance venues where local artists can stretch out, grow and showcase new material—or simply perform in front of an appreciative crowd.
"From 1920 to 1970, there were approximately 120 jazz and blues clubs in southeast Michigan," she says, referencing Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert's 2001 book, "Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-1960." Today, the number of clubs offering live music is barely a handful, by comparison—and good luck trying to find local music on the radio.
"The thing that hurts me most about the industry is all these fabulous musicians—and nowhere for them to be heard. That hurts. WJZZ-FM (107.5) and WGPR-FM helped a lot of artists to break out, but that's gone now."
Still, Caver remains hopeful about Detroit's musical future when she considers such programs as "In Accord," founded by Al McKenzie, former musical director for The Temptations and a graduate of Interlochen Center for the Arts.
In Accord promotes musical opportunities for young musicians and regularly awards scholarships to Interlochen for the most promising youngsters. The Detroit Black Music Awards is another reason Caver feels hopeful. The DBMA has been held the first Sunday of every August at Bert's Warehouse Theatre in Eastern Market since 2009, when it was founded by vocalist Misty Love as a means to give more recognition to Detroit's Black artists—whom she felt were routinely overlooked by such high-profile events as the Detroit Music Awards.
"I think the Detroit Music Awards are just not aware of these people. They don't go where we go," says Love.
Take, for example, Bassist Ibrahim Jones, son of trumpet great Felton Jones and a 2012 DBMA "Bass Player of the Year" winner (as well as a nominee for "Musician of the Year" in 2011). A graduate of Cass Technical High School in Detroit—where he was honored as the top high school bassist in the state by the Michigan School Band & Orchestra Association—and Wayne State University, Jones has served as the bassist in Oprah Winfrey's Broadway hit show "The Color Purple," as well as "Rebirth of the Cool" and "Ain't Nothin' But the Blues."
He's also worked as music director for many Detroit plays, such as "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Sarah, Ella and Pops."
"The DMA is more centered around White rock 'n' roll, although more Blacks are getting recognized now," Love says. "They didn't know how to go in the 'hood and find these spots we've been going to for years."
Not that Love herself has been overlooked, having received one gold, six platinum and 10 diamond records for singing on the hit album "Devil Without a Cause," with Kid Rock, according to EmbarcoEntertainment.com.
"Everybody around the world thinks so highly of the Detroit music scene. We need to know what other people think of us.
"Detroit needs to recognize how other people are recognizing us. In other countries, we're up on a pedestal. We need to keep that legacy going."