The University Record, February 4, 2002

ISR MLK celebration at Bird of Paradise

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Farley (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)
Jazz and Detroit proved to be a winning combination in an innovative celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Bird of Paradise Club on Main Street on Tuesday evening, Jan. 29. Sponsored by the Institute for Social Research, the event attracted a standing room only town and gown crowd of more than 150 people, including former U-M regent Nellie Varner, who listened to a brief presentation by U-M–Dearborn sociologist Lars Bjorn and veteran jazz commentator Jim Gallert, and a live performance by the George Benson Quintet, with vocals by Shahida Nurullah. The event also featured a selection of hush puppies, rice and beans, seafood gumbo and cole slaw from neighboring Zydeco Restaurant.

“Not only does this event celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, it also celebrates the passion and creativity of African-Americans and their culture,” said ISR director David L. Featherman, who offered opening remarks and introduced sociologist Reynolds Farley, an expert on the social history of segregation in the Detroit area. “For many years, Jim Crow controlled the Detroit entertainment industry as well as other areas,” Farley noted. But a vibrant Black music scene developed as the city grew, with Black musicians melding African traditions with the American experience to create the form called jazz.

Long before Barry Gordy started his operation in 1959, the Detroit jazz scene made the city one of the country’s major entertainment centers, according to Bjorn and Gallert, co-authors of “Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960,” published recently by the U-M Press. For the book, they conducted interviews with more than 90 Detroit area jazz musicians, and collected rare photographs of the players and places that made up the city’s early jazz scene. For their presentation, Bjorn and Gallert reviewed the highlights of pre-Motown jazz in Detroit, starting in the 1920s, tracing the emergence of dance bands, blues, R&B and be-bop first along Hastings Street, then at the elegant Greystone Ballroom, and finally at clubs like the Blue Bird Inn.

The George Benson Quintet took the stage just after 6 p.m., launching into a mellow rendition of the Gershwin classic, “But Not For Me,” with George Benson on tenor sax, Dwight Adams on trumpet, Tad Weed on piano, Will Austin on bass and George Davidson on drums. Vocalist Shahida Nurullah joined the group, ending the first set with “Moonlight in Vermont.” As some members of the audience drifted out into the cool drizzle of a moonlit Michigan evening, others waiting in the back of the Bird quickly took their seats.

The 15th annual U-M Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. symposium, “Honoring Challenging and Living,” represents what associate vice provost John Matlock calls, “by far the largest and most comprehensive observation of MLK day in the country, especially among colleges and universities.”

While we can’t possibly cover them all, The Record will continue to feature many of the 65 events spanning Jan. 7–Feb. 28, with stories on topics ranging from the roots of soul food to culturally sensitive research.