Jazz is an important part of America’s musical history. Furthermore, jazz and Detroit historically have been linked, where legendary giants made the city a required stop in their musical tours over the years — some even got their starts there as well. The MSR in an occasional series will feature conversations with several jazz artists who appeared at the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival.
This week, we profile three ladies of jazz.
Before her late 1960s pop classic “Band of Gold” hit the charts, Freda Payne sang with big bands such as Duke Ellington’s. Barbara Morrison over the years performed with the likes of Ray Charles and Tony Bennett. Joan Belgrave’s classically trained voice has allowed her to do jazz and blues, but her roots are in gospel.
These three ladies of jazz all were born in the Detroit area.
“I listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. I had a chance to sing with Duke Ellington,” worked with both Quincy Jones and Count Basie at age 19, and “I worked a lot with Lionel Hampton,” explains Payne, whose first record deal was with Impulse, a jazz label, before she reached 20 years of age. Berry Gordy once wanted to sign Payne, but her mom didn’t like the contract he offered to her young daughter. “My career started out early at age 17,” she notes.
Who hasn’t performed with Barbara Morrison, whose legends list includes Dizzy
Gillespie, Ray Charles, Terence Blanchard, Nancy Wilson and Mel Torme? She once recorded a live album at the Dakota in Minneapolis.
“My father saw I had aspirations to be a singer” and advised her to move from Detroit to California to pursue a singing career, Morrison recalls. But if she has any regrets, it’s that she didn’t take her father’s advice to look up one of his former classmates when she gets there. It wasn’t until decades later with her career clearly established that she finally met Berry Gordy, she admits.
“We always had music playing in the house,” says Belgrave, who started studying classical voice at age six, a year after she began singing lead at her church choir and pursuing her singing career after her sophomore year at the University of Michigan in the late 1970s.
She also worked behind the scenes at a recording studio, quickly learned the music business, got married and raised her three children, and stopped singing for 15 years in the meantime. She began performing again when her children became teenagers.
“I tell people it’s never too late to have a dream deferred,” says Belgrave — she and her husband Marcus Belgrave co-run a jazz development workshop in Detroit. Joan also sings with the Motown Legends Gospel Choir. “I sing. I’m a singer. I’m going to sing what touches my heart,” notes Belgrave. “If I can do that and make the audience [hear that], then I am doing what I’m supposed to do.”
When asked if her students fully know her place in Detroit music history, Belgrave told the MSR, “Later on they’ll know, and it’s okay. You have to give back because we are who we are because of the people that nurtured us and encouraged us.”
This sentiment is shared by Morrison, who in 2011 opened the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles to provide mentors to young musicians.
Payne said she temporarily switched to pop, where she was a Grammy nominee for “Band of Gold,” and later had a second hit with “Bring the Boys Home,” simply because she wanted “a hit.”
“Music connects” all three women, says Belgrave. They proudly point out that they all once worked with the legendary Ella Fitzgerald.
“She was my inspiration,” says Payne, who did a one-woman Fitzgerald tribute show on stage for nearly nine years.
All three vocalists say they owe their musical beginnings and subsequent success to the Motor City.
“I fell in love with the sound of this whole city,” says Morrison.
“Detroit is where I got my education, musically and academically,” adds Payne. “I always have to come back home. When I had tremendous success or surge in my career, it always was connected to Detroit. I can never forget Detroit.”
Detroit is a city that’s great and renowned for “nurturing” musicians, concludes Belgrave.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.