Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave is based in Detroit but performs and is recognized internationally. He has played with many of the biggest names in jazz and R&B, including pianist/vocalist Ray Charles, bassist Charles Mingus, saxophonist Hank Crawford, vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Belgrave is a charter member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and he continues to perform and record regularly with musicians in Detroit, New York, and around the world, several of whom are his former students.
Belgrave was born in the Philadelphia suburb of Chester, Pennsylvania, on June 12, 1936, into a family that eventually included ten children. His father, who worked at a steel mill and played baritone saxophone, taught his son to play the bugle, as he had done during World War I. By the time Belgrave was six years old he was playing the trumpet, and when he turned seven, his father began taking him to concert band rehearsals. "Each week he would sit me in a different section of the band—the french horns, the trombones, the trumpets, whatever, and he'd tell me to see if I could hear what all these different sections were doing. So I got a good amalgamation of what was going on in an orchestra," Belgrave told David Sowd, a reporter for Cleveland's Plain Dealer. Belgrave's siblings played instruments as well, and his mother sang, so the family formed a band that performed at teas and church functions.
Belgrave's early exposure to jazz came during visits to his cousin Cecil Payne, a New York-based saxophone player who held rehearsals at his apartment with such mainstays of the bebop era as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Max Roach. Payne also exposed his cousin to the post-bop music of trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Belgrave played briefly with a vaudeville outfit in Wilmington, Delaware, where he was joined by legendary trumpeter Clifford Brown. Brown, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 25, introduced Belgrave to the concept of playing off the score. His playing "opened up a whole new world for me in terms of improvisation," Belgrave recalled in a 2003 interview with W. Kim Heron for the Detroit Metro Times. "From then on, my ears were wide open."
Toured with Ray Charles
After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Belgrave joined R&B pianist/vocalist Ray Charles's orchestra, playing with them off and on through 1962. Belgrave appeared on Charles's 1958 album Ray Charles at Newport. The tour schedule was hectic but the learning experience was invaluable, Belgrave later recalled. "That was a school in itself," he told Heron, of his time with Charles. "He had such ears and such soul that it was like dealing with God." During his time off, Belgrave freelanced with several New York musicians, including saxophonist and Detroit native Yusef Lateef, and listened to Mingus's Jazz Workshop. He later recorded with Mingus, who once reportedly remarked that if Belgrave would join his outfit he'd have the best band in the world.
Tired of the exhausting touring schedule, Belgrave relocated to Detroit in 1963, seeking work as a studio musician at Motown. "This was just a natural place for me to come. This was probably the only place in the country where music was number one," Belgrave told Heron. "[Motown founder] Berry [Gordy] drew the greatest people in the industry, the greatest black people. This became the mecca of the music world as far as I was concerned." Belgrave soon returned to Chester, however, to take care of his father, who was ill. While back East, he played with singer Lloyd Price, trumpeters John Hunt and Jimmy Owens, and vibraphonist Hampton. He then joined saxophonist and Charles alum Hank Crawford's band, where he met Detroit saxophonist/clarinetist Wendell Harrison. Belgrave next worked with blues singer Bobby "Blue" Bland and then became R&B singer Jerry Butler's musical director.
Returned to Detroit
He returned to Detroit in 1967, after his father died. He found Motown much changed upon his return. "We didn't even know who we recorded for, a production line, you know…. They really built an empire out of doing that kind of stuff," he told Alwyn and Laurie Lewis in an interview published in Cadence in 2000. Yet Belgrave found the jazz scene invigorating. "Detroit has a wide diversity of peoples, from all over the country, because of the factories," he explained. "So the factories drew people not only from all over the country, but all over the world, so you have the diversity of music there … cultures, you know what I'm saying. And they find their places, they turn up somewhere. So the music … there are all kinds of bands: society the [pianist Duke] Ellington thing, everything. You might have to go far and wide to find it, but there were little sections, pockets of the city where you could hear certain kinds of music." When Belgrave was hospitalized in Montreal in 1970 for a serious thyroid condition, musicians from around the city staged a benefit to raise money for him.
Continuted to Grow and Progress
Belgrave and Harrison reunited in the early 1970s to form, along with trumpeter Phil Ranelin, pianist Harold McKinney, and others, the musical collective Tribe. Dedicated to the promotion of improvisational jazz and a growing black political consciousness, the collective members recorded with one another, performed together, and ran a record label and magazine. "It gave us the opportunity to expand ourselves. We believed in what we had to do," Belgrave told Heron. He released his first solo LP, 1975's Gemini II, on the Tribe label. The album was reissued by the British label Soul Jazz in 2004. During the 1970s Belgrave also founded the Jazz Development Workshop, an incubator for young aspiring jazz musicians. One of his earliest students was acclaimed jazz pianist Geri Allen, with whom Belgrave has recorded and performed frequently. Belgrave later went on to become a founding faculty member in the Jazz Studies Program at Oakland University in suburban Rochester, Michigan.
For the Record …
Born on June 12, 1936, in Chester, PA.
Freelance musician, 1960–; member of pianist/vocalist Ray Charles's touring orchestra, 1958–63; worked with drummer Max Roach and bassist Charles Mingus, 1960s; studio musician, 1960s; co-founder, Tribe collective, 1970s; music director, New Detroit Jazz Ensemble, 1970s; founder, Jazz Development Workshop, 1970s; bandleader, beginning in 1980s; recorded with pianists McCoy Tyner and Geri Allen, drummer Lawrence Williams, saxophonists Newman and David Murray, pianist Horace Tapscott, George Gruntz's Concert Jazz Band and others, 1980s and 1990s; member, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, 1992–; founding member, Oakland University Jazz Studies program; visiting professor, Oberlin College, 2001–; member, The Detroit Experiment, 2003.
Addresses: Office—Oberlin College, 180 W. Lorain St., Oberlin, OH 44074, phone: (440) 775-6675.
Belgrave continued to work as a bandleader and freelance musician during the 1980s and 1990s, recording with saxophonist and Charles alum David "Fathead" Newman and pianist McCoy Tyner, among others. He received an Arts Midwest Jazz Master award in 1991, and in 1992 he accepted trumpeter Wynton Marsalis's offer to become a charter member of the New York-based Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He also played in the Tonight Show band under the direction of Marsalis's brother, Branford. He received a Michigan Governor's Arts Award in 1994. Belgrave released three albums as a bandleader in the 1990s: Working Together on the DJM label in 1992; Live at Kerrytown Concert House, Vol. 1, also on DJM, in 1993; and Urban Griots on the Dr. Moto label in 1998. In the 2000s Belgrave developed "In the Tradition of Louis Armstrong," a touring show that recreates the music of the late jazz master. "This band is the real deal, and I can't help but think that Louis would have approved," wrote Rick Justice in a review for the Charleston Daily Mail. "There's little hint of nostalgia to this performance, just a masculine vigor and a passionate worldliness," wrote Kevin Lynch in the Madison Capital Times.
Belgrave branched out yet again in 2003, appearing with several other Detroit jazz, techno and hip-hop artists on The Detroit Experiment, co-produced by renowned techno artist and producer Carl Craig. The recording features a new version of Belgrave's funk-laden composition "Space Odyssey," which originally appeared on Gemini II. Belgrave became a visiting professor in the Jazz Studies Department at Oberlin College in Ohio in 2001.
Gemini II, Tribe, 1975; resissued, Soul Jazz, 2004.
Working Together, DJM, 1992.
Live at Kerrytown Concert House, Vol. 1, DJM, 1993.
(With Franz Jackson) Live at the Windsor Jazz Festival III, Parkwood, 1994.
Urban Griots, Dr. Moto, 1998.
(With The Detroit Experiment) The Detroit Experiment, Ropeadope, 2003.
Capital Times (Madison, WI), January 28, 2004.
Daily Mail (Charleston, WV), May 1995.
Metro Times (Detroit, MI), August 27, 2003.
"Marcus Belgrave," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 25, 2005).
"Marcus Belgrave," Grove Online, http://www.grovemusic.com (August 25, 2005).
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