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Detroit Jazz: The Legacy Continues

The Lives & Spirit of Black Jazz Musicians

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Detroit Jazz: The Legacy Continues highlights Detroit Jazz Musicians who also made an impact on the local, national, and international Jazz Scene.

Wright Museum staff built Detroit Jazz as a companion to the Jazz Greats exhibit, focusing on the Detroit artists who have lived and worked among us. Amid racial segregation, these musicians expressed themselves and offered solace and escape through their music.

This exhibition highlights a few of the many Detroit musicians and venues that influenced jazz music.

Organized in five sections, the stories capture the lives and spirit of Black jazz musicians who have contributed to the genre.

Detroit Jazz

Join us at the Wright to celebrate a few of the many Detroit jazz musicians and venues that influenced jazz music.

An Introduction to Detroit Jazz

In 1975, William “Billy” Taylor, Ph.D., declared: “Jazz is America's classical music.” Dr. Taylor recognized jazz as an American original music genre, identifiable by its unique rhythms and improvisations. New Orleans, Louisiana, is considered the cultural melting pot where West African rhythms, southern spirituals, the Blues, and European compositions were combined to create jazz. Black musicians used jazz to communicate their experiences of inequality, pain, artistry, joy, racial oppression, and spirituality.

In the 19th century, Black musicians began leaving the South to find jobs. They spread jazz throughout the United States, including such cities as Chicago, Detroit, and New York. During the 1920s, Black musicians in Detroit, including Theodore Finney, Fred S. Stone, and Benjamin Shook, dominated the society band scene. These musicians expressed themselves through early jazz genres like ragtime, swing, boogie-woogie, bebop, marching, and big band music.

By the 1940s, Detroit’s Black communities, including Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, offered musicians and jazz lovers numerous places to play and listen to jazz. Amid racial segregation, Detroiters found solace and escape through the music. Today, jazz remains at the center of R&B, hip-hop, and rap, and serves as a tool for many marginalized groups.