Posted by: cctracker | April 16, 2014

Bert’s Marketplace in Detroit Offers Pilgrim Jazz Salvation

I came to Detroit for the first time on a Tuesday a few weeks ago, a sick man from St. Louis staying in a hotel in Greek Town across the street from a gambling casino open 24-7.

greektown-casino-detroit

My physical troubles I put down to something I ate or something I caught, but along with lingering nausea I arrived in the Motor City feeling lonesome and displaced, acutely aware of the sadness of the world and the hollow, empty places in my chest.

I was thinking about how more and more of our experiences are projected on screens, some tiny in our pockets but opening wide enough to swallow us up when we pull them out.

Image at videosforyouth.com

Image at videosforyouth.com

Others big as Kubrick’s monolith floating on the wall opposite our beds, pulling us irresistibly in.

Image at log24.com

Image at log24.com

I’d wanted to get out and see the city, maybe hear some music. But it’s hard to beat your fears as a solo pilgrim. Easy to make excuses when you’re still a little under the weather.

It’s impossible to capture feelings like these, but on a deeper level I’d say I was feeling weak before the spare demands of reality, of raw freedom, of God. With the obvious and compelling tasks of family and profession stripped away, the underlying demands of inner integrity, of the need to discipline one’s appetites and impulses comes to the foreground. The opportunity to become more loving and alive by way of silence and humility presents itself…and is refused. When a refusal like that takes hold of you, the abyss looms. I stop feeling like a person. And a terrible temptation arises to see other people merely as instruments of their biology and culture, not as agents, as givers and receivers, as spirits.

On the first night I tried to fight the good fight on physical and spiritual terms with phone calls to loved ones and a bowl of chicken soup in the Casino diner. Later, I was tired enough to sleep a few hours after channel surfing. On the second night, paper-thin walls made my own big screen the only place to hide from stereo porn-flicks playing on either side: one with some hideous sci-fi plot, the other with a screeching electronica soundtrack in a dissonant minor key.

By the third night, my last, I found a partner who was game for getting out and an opportunity to escape from my room, from my self-imposed spiritual prison cell: Jazz at a club called Cliff Bell’s. “Ten dollar cover and great music every night” said Janet the concierge at the hotel desk, her nighttime voice singing like a tenor sax.

But it was a misty night and my partner decided he was too tired. A date with the Sweet Sixteen was easy and available in his room. I didn’t begrudge him for a second. Anyway, I could still go. What a luxury! No one to have to talk to and a little ‘real Detroit’ to take in all by myself.

Nevertheless, I wavered. I still wasn’t feeling very well, right? A big bed in a suite room to myself was its own treat, wasn’t it? Gravity waves from the monolith’s tractor beam had me by the shoulders.

But I’d already spoken to the concierge. Had to at least save face by asking her if it was walkable.  An ugly night and $25 cab fare would be plenty of cover to bow out.

“The shuttle will take you there for free,” she sang. “Runs ’till midnight.”

“Great! I’ll just get my jacket.”

The line, tossed out as an excuse to get me out of there and back to the room, now created a magnetic field of its own: her expectations, the force of social indebtedness. Seemed I was going to lose to something stronger than myself one way or the other.

Why not just go? Preserve at least some of my dignity and maybe hear some good music. I let myself hope I might even hear Miles and Coltrane.

Shack was my shuttle driver. Said nice things about St. Louis. I could tell he was looking out for this pilgrim. Born and raised in Detroit, he spent early adult years in Chicago, then Phoenix. “Too hot,” he said. We navigated triple-wide streets crossing at oblique angles through a cityscape far surpassing St. Louis in scale and variety.

“Mature crowd at Bell’s,” Shack mused, the comment delivered with just enough hesitation to let me know that he didn’t entirely approve of the club, but not enough blatant disapproval to create discomfort for me. I tipped him, stepped out into the mist and walked up under the canopy of lights to go in.

dirty-bourbon-river-show-at-cliff-bells-2

“Closed for private party” the sign read. “Come see us again soon.”

Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” was playing inside. I leaned in to listen. A rich sound, maybe seven-eight pieces. I stepped out into the street, back into the mist. Shack was gone. The threat of the street felt heavier with every step I took further out from under the shelter of the canopy.

I walked back to the door, pulse rising, and went in, pretending not to see the sign. In doing so I experienced that miracle one sometimes feels going from outside to inside: in one moment I was damp, empty and afraid in the great, unprotected realm of the street. The next I was within a womb of mahogany, red velvet,  alcohol, money and the most wonderful and familiar jazz music I could have hoped for. The young maitre’d was suddenly there at my shoulder.

“Name’s Rosy,” he said. “Car people in here tonight.”

He was talking just loud enough for the two of us. “They come in here and spend a lot of money.”

I could feel the meaning of the words in the tone. He was letting me know I was OK– for a minute–and looking out for me.

“Just stepping in to hear Coltrane,” I said, stepping back out through the door. He followed.

I explained I was from St. Louis, trying to find some Jazz. He hung with me a while, passing a few minutes to set me at ease. “Can you get your ride to bring you over to Bert’s Marketplace? Good scene over there.” I made the call. Shack was only a few blocks away and said he would circle back soon. For the next few minutes, Rosy stepped in and out of the club to check on me.

Shack pulled up. I shook Rosy’s hand and stepped back into the shuttle van.  We got to talking again.

“Bert’s, eh? Well yeah, that’s good. Real different from this place.” He seemed uneasy again, but for different reasons.

“I keep sayin’ to people that what need down here is a couple real nice jazz clubs where folks can go to hear good music in a comfortable place.”

I tried to read between the lines. Was he saying there were a few fancy show places for the wealthy and tourists, but no real jazz clubs in safe neighborhoods for pilgrims, particularly white pilgrims? My thoughts went back to the pleasures of Frenchman street clubs in New Orleans. Tonight wasn’t shaping up to be anything close to that.

As we drove back downtown and then looped out toward the Detroit Farmers Market, he talked about growing up in Detroit, about rough years of decline and more recent years of reinvestment downtown.

“Of course all of these buildings down here are Dan Gilbert’s you know.” His tone was so definitive I couldn’t bring myself to ask who that might be. “He gutted ’em all, rehabbed ’em and now he leaves ’em lit up down here all night. That’s his way. Quicken Loans, that’s what rebuilt this part of town.”

compuware

In just a few blocks the buildings went from a disorienting juxtaposition of 30 story glass, chrome, brick and concrete to low-slung, bombed-out husks and then to open space dotted with two-story urban strip malls. The newly re-developed Farmer’s Market was off to the right filling in a huge open urban footprint. Shack wheeled past it, turned around and pulled up in front of what looked like a tired pizza joint. “Barbecue Ribs and Soul” was printed on the awning.

berts-01

“You good or should I wait a minute?” Shack asked.

Why is he asking me that ? I wondered. Am I too green or is this place too gritty for a square like me?

“Thanks, I’m good!” I chirped stepping out. “Give you a call in a couple of hours.”

I couldn’t tell where the door was. Two choices. Picked the wrong one. A 40-something women with a modest, black  church hat and carefully coiffed hair came over to guide me in.

“You look lost!” she said laughing. “Right this way. I’m Edith.”

She ushered me through a brightly lit, heavily used cafe dining room that somehow reminded me of my Aunt Jean’s kitchen. I should have felt like an intruder, but people were smiling at me and I relaxed. Some folks were finishing meals, others were conducting some kind of community business. She let me go once we made our way into the adjacent, much darker, space: a big long bar on the far side, ample stage near the threshold to the diner and tables and chairs going all the way back out to the street to the other door I had unsuccessfully tried to come though when I’d arrived.

berts-4

I sat down at a table and Roberta, the young waitress working tables who couldn’t have been nicer to a stranger in a tweed jacket, asked about a drink. A few musicians were already setting up: keyboard, drum set, stand up bass. A gray-haired gentleman with hair pulled back in a pony tail seemed to be in charge. But I noticed other folks in the bar with instruments leaning against walls, lying across tables. What’s up here tonight? I wondered.

In a moment Edith was back, just checking on me, she said. She saw my notebook and asked if I was a writer. I laughed and let her know I was just a pilgrim from St. Louis looking for Jazz.

“St. Louis! Mmmm Hmmm!” she exclaimed.  She lingered with motherly care for another moment then moved to leave. I wanted to give her a hug and say something. How grateful I was to meet her, to be here, to have real folks from Detroit looking out for a guy from out of town. But that was too big a gesture for someone I’d just met, someone I didn’t even know in a place I’d never been. But I felt so relaxed, so welcome. I let her go with just a wave.

Eventually, the man with the pony tail stepped to the mic and the night’s entertainment began. His name was Bill Meyer and he welcomed everyone to “Thursday Open Mic Night” at Bert’s.

Image at Billmeyermusic.com

Image at Billmeyermusic.com

My heart sank for a moment: sounded like I wasn’t going to hear the “real” musicians.  But when Bill launched into a speech about why tonight was special, he got my attention.

“Folks, as most of you know Van Cephus took his life a few days ago. We might as well all face that reality as it is. He was a good man, a generous man, a gifted musician. But when they came to repossess his home the other day he couldn’t overcome his despair.”

I gathered that Van had been a keyboard player, a regular at Bert’s. Bill went on to say that though many in the room might be here as a memorial for Van, the official remembrance would be at Bert’s next week. He apologized for those who got the wrong message, but invited them to stay and honor him this week, too. Then he was back in sermon mode.

“Van’s loss reminds us all that we need to respond to those who call out to us for help. We need to be there for one another. That’s why we’re all here tonight. That’s what this place, this community on Thursday night at Bert’s, is all about.”

Van Cephus

Van Cephus

When Bill finished, a trumpet player stepped up out of the dark and whispered something to the three musicians already on stage and music began. The tune was “Blue Bossa.” It was so good, so soulful and smooth, my night would have been made for that single number.

When the song ended a large man stepped to the mic for more announcements. I was beginning to understand that Bert’s was as much community center as jazz club on Thursday nights. He introduced himself as the brother of Chokwe Lumumba,  recently deceased Mayor of Jackson Mississippi. Born Edwin Talifero in August of 1947, he became a follower of Malcolm X and in 1969 took the name of an African Tribe that had resisted slavery. His brother called upon all present to dedicate themselves to the fight for justice and peace and to please contribute money so that his son could carry on his legacy and be elected to state office in his father’s district.

1617857_10203494162621730_521360979_o

I don’t know how to describe the night of music and preaching that followed. It was a miracle, like the multiplication of the loaves. I couldn’t have imagined the wealth of talent and soul that was waiting in the dark of such a humble place. As I try to weigh the way it moved and spoke to me, it feels true to say it saved me…mostly from myself. The music began again with a piece featuring a harmonica player in a wide-brimmed straw hat. He set the room rocking and pushed the pace of his solos faster and faster until everyone was hooting, rooting him on and on.

I listened to the humble generosity and utter musical hospitality of Butter Hawkins on the drums and Ibrahim Jones on Stand Up Bass. The two of them together put everybody who stepped up to play that night in the rocking chair of rhythm. Jones was incredibly versatile: he could blur a dozen separate notes way down on the neck but never lose the sweet assurance of the chords and melody. And Hawkins’ drum solos were like someone singing: he was speaking in tones as much rhythms. He wore a straight face most of the night, but when the jazz conversation turned playful and musicians were exchanging silly, out-of-place jazz quotations from broadway or Disney tunes, he beamed at last. The whole room basked in his smile.

Butter Hawkins

Butter Hawkins

Two different solo trumpeters took the stage in the next hour or so. Both were brilliant. One of them was just sitting at the bar when he casually lifted the instrument to his lips, cutting in against the keyboards and then stepping up into the lights to literally blow the room away. There was a clearly revered and veteran sax man on the Alto Sax and and a young kid apprentice on Tenor. Watching them and looking up at the posters on the wall of Armstrong, Miles, Coultrane and Ella, I knew they were both honoring their ancestors, their spiritual mothers and fathers, keeping one of those non-negotiable laws of the spiritual life.

I lost track of time, but it went on like this with one moment more amazing and consoling than the next. I’d been watching a woman in the corner near the stage. She wore a full ball gown and tiara. When she at last took the stage  she was as full of joy and  “I am who I am” spirit as the outfit declared. She was royalty. Queen Audrey Northington. I looked for her picture on the web but couldn’t find her. Perhaps she is more the amateur than many of the others I saw that night, but she was preaching as well any of them. I listened to the words she was actually singing, but the translation to what she was saying to me in spiritual terms was clear as it could be:

“Forget yourself enough to be yourself!” she sang. “See me as I am not as a projection of yourself or as who you want me to be! You will never know the source of my sorrows, my dysfunction, my genius, but you can behold me and try to get out of your own way enough to do the same!” I don’t think she understood when I kissed her hand on my way out that night, but she accepted the gesture gracefully, like royalty.

As the set came to a close Bill got up from the keyboards to announce a break. But he cancelled it when he saw that a young man in a red velvet jacket was in the house. I missed his name, But Bill called him up on stage and the room erupted in applause. Later, I found out this was James Carter, the world class saxaphonist.

“I want to talk to you all about love,” he said. “Anybody here know anything about that?” The song was an old favorite : Bobby Caldwell’s 1978 “What You Won’t Do For Love.” I sang with him though I didn’t know I still remembered the words; they came back into my mouth one at a time from somewhere down in my soul.

“In my world, only you made me do for love what I would not do.”

Even as I type these words weeks later in the week Christians call “Holy,” I’m struck by how they capture, as prayer, all I am trying to say with many more words in this post. “Christ” after all, is a name for the truth that in our experience of this life in the flesh, it is God who gives first, who reaches out, soothes, understands and declares in a human voice: “I am here. Will you take my hand?”

And so it was that a pilgrim from St. Louis was saved by Christ on the streets of Detroit. Delivered to salvation by the loving hands of those who guided me to Bert’s: by Janet the Concierge, Shack the Shuttle Driver, Rosy the Bouncer, Edith the Church Lady, Roberta the Bartender. And once I got there, my salvation–for that night at least–was secured by the salvific tones of those who poured themselves out in music: Bill Meyer, Band Leader on Keyboards, Butter Hawkins on Drums, Ibrahim Jones on Bass, a whole raft of beautiful folks on trumpets, saxes, harmonicas and many others, who, like the great Queen Audrey Northington herself, were delivering the good news on vocals.


Responses

  1. cctracker, you have written a beautiful masterpiece, capturing in words, like we try to do in music, the beauty of community and life. Thank you so much for your kind observances and great writing skills. This is what we want to give to all our guests that visit.
    From the piano player, Bill Meyer.
    ps. only one correction, the bassist that night was the great Ibrahim Jones, not Marcus Miller, who happens to be a young saxophonist phenom in town. The guy in the red shirt who came in before the break, was world famous saxophonist James Carter.

    • Bill, are there two young sax phenoms in town named Marcus, or did you mean Marcus Elliot? If M. Elliot, the Pilgrim might like to know that Marcus and his group are the Tuesday night band at Cliff Bell’s.

      • btw, I also was there that evening, maybe sitting inches away from cctracker, judging by the camera angle of the James Carter video. I hope we all were friendly and welcoming to this visitor.

      • cctracker; Yes, I will definitely read your beautiful piece at Berts this Thursday, just to let the folks know what an effect they can have on guests.
        cdkell; yes, Marcus Eliot Miller is one and the same (he changed his name). and btw there really are many young phenoms in the city as you know.

  2. Bill,
    What an honor to get your note. Thanks for the kind words and the corrections. I’ll make those changes. And, please, if you have a chance, thank the folks of the community at Bert’s for me. They really did take care of this pilgrim that night.
    Peace.

  3. cctracker; I read your kind letter to the entire audience Thursday night and thanked them for carrying out the mission of our Open Mic scene, of welcoming pilgrims like you to our wonderful city and its beautiful culture. thanks again!


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