Marcus Belgrave, a jazz master whose resume ranged from Ray Charles and Motown to Aretha Franklin and Joe Cocker, and who helped educate generations of younger jazz lions, passed away on Thursday at the age of 78.
A Chester, Pa., native who settled in Detroit during the early '60s – where he played on Motown hits such as "Dancing in the Street," "My Girl" and more – Belgrave as a musician "was magical," says Rodney Whitaker, a Distinguished Professor and Director of Jazz Studies at Michigan State University and a Belgrave student during the mid-'80s. "He was probably the most imaginative rhythmic player to ever live... one of the greatest players of his generation and one of the most underrated musicians, probably because he never left Detroit."
Belgrave, who had battled heart and pulmonary disease for years, died from heart failure at a convalescent home in Ann Arbor, Mich., after being in and out of the hospital since his final public performance, on April 17 in Durham, N.C. His singer, Joan Belgrave, reported that he "passed in his sleep peacefully" and that as recently as Saturday, he "played his horn, sang" and watched the movie Whiplash, about an aggressive jazz educator.
Belgrave's own teaching style was gentler. He was mentored as a teenager by Clifford Brown and Dizzy Gillespie and spent five years with Ray Charles before moving to Detroit in 1963. He also worked with Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Clark Terry, among others; in addition to his own albums, Belgrave's recording resume includes works by McCoy Tyner, Wynton Marsalis, Joe Henderson and B.B. King.
Belgrave taught at the Oberlin Conservatory, the Stanford Jazz Workshop, Oakland University, and Detroit's Civic Jazz Orchestra, and he created his own Jazz Development Workshop in Detroit. "The greatest thing I can do is to work with the next generation and the generation after that and the generation after that," Belgrave once said. "I feel a responsibility to help keep this music alive and vital and pass on my passion to others." Among his students were Geri Allen, James Carter, Regina Carter, Karriem Riggins, Robert Hurst, Kenny Garrett, Ray Parker Jr. and Al Jackson.
Regina Carter posted a message on Facebook saying she will "forever be indebted" to Belgrave – who was designated Detroit's official Jazz Master Laureate and a Kresge Foundation Eminent Artist – while Christian McBride referred to him as a "giant." Whitaker notes, "He provided mentorship to so many young musicians at a time when there were very few opportunities and programs for young Detroit kids to perform, and if he saw something special in you as a young musician, he put you on performances with him, kind of trial by fire. He gave you exposure and experience." Whitaker says he learned about Belgrave's reputation during his first meeting with bassist Ron Carter, who initially "wasn't very cordial. Then I told him I was from Detroit, and in the next breath he said, 'Do you know Marcus Belgrave?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Be at my house tomorrow at 4 o'clock.' Being associated with his name, internationally, meant that you could play."
Whitaker adds that he and many of Belgrave's students "become mentors ourselves. We mentor because Marcus provided a great example for us in terms of mentoring."
Pianist Jeff Haas, son of the late NPR music host Carl Haas, worked with Belgrave on several youth programs, which he calls "one of the most meaningful and satisfying experiences of my life. I'm so grateful to have had that time together. Marcus' encouragement years ago is the reason I began to write music and continue to do so."
Belgrave was slated to perform at two upcoming Detroit festivals – the Concert of Colors in July and the Detroit Jazz Festival over Labor Day Weekend. The former is considering what to do with his slot, while the DJF posted a promise "to find appropriate ways to celebrate his life in the coming months."
In addition to his wife, Belgrave is survived by sons Akaua, Kasan and Marcus Belgrave Jr. of Detroit and daughter Marcia Monroe of Pennsylvania, and sister Eudora Muhammad and brothers Louie, Lemmuel and Darnley Belgrave, all of Chester, Pa.