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Detroit jazz master Marcus Belgrave dies at 78

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

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Marcus Belgrave wasn't just one of Detroit's prominent jazz musicians.

"Marcus WAS Detroit jazz," says drummer and bandleader RJ Spangler.

The trumpeter -- who passed away early Sunday morning, May 24, at the age of 78 -- was nothing less than the local jazz scene's preeminent jazz musician, bandleader and educator, with an equal and well-deserved national reputation. His more than six decades of playing included stints in Ray Charles band and recorded works with Wynton Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, B.B. King, Geri Allen and others. His students included premiere artists such as Allen, Rodney Whitaker, James Carter, Regina Carter, Karriem Riggins, Robert Hurst, Kenny Garrett and more.

A bona fide living legend, he was Detroit's official Jazz Master Laureate and was chosen as an Eminent Artist by the Kresge Foundation.

"Marcus touched all of us in the most positive way," said the Howling Diablos' Martin "Tino" Gross. "If he was in the room the level of everyone's playing shot way up. What a treasure."

Traverse City-based pianist Jeff Haas, who collaborated with Belgrave on clinics for school children and other musical programs, added that, "Working with Marcus for almost 12 years was 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. He played the s*** out of my music. I love that man and will miss him."

The Detroit Jazz Festival, where Belgrave was slated to perform this year, posted a Facebook message calling him "a true friend to the Festival, the music an the many people whose lives were touched by his brilliance." The DJF promised it "will be working to find appropriate ways to celebrate his life in the coming months."

Belgrave was also slated to perform at this year's Concert of Colors, performing a July 12 concert billed as "A Tribute to Ray Charles and Great Ladies of Song." The festival is determining what to do with that slot.

Belgrave, who had battled heart and pulmonary disorders for years, had been in and out of the hospital several times since his final public performance, on April 17 in Durham, N.C. He was in the Glacier Hills care facility in Ann Arbor when he died, officially from heart failure brought on by those issues. His wife, 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 played by Grosse Pointe native J.K. Simmons, who won an Academy Award for the role.

Belgrave's nature, of course, was gentler. Born in Chester, Pa., he was mentored 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 performing Belgrave taught students at the Oberlin Conservatory, the Stanford Jazz Workshop 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."

Keyboardist Phil Hale noted that, "Over the years I've played in many situations where Marcus would come up and apply his years of expertise to the music-at-hand. He was a joy to hang with...We loved him madly."

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.

Funeral and memorial arrangements for Belgrave are pending.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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