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Marcus Belgrave laid to rest with music, memories

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

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DETROIT -- The late Marcus Belgrave was memorialized in the most appropriate way on Saturday, May 30 -- with music and lots of it.

There were plenty of verbal testimonials to the legendary Detroit jazz musician and educator during the three-hour-plus funeral at Greater Grace Temple, including poems and civic proclamations. But the music was what spoke the loudest, whether it was played before the ceremony by some of Belgrave's recent students or throughout by some of the contemporary all-stars he mentored over the years.

"He was truly one of the great, remarkable musicians of our time...nothing short of legendary," U.S. Rep. John Conyers, who passed away Sunday, May 24, at the age of 78 in Ann Arbor from heart failure. "This (funeral) is a wonderful way to recognize this great musician."

The abundance of performances on Saturday included a powerful rendition of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by the Motown Legends Gospel Choir, featuring Hazelette Crosby's roof-raising lead vocals, and a performance of Belgrave's own "All My Love" by an ensemble that ranged from veterans (saxophonist Wendell Harrison and the Straight Ahead rhythm section of Marion Hayden on bass and Gayelynn McKinney on drums) to pianist Michael Malis, whow as studying with Belgrave at the time of his death.

A trio of Belgrave-mentored luminaries -- pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Karriem Riggins -- delivered Lawrence Williams' "Number Three," while Detroit-born saxophonist James Carter stepped in for Wynton Marsalis, who was unable to attend, for a searing version of "Tenderly," which was dedicated to longtime Belgrave benefactor Morry Cohen. Belgrave's final recording, "Senor Belgrave" by Alberto Nacif, was played over the sancutary's speakers, while six horn players -- Rayse Biggs, Dwight Adams, John Douglas, Johnnie Trudell and Allan Denard -- paid their respects with a "Trumpet Salute" before Biggs performed "Taps."

The most emotional moment, however, came when Belgrave's widow Joan pushed through her grief to sang "Crazy He Calls Me," which Charlie Gabriel, who came in from New Orleans, accented with his tenor saxophone. Gabriel's brass band also started the ceremony with a dirge he composed on Friday, May 29, and led a recessional afterwards.

"I don't know what to say," Joan Belgrave noted before her performance, thanking "the musicians who came to the hospital to play with Marcus to keep up his chops" during the weeks before his death. When Oliver Ragsdale of Detroit's Carr Center, where Belgrave operated his Jazz Development Workshop, asked for those who had studied or played with Belgrave to stand, it brought a good three-quarters of the several hundred at the ceremony to their feet.

"He was generous with any young person who showed authentic interesting in wanting to learn," said pianist Allen, a Belgrave protege since she met him while attending Cass Technical High School in Detroit. "Marcus became like a musical father to me, and it was like coming home each time I had the blessing...to play with him."

The funeral included a new poem, "Blow, Marcus, Blow," by MelBa Boyd and the presentation of a Testimonial Resolution from the Detroit City Council honoring Belgrave. The family also announced on Saturday that a musical tribute honoring Belgrave will be announced in the near future. Many of those attending the ceremony planned to gather at the Carr Center for more music and memories into Saturday evening.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra will dedicate its "A Musical Tale of Two Cities: Motown Meets the Big Easy" from June 2-4 to Belgrave. The annual Concert of Colors and Detroit Jazz Festival are also planning special programs in Belgrave's memory that should be announced soon.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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