Detroit Jazz History

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Detroit Jazz History

The growth of Detroit and the migration of jazz musicians northward to Detroit in the early 20th century was fundamental in the molding of America’s jazz sound form three key eras:


When jazz was forming from the blend of blues and ragtime music. Society bands precursor to the big bands of the 1930s fueled the dance craze that started around World War I Society bands had a repertoire of ragtime, light classics, and popular songs society band music One of the most well known at the time was Leroy Smith and his Orchestra a 16-piece black society band.


When big bands created the reputation of jazz as carefree and rebellious.

Detroit’s big band jazz sound emerged in the mid- to late 1920s. The Society Band sound was changing giving way to solo’s, free form and improsition. and was dominated by two ensembles: the Jean Goldkette Orchestra and William McKinney’s Synco Septet a pioneering black band. Jean Goldkette heard McKinney’s band and brought them to Detroit and booked them at the Greystone Ballroom, where Detroit's where part of the deal to play there was McKinney's band changed their name to the racially tinged Cotton Pickers since Graystone Ballroom which was traditionally off-limits to black musicians.

Jean Goldkette Orchestra and the Cotton Pickers perfected the Big Band Jazz style while at the Graystone. Jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie also performed regularly at the Graystone Ballroom.
McKinney's Cotton Pickers Audio
Jean Goldkette Orchestra Audio


Paradise Valley

the most important change in the 1930’s for the Black jazz community was the gradual shift from big ballrooms to small cabaret bands. The Graystone Ballroom was still a major venue, now hosting many black bands but Paradise Valley emerged as the major entertainment spot in Detroit. Two dozen or so clubs dotted the area, many owned by Blacks,.

Places such as 606 Horseshoe Lounge and Club Three Sixes featured national acts including Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, the Ink Spots and Sarah Vaughan, plus other jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie.

Paradise Valley was also home to Detroit’s first “black and tan” cabarets and nightclubs. Black and tans were venues where Black artists performed for Black and white audiences.

Plantation Club, was the most prominent of the black-and-tans during the 1930s. Another Black-owned black-and-tan cabaret was the Chocolate Bar, as was the Brown Bomber Chicken Shack. Club Harlem owned by Morris Wasserman was one of the few white owned black-and-tan cabarets. Club Harlem later became The Flame, one of Detroit’s most popular jazz spots in the 1950’s Other black-and-tan cabarets in Paradise Valley were Cozy Corner, Melody Club, Jess Faithful's Rhythm Club and the B&C Club.

More Reading

Detroit's Black Bottom and Paradise Valley
McKinney's Cotton Pickers
Graystone Ballroom
Stompin at the Graystone Jazz in Detroit 1917-1940