cities · detroit · gentrification · hip hop

making “space” in the year ahead

My interest in space, race and power carries over into my ongoing interest in the life of the late jazz guitarist Grant Green as revealed in a documentary on his life. The project, which I have been working on since 1994, premiered last September at the 11th annual Harlem International Film Festival. In the coming weeks, and before it is finally released, I’ll learn whether it was a successful submission in other festivals. Recently, our university’s Cartographic Lab created a postwar map of Detroit that helps us see how Grant figured into that city’s postwar music scene.


As explained in the film, he lived on the city’s west side in the 1970s. It wasn’t until I mapped the addresses of many Motown figures that I realized the degree to which he figured into other stories concerning progress in black life since the Second World War. These days, the city is gentrifying in some areas after witnessing tremendous change after the Second World War, the sort that found people of African descent, among them musical personalities, being able to live in neighborhoods where they hadn’t previously. With such a transition in mind alongside the challenges many urban dwellers have faced during this window, it is worth it to wonder how the idea of home encounters Grant’s life.

He loved the word green owing to it being his last name. It is in the titles of songs and albums with which he is associated, but also the name of the street on which he lived in Detroit: Greenlawn.

In the film, Grant Jr., his youngest son and namesake, discusses what it was like to live on this street and the many musicians who came in and out of the house. His path indeed often crossed the paths of many artists including ones who performed for Motown (Eli Fontaine, whose sax solo is heard at the beginning of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” appears in the documentary on Grant). In fact, Stevie Wonder’s parents lived in the house next door to Grant’s.

Grant’s ultimate legacy (and that of many Motown session musicians ) is overshadowed by better known names in and outside of jazz even as he is among the jazz players whose work has been heralded or sampled by many (His guitar licks have appeared on the work of everyone from Madonna to Kendrick Lamar and A Tribe Called Quest). In studying the above map , a cartographic story emerges that does not quite measure up to how he is remembered. This dynamic is another reason why I love maps, something I said in my last blog entry. They tell more complex stories, the kind I get to delve more deeply into in my past research on black-white ties before the Civil War and present research on my home state, which includes a topic many of us can’t get enough of: college football.

As I looked at Alabama’s committed recruits, I smiled when I saw the number of young men from Florida. Perhaps as true, but not entirely, with Grant and Detroit, space matters because it tells a particular kind of story about many things, among them, talent and progress no matter the ever-present challenges.

As I think about what’s ahead this coming year,  including this film, I get excited. I am also turning to another piece of writing on Miami, my hometown. It will be a book chapter in Race in the World, a forthcoming edited volume on the African diaspora. Karen Farquharson, Elisa White, Kathryn Pillay, and Philomena Essed are the editors.

In two recently presented papers, and an upcoming article in the Journal of Urban History, I look at this city and/or the Florida peninsula as sites for resistance for people of African descent, on and off the football field. Indeed, I focus more intently on my beloved Miami Hurricanes, or The U, circa 1980s, in the book chapter before me.

(Special thanks to Will Elkins, Graduate Research Assistant in the University of Alabama’s Cartographic Lab for helping map this part of Grant’s life. Special thanks to the Department of History for funding to help offset the music costs in the film, which I have been invited to share in Detroit in June, Grant’s birth month. I also hope to show it this year, of course, in Florida, Alabama and Michigan.

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