I just got off the phone with Charles Ferrell, Director of Public Programs, at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, a Smithsonian affiliate, in Detroit. I’m so excited about sharing that the documentary will be shown there on June 6, Grant’s birthday. It’s also an honor to share that there will be a tribute performance to Grant.
Details are still being finalized, but the musicians who may play include Detroit native and clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Wendell Harrison, who reportedly took George Braith’s place in Grant’s band after Grant, my late former father in law, was hired by Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note, America’s first independent jazz label. Grant apparently wanted to tour to promote his many recordings.
This was the early 60’s and shortly after Harrison arrived to New York City from Detroit. Grant had heard about him and his manager contacted Harrison to say Grant was interested in Harrison joining his band. Harrison also performed with Jack McDuff, Elvin Jones, Sonny Stitt, Hank Crawford, and Sun Ra, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, among others. Indeed, as mentioned in my last post, the session musicians who performed with Motown acts, are some amazing performers in their own right.
I remember Harrison’s straight-forward and heartfelt thoughts about Grant’s struggles, but also his talent, when I interviewed him years ago for the biography on Grant that was first published in 1999 by Miller Freeman. “He was a genius in his own way…like a pioneer. He was out there before George Benson,” said Harrison who has worked as an educator, record label co-owner and on other fronts, including the tech one with Detroit-based tech producer Carl Craig. Check out his funk sounds on “How Do We End This Madness” (the kind of energy heard here is why I plan to focus on the late 1960s and early 1970s the next time I teach “Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music.” A lot going on socially in and outside the music). Check Harrison out on a tech scene below.
It’s still in discussion, but efforts are being made to present Harrison alongside Perry Hughes on guitar, Glen Tucker on organ, and Leonard King on drums. Organist Duncan McMillan may also perform in the organ trio format for which Grant was known. The musicians are also in position to speak about Grant as a musician as well as his apparent comedic ways and “charm.”
I look forward to learning more about their time with Grant and their own experiences as musicians. Meanwhile, a panel is being planned that may include jazz drummer Gene Dunlap who I had the pleasure of speaking to a few months ago. Good soul (Also spoke with alto saxophone legend Lou Donaldson who I wish could join us. He is now 90 years old and not traveling as much as he used to travel. Donaldson brought Grant from his home in St. Louis to Blue Note Records).
I am also excited about visiting the Wright whose mission is to open minds and change lives through the exploration and celebration of African American history and culture. The film on Grant emphasizes the significant place the City of Detroit has had in the story of music, including jazz. Visit the museum’s website and this Facebook page for updates about this event.
Special thanks to my Wayne State University colleague, Lisa Ze-Winters, Associate Professor of English, for her role in contacting Melba Boyd and getting Wright’s generous sponsorship. Professor Ze-Winters visited the University of Alabama last January to speak on a panel with me and two other scholars at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center.
PS Lacy James, whose song “Today in the City” is heard on the film, wants to also travel to Detroit to see this presentation. It will be great having her along as we’ve been friends since our time at UNCG in Greensboro early this century.