Detroit and the Jazz Boom: 1917-1940

The legendary music city known as the Motor Town shaped more than just R & B music of the 1970s. Before that, Detroit was a distinguished jazz hub able to compete against elite jazz forces in St. Louis, New Orleans, and Chicago by branding itself as the city of big band flavor. The migration of jazz musicians northward to Detroit and the growth of Detroit became pivotal in the molding of America’s jazz sounds for three key eras: 1917-1922 when jazz was forming from the blend of blues and ragtime music, 1923-1929 when big bands created the reputation of jazz as carefree and rebellious, and 1930-1940 when the swing sound became popular.


During this era, when the country was in the midst of World War I, society bands began a major leisure pastime. Society bands, forerunners to sprawling big bands of the 1930s, consisted of medium-sized ensembles of musicians who played together, relying more on a tribal sound than on individual lead soloists. Some had distinguished front however, like Benjamin Shook and Leroy Smith. Rather than improvise, these society bands played standard rag tunes and imitated popular music on the radio. Considered training ground for wannabe jazz musicians, these bands entertained at clubs, community events, and parties, sparking new dance patterns. 

Among the most popular was Leroy Smith’s band. Smith, a musician’s son and a native of Michigan – unlike some jazzmen who migrated north from New Orleans to find work after cotton picking profits began to wane as industry took over -- commanded a 16-piece black society band. Much like America at large, most bands of the era were segregated. Smith’s band played for high society, generally taking stage at the famous Pier Ballroom. Meanwhile, he had competition from his contemporary Paul Specht, who led an all-white society band based primary at the downtown Addison hotel. Migrating musicians from Kentucky also became a part of Detroit’s society band culture.


Detroit’s big band jazz sound which emerged in the mid- to late 1920s was dominated by two ensembles: the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, a primarily white band, and McKinney’s Synco Jazz Band, a pioneering black band. Suddenly, the collective sound of the society bands was giving way to with more solos, free form, and a little improvisation. What made the big band style so distinct is that it married younger, more risqué and daring players with older musicians who were perfectionists when it came to following format and classic sounds. This blend was seen most notably with Don Redman, a saxophonist who took over leadership of the McKinney band and guided them to national fame as they toured the Midwest with their new sound. 

They were not originally a part of Detroit’s jazz scene; it wasn’t until Jean Goldkette heard McKinney’s Cotton Pickers on tour that the band was brought to Detroit and booked to play at the Graystone Ballroom which was formerly off-limits to black musicians. The deal to play there came with a mandate for the group to change its name to the racially-tinged Cotton Pickers. For years, well into the 1930s, McKinney’s cotton pickers influenced Detroit Jazz from that Graystone venue, playing most nights to all-white crowds. Monday night, however, was reserved for black audiences and frequently engaging musical duels arose between McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and visiting black bands. One particular duel involved the visiting Duke Ellington.


In the 1930s, the big band sound began to be replaced with smaller, tighter, more skilled ensembles known as cabaret bands. They preferred jam sessions over the more stilted big band sound. Former rivals in the big bands began recruiting each other to create blended cabaret bands that found regular homes in established local clubs and ballrooms. The Graystone Ballroom was still a major venue, now hosting many black bands while other clubs were holding onto segregation.

Venues like the Chocolate Bar and Plantation Club also hosted cabaret bands, the latter was most known for Cecil Lee’s band. At the Chocolate Bar and the Melody Club, former members of the Cotton Pickers found work. The Cozy Corner was also known for its cabaret house band, as was Club Harlem. Club Harlem later became The Flame, one of Detroit’s most popular jazz spots.

Much like jazz was anchored on improvisation and informality, so was its history. Few books chronicle the growth and impact of Detroit jazz although oral tales have been passed down from generation to generation. While new styles evolved, old guards often held onto the former society band and big styles, creating a rich tapestry of jazz subcultures in Detroit, offering diversity to audiences who visited from across America.