Marcus Belgrave 1936-2015
It would be hard to exaggerate the influence, or indeed the excellence, of the small bands Ray Charles led in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One by one, their members have disappeared. (Rather movingly, three of Charles’s great saxophone players, Hank Crawford, David “Fathead” Newman and Leroy “Hog” Cooper, died within days of each other in January 2009.) Now another one has gone: the trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who joined Charles in 1958 and stayed five years, playing on the sessions that produced “What’d I Say” and the immortal Genius Sings the Blues album.
I particularly love Belgrave’s playing on Fathead, Newman’s first solo album and the initial release in Atlantic’s “Ray Charles Presents…” series, produced in 1959 by Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, with Charles on piano and Crawford, playing baritone, rounding out the three-man front line. It’s a typical and wonderful fusion of R&B feeling with mainstream jazz and bebop structures: completely natural and unaffected music, totally satisfying on every level. The warm-toned trumpet solos are deftly formed and joyously lyrical: it’s no accident that Clifford Brown was one of Belgrave’s early idols.
An excellent obituary by Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press (read it here) tells us that Belgrave was born in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1936. His cousin Cecil Payne, one of the handful of the outstanding baritone saxophonists of the bop era, taught him how to play the new music, and he played with Brownie — who was six years older — in a student band in Delaware. It was with Ray Charles that he learned to play fewer notes.
Tired of life on the road, he turned down offers from Duke Ellington, Horace Silver and Charles Mingus and settled in Detroit in 1963. It is said that he played on a few Motown hits of the period, including “Dancing in the Street”, and he certainly became an important figure on the local jazz scene, both as a player and as a teacher. Those he mentored included the pianist Geri Allen (with whom he appeared on several albums) and the saxophonist Kenny Garrett. He was also a guest soloist with Was (Not Was), the great boho-disco band led by Don and David Was in Detroit in the 1980s (that’s him on their classic dancefloor 12-inch “Wheel Me Out”).
Marcus Belgrave was one of those figures who ensured the continuity of the jazz tradition, taking what he had learnt from his elders and passing it on to later generations. He was, by all accounts, much loved in his community: when a thief took his custom-made copper-belled horn from his car earlier this year, the pawn shop in which it was spotted waived the $350 that it would normally have cost him to reclaim it, given that they had not been aware they were acquiring stolen property.