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This guy is working to save Detroit's music heritage before it's lost

Jan 13, 2017

You could argue that the biggest Michigan story of the last decade was Detroit – the fall of its famously corrupt mayor, the city’s descent into bankruptcy, and its reemergence and renaissance. Nobody would have believed 10 years ago that downtown Detroit would be booming today, or that Midtown near Wayne State University would be a trendy place to live.

Today, Detroit’s streetlights are all on again, and a balding and plump white guy from the suburbs is the most popular mayor in years.

There’s still an urgent need for more jobs. But there’s a need for not only bread but roses too, and culturally, Detroit was always music.

Yes, to many people that means Motown, but there was and is a lot more. Jazz in a hundred venues, Miles Davis and John Coltrane on the stage at the Blue Bird Inn. Charlie Parker, the Bird, cutting records at United Sound Studios. Rodriguez, famous in South Africa but virtually unknown in his hometown till the blockbuster movie Searching for Sugarman. It was and is John Lee Hooker and legendary DJ and cultural force Ken Collier. Detroit was a main battleground in the rise of techno.

It was also where a white kid named Doug Fieger had a monster hit called My Sharona with The Knack. But much of this precious legacy is being lost. Acetate tapes are rotting in a thousand garages. The roof is falling in at the abandoned Blue Bird Inn.

Five years ago, a young scholar and writer from Troy, the whitest of all white bread suburbs, decided to do something about it. Carleton Gholz founded the Detroit Sound Conservancy, and announced his mission was to "increase awareness of and support for the city’s musical heritage through advocacy, preservation and education."

Gholz is an amazing fellow.

Though he looks 25, he just turned 40, and has a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh after writing a thesis on one aspect of Detroit’s music scene. He’s been a noted music journalist, a consultant and a teacher.

Working to restore the old Blue Bird Inn stage.
Credit Courtesy of the Detroit Sound Conservancy.

And now, under the radar, without help from any big names or the city itself, the organization he founded has been doing amazing things. He and a merry band of archeologists and volunteers pulled the famous stage out of the Blue Bird, restored it, and sent it off to France, where it is now being featured in a UNESCO international design exhibit.

They are working on projects from marking historic sites and jazz greats to saving places like the Graystone International Jazz Museum. Every year, they’ve been holding major conferences. You can get a flavor of everything they’re doing from their website, Detroitsound.org.  This year, Gholz told me, their goal is to finally get a building of their own.

“All this legacy is scattered and being lost,” he told me.

"All this legacy is scattered and being lost."

He wants to create a go-to place where historians and Hollywood can come for information about Detroit’s music scene, where famous artists’ records and work can be digitized and archived as a matter of course.

This is rather amazing and important work which deserves attention and support. Culturally and otherwise, I suspect that Detroit and Michigan are vibrant in ways most politicians have no idea about. Somehow, even in the depths of winter, I find that reassuring.