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Motown legacy eclipses a larger story about black music in Detroit

Feb 15, 2017

No matter where you are, when you say the words "Detroit" and "music," someone's going to exclaim "Motown!"

Jamon Jordan leads a tour of Black history sites in Detroit.
Credit Courtesy of Jamon Jordan

But Detroit's music history is much deeper and wider than Motown. There are some locations around the city that have been forgotten and are important in the telling of Detroit's black history, and the history of music.

Jamon Jordan, Detroit president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, spoke to Stateside about that forgotten history.

Motown was not the first group of polished, professional and successful music acts to come from Detroit.

“It was a continuation of a music business tradition that had been going on in Detroit for decades,” Jordan said.

Back in the 1930s, Detroit’s African-American population was mostly clustered in Detroit’s lower east side, a neighborhood nicknamed "Black Bottom."

Around that time, Detroit Public Schools built a new high school for white neighborhoods on the east side. Sidney Miller Junior High in that area became a segregated black high school.

Jordan said that school had arguably the best music program in the city, turning out famous jazz musicians like Kenny Burrell, Brazeal Dennard and several others who worked at Paradise Valley's many jazz and swing clubs. 

Paradise Valley was a black-owned entertainment and shopping district clustered around Hastings Street. (The street was completely replaced by the I-75 expansion in the early 1960s.) The black-owned Club Plantation, located near present-day Comerica Park and Ford Field, hosted world-famous swing and jazz acts, like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday.

The bottom line? Detroit has a rich history of music dating back prior to Motown.

It's reflected “in civil rights, business development, travel and tourism,” Jordan said.

Listen to the full interview above.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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