Harold McKinney – Detroit Jazz Roots

As told by Harold McKinney

Kenny Burrell formed a group – it must have been in the latter part of ‘53 that they formed this group – it was composed of Kenny, Paul Chambers, Hindal Butts, and myself. We formed the Kenny Burrell Quartet and he was leader, but we had a kind of democratic thing going there, where we all had say so, at least that’s what we tried to have…We managed to keep the group together for a year. During that time, Kenny, who has a very prolific and organizational mind – even in terms beyond music – so he had this dream about forming a music society. I remember we talked about it one night at a drugstore, corner of John R and Forest. After practice with our quartet one night, we came down and sat at this drugstore, and he was telling me about his idea. I told him that I had a similar idea, but mine was not as well developed as his. Naturally, that brought me into favor with his idea. He was telling me, for instance, that Thaddeus Jones was in town, Frank Foster – all the guys who are now in New York – most of the hard core of the Parkerian tradition that was here in Detroit. We sat there and talked about a kind of musicians’ organization that would provide jobs for musicians, which is still needed right now. So, his idea was to have an organization made up of musicians to develop a club, a showplace for the musicians. This is still the current problem for musicians who struggle for a first class presentation.

So now, here is what happened at the time. We had the idea that the best band would play in the club, until the next band developed a certain amount of proficiency. It’s like trying for the first chair in music school. Kenny thought about the idea of the Thaddeus Jones – Billy Mitchell group, which was current at the time, this being the first group to play. He was going to open the club in a month or two. Anyway, within about a three month period, I had to go to the army, and it greatly curtailed my activities, although it broadened them at the same time – in another sense. When I came back, the New Music Society had been born, and I had become aware of it way over in Germany. We got Down Beats, and they told about the New Music Society…It did attract a great deal of attention, because recording companies – there was a new recording company called Transition, out of New York, and my brother got in on it, and Donald Byrd – I think it was one of the contributing factors in his success. Anyway, we were heard as an “artists’ market”, and I believe that this is the concept – really – that has to be taken into consideration, before an endeavor will really be successful.

What the musicians were trying to do then is what the Artists’ Workshop is trying to do now. Although the idea has developed. You want to show how the idea has developed. This is a constant com¬parison, which will automatically draw a line of development from the New Music Society to the Artists’ Workshop. A constant inter¬change in comparisons. The reason why I’m doing it this way is just to show that line. This comparison brings it out better, than merely to trace a step by step thing. This would keep the reader more aware of the differences between each, which would make that line appear, rather than by drawing it.

In those days again, the idea was to open a club. I think they were thinking about a night club – for musicians – like Minton’s was. That’s where the bop revolution took place. Although I think that the Artists’ Workshop has developed and evolved the idea differently and better, because they have taken it out of the night club setting, a setting which has been a deterrent for development of purely musical ideas without any other consider¬ations. The Workshop also provides a showcase, which is not an end in itself, but a complement to the already-existing scene. While you still maintain jazz as entertainment, you can also experiment, with a lot more freedom. We did not – at that time – ¬take this into account as much, although we did take it into account. We did misconceive the idea by thinking of it still in a habitual way, as part of the night club environment – since that’s where we were raised. I think that you still have same idea – ¬basically – but that it has worked its way beyond the scope of the men in the bebop tradition. Their idea was simply to develop a roster of bands and to develop group activity…

Incidentally, this might be interesting, in terms of the relationship between the Artists’ Workshop and the New Music Society: the similarity of thought about why the organization exists. They say that this paper “Idioms” [of the New Music Society] is “dedicated to the sounds, scenes, and actions that give our thoughts dimension.” This is basically the same kind of thought that the Artists’ Workshop has in its existence. Wouldn’t you say so? Idioms” had photos, illustrations, literary reviews, and most of all news and information about the current jazz scene. If you’ve ever seen a copy of “Idioms” – the layout, the wealth of material – ¬you will begin to realize what a big impetus the New Music Society was to musicians such as Donald Byrd, Yusef Lateef, Barry Harris, Curtis Fuller, and many others:

Dear Members,

Many wonderful things have come from your organization’s drives, ideas, and deeds. Through your efforts you have made a priceless contribution to the evolution of jazz in Detroit. By bringing non commercial musicians together under one heading, through the functioning of the NMS you have: 1. Focused the attention of jazz critics and impresarios on these musicians. 2. Provided proving for these musicians. 3. Provided a means of establishing constant contact with a listening audience…

 …That really sums up the aims of the Artists’ Workshop, too. So you see the relationship there… Musical development increased, considerably – that’s one way that the “Detroit sound” became well known in jazz. It was here all the time, and so were the musicians, but it crystallized and became institutionalized under the New Music Society. The music was there, but all you had to do was turn a light on it. It never could die, even though the organization itself did die. The idea was still alive, because it was made practicable. It set forth a trend, a tendency.

…It points to how the town was at the time. Then too, in regards to musicians and creative activity, it was at an all-time high. The war and the economic boom increased this kind of activity…I mention this to show how the jazz idea has related to the social environment, and to point a way as how any present endeavor could succeed: consider the social environment around you, all the time you’re doing what you’re trying to do. Perhaps the same spirit that inspired the economic boom – it inspired the musician’s creative activity…

…The setting is here; the town shows evidence of the development of it. Towns go through cycles of development just as a person’s individual ego. You first have a sibling ego and everything you do is copied after “mamma,” which is New York, the chief influence in the U.S. among jazz musicians. (Most of your centers of development in music are still there, such as the giant corporations that market it.) Detroit was once a highly regimented industrial town. The same thing was true in New York, but it wasn’t as organized as here, because the institutional forms of organization in society hadn’t become as well developed as they are, today. Those same forms have taken a step further, here. The way people make money: industry. One aspect of it is that it went from a sibling stage into a fully developed industrial stage, and this is where the regime of the city developed. Two or three families controlled its development, for a long, long time. This brought about a more tightly organized industry than New York. I’m bringing all that in to show how – now, the fact that we’ve gone through this big recession – and this was due to the fact that so much revenue has gone out of Detroit, because of political and economic conditions. The town has been reduced in population. This big, physical plan had to be altered to some degree, in order to boost and increase the amount of revenue that came in, to provide it with a different source of income. This will eventually move it away from a “one-folk’s town” concept and give it a more cosmopolitan development. When you get away from the money playing such a terrific part in the development of a town, naturally the taste of all this international flavor will have to influence everything. This will automatically breed a more cosmopolitan setting. This is the way that I look at it. All of these things have to do with the way the musical culture evolves in Detroit…

– Harold McKinney in “YOU!! (Introduction to the Artists Workshop Society, Part II)”, appearing in CHANGE/1,
(Artists Workshop Press, Detroit, Fall/Winter, 1965)