[JPL] Jazz fest to honor Motown superstar Marvin Gaye

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Tue Aug 26 10:40:21 EDT 2008

  Jazz fest to honor Motown superstar Marvin Gaye


Somewhere, Marvin Gaye is smiling.

The singer was known as "the Prince of Motown" and became one of that 
fabled label's most commercially successful artists on the strength of 
hits like "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" and "I Heard It Through 
the Grapevine."

He turned musical revolutionary with "What's Going On," his 1971 
masterpiece, following it with "Let's Get It On," a nearly equal 
masterpiece of carnal desire. By the time of Gaye's tragic death in 
1984, not long after his dramatic comeback with "Sexual Healing," the 
singer had scaled artistic heights few could have imagined.

Yet for all his creative accomplishment and commercial validation, one 
lifelong desire eluded him: More than anything, Gaye wanted to be a 
serious jazz balladeer. The man Janet Jackson once called black 
culture's John Lennon dreamed of being its Frank Sinatra.

So it is fitting that Friday's opening night of the 2008 Detroit 
International Jazz Festival will close with a tribute to Marvin Gaye 
arranged by this year's artist-in-residence, Christian McBride. The 
celebrated bassist has programmed a set of Gaye's music to be performed 
by a 19-piece orchestra plus singers Lalah Hathaway, Rahsaan Patterson, 
José James and a trio of backing vocalists.

McBride responded immediately when festival executive and artistic 
director Terri Pontremoli proposed the tribute.

"I grew up on rhythm and blues and I own nearly everything Marvin Gaye 
ever recorded," enthuses the 35-year-old Philadelphian, whose quartet 
will be surrounded by an impressive posse of Motor City musicians to 
create a big band that incarnates the festival theme "A Love Supreme: 
The Philly/Detroit Summit."

"I re-listened to all Marvin's music and it was interesting to hear his 
growth from the early '60s to the mid '70s," he says. "Man, what a time! 
Everybody was really stretching, pushing themselves to the max. Marvin 
always had a jazz attitude: 'I need to play the /real/ stuff.' When they 
didn't bring it to him, he took it upon himself to bring it to them.

"I won't be presenting any particularly radical rearrangements. In this 
festival setting, and in this city, I think people want to hear the 
music and connect with their personal reminiscences. You don't want to 
do too much to disguise that, so I'll stick reasonably close to the 
original script. I have, however, written an overture of sorts, based on 
a number of Marvin's themes. It will allow us to ease into the set and 
work any butterflies out."

For those who knew Gaye personally, like former Detroit Lions great Lem 
Barney, the tribute will be especially poignant.

"Oh, you couldn't keep him away from jazz," testifies the pro football 
Hall of Famer, who bonded with Gaye during the singer's highly 
publicized tryout with the Lions in 1970 and was later invited to 
contribute background vocals to "What's Going On." "Marvin would sit at 
the piano and sing Sinatra and Nat King Cole for /hours/. They'd let him 
do as much of that as he wanted on his own time, but he couldn't put it 
on wax. That frustrated him greatly."

Gaye did release albums of standards early in his Motown career, but the 
success of hard-edged R&B numbers like "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and 
"Hitch Hike" forced him to shelve any such ambitions.

Even after he'd won his creative independence with "What's Going On" and 
commissioned a set of lush ballad orchestrations from pianist-composer 
Bobby Scott, Gaye compulsively re-recorded his own performances, unsure 
that he possessed the vocal maturity to get the job done. The results, 
finally released in 1997 as the posthumous album "Vulnerable," show he 
needn't have worried.

"Marvin Gaye could sing anything he put his mind to," Jack Ashford, a 
jazz vibraphonist whom Gaye brought to Motown, has said. Ashford's 
tambourine became a signature element of the famous Funk Brothers studio 
band. "In a way that many of the other producers did not, Marvin 
understood and appreciated the fact that most of us came from jazz 
backgrounds. He was no real threat instrumentally -- he could hold his 
own on piano or drums, after a fashion -- but we loved him because he 
possessed the soul of a jazz musician."

Saxophonist Diego Rivera was ideally suited to recruit the Detroit 
musicians for McBride's tribute. His own jazz homage to "What's Going 
On" has had several public performances, including one by the Michigan 
State University Jazz Band at last year's festival.

"When I told the musicians what the project was," he says, "they were 
all excited, not only to work with Christian, but to play the music of 
Marvin Gaye. Jazz is the music of the moment, and playing it is the art 
of living fully in that moment. Marvin worked with emotion in much the 
same way."

By investing himself so fully in his artistry, Gaye's music connected 
popular culture to something eternal. "The key to life is the spirit 
that leads," offers Lem Barney. These days Barney, who will act as 
special guest emcee for this tribute to his departed friend, is director 
of physician relations and recruitment for the Detroit Medical Center. 
He also serves as associate pastor at Hope United Church.

"There are good spirits and bad spirits," he explains. "You have to 
choose each day which spirits you're going to serve. Marvin had his 
share of both, but when you hear his music, even after all this time, 
you're hearing the spirit that leads."

/Contact freelance writer *BEN EDMONDS* at bedmonds5131 at comcast.net 


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