Music is the Lifeblood of Detroit

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Marcus Elliot was one of four Detroit-based musicians tapped for the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival’s "Audio/Visual: Muse at the Museum" performance on June 15, 2018. Along with his close writing partner Michael Malis, the two are ready to take the city’s jazz and new music scenes by storm.

When jazz saxophonist Marcus Elliot composes songs, he begins by creating graphics and visual scenes of shapes and colors, adding words as he crafts a story, well before he begins thinking about notes and instrumentation.

"I like to visually lay out the story. I might use some words here and there, whatever I can do to get the story out," says Elliot, who has become well-known in Detroit’s vibrant jazz scene. "And then I begin to put music to the images and words. Once I have those main themes, I develop and connect them to one another. Then I do my best to make a rough draft."

It’s the same creative process Elliot was following as he composed an original jazz piece inspired by The Mandolin Player, a mid-20th century painting by John Thomas Biggers. The painting, part of the collection of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, depicts an African-American musician strumming his mandolin, with a view of his impoverished community behind him. 

Elliot is among four Detroit-rooted prominent musicians in classical, jazz, hip hop and electronic music who have been tapped to create new works of their own, inspired by the Biggers painting. The others are FIT Siegel, Mahogany Jones and William Banfield, whose new string quartet, The Bigger Blues, will be performed by the San Francisco-based Thalea String Quartet. 

The original works were performed on Friday, June 15 at the Wright Museum in Detroit. Dubbed "Audio/Visual: Muse at the Museum," the event was sponsored by the High Wire Lab, and supported in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

Elliot, a disciple of Detroit’s music scene who just earned his Master’s degree in jazz improvisation from the University of Michigan, found the opportunity to create music inspired by another medium challenging.

"I’m used to playing other people’s music or my own music," says Elliot, who performed weekly with the Marcus Elliot Quartet at Cliff Bell’s before heading to graduate school. "I never had to take something from a different medium and transfer that over to sound. It’s been a fun experience."

Elliot, who is just returning to the jazz scene, recently released a CD, Balance, with his musical partner and long-time friend, Michael Malis, a jazz pianist and composer. Malis calls the project a “true collaboration,” and notes the CD’s title was inspired by the pair’s ability to balance one another.

"It’s really a moody, atmospheric work," says Malis, who lives in Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood. "What we’re trying to do on our album and our performances is break open the spaces we live in -- that our listeners live in, the places we live in emotionally."

They’re also contributing to Detroit’s burgeoning music scene, occasionally performing at venues like Cliff Bell’s, Motor City Wine and Trinosophes, among others.  That scene embraces music of all genres, including rock, hip hop, electronic, experimental and classical. Many local artists are writing and recording their own music, not just playing covers of the classics or standards. 

“Detroit is a fantastic place to be for music, to access all types of music. It’s the single most important part of the city. It’s the lifeblood of the city...”  Michael Malis

"The crossroads for a lot of these types of music is the jazz world," Malis says. "Detroit is a fantastic place to be for music, to access all types of music. It’s the single most important part of the city. It’s the lifeblood of the city. Detroit has those jazz roots that hit you in the soul, that’s where I really call home and where Marcus calls home."

Despite Elliot’s busy schedule, which includes a role as director of the Detroit Symphony Civic Jazz Orchestra and artist in residence at Troy High School, he has managed to find time to work on his commission for the Biggers piece.

"I hadn’t seen the painting before," he admits. "I didn’t really know about the artist or his influence on the art world until I was asked to be a part of it. It was cool to meditate on the painting and learn more about the artist and his works."

Elliot found the painting captivating.

"It captures the essence of being an artist, especially an African-American artist. You don’t have to be a painter to understand that," he says.

Elliot, who grew up in Milford, far from the grittiness and poverty of Detroit, could relate to the mandolin player and his artistry.

"I was captured by the resilience it takes to be an artist or musician at that time period," Elliot says. "But especially to be an artist among people who have migrated and who are really refugees, coming from the Deep South. To play music after those experiences and understand that role as an artist in that community, to me, all of those things really spoke to me. It’s almost a rebellion in a way, like 'I’ve gotten through all this stuff and I’m still showing up to do what I need to do as an artist and as a musician and that is to make this music happen.'"

Elliot's piece is 15 minutes in length and was performed by ME3, a trio composed of Elliot on saxophone, drummer Kayvon Gordon and bassist Brian Juarez.

"The story is that of a black man coming from a people who really have nothing and being in the situation where you think he’d have nothing to play but you still have that music," he says. "That’s the vague idea."

Creating new music is important, he says, to not only respecting the legacy of Detroit’s past but keeping that legacy alive.

"It’s very important," he says. "It’s not only important for Detroit but for music. It’s important to hear what people are doing right now and what they are thinking right now. It’s as important to play and honor traditions but also you need to create. Continuing to create adds onto that tradition. It’s a living thing."