the gold standard.
Detroit has long been a city of solid gold. In the boom times, it was the richest city in the world. In the sixties, Motown printed golden records by the dozens. In recent years though, even as the city transforms itself for a brighter future, that gold has tarnished. However, for one influential Detroiter, jazz musician Marion Hayden, that doesn’t diminish the beauty and possibility she sees in this city.
Because she sees a rich legacy of cultural stewardship poured, piping hot, into the mold of Detroit’s people. Every generation learning from — and building upon — the one before it. After all, as a prominent musician in Detroit’s vibrant jazz scene, she’s seen, experienced and shared the phenomenon first hand.
Today, you may know Marion as one of the founding members of the groundbreaking ensemble Straight Ahead, the first all-female jazz group to be signed by Atlantic Records in the early 1990s. Or as Professor Hayden of the University of Michigan. Or even as that phenomenal bass player owning the stage at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe. But she got her start at age nine in the warmth of a craftsman home nestled in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood where she listened raptly to her father’s collection of jazz records.
Marion says,” My father was a kind of closet jazz pianist. He was totally fantastic, but more than that, he was a huge jazz lover and record collector. My mother was a lover of Gershwin and classical music. So, I had access to a lot of really great jazz recordings that got played a lot.”
Detroit’s public schools built on that interest. According to Marion, “At the time, we had a very strong elementary school music instrumental program. That’s where I started taking music lessons. I started on cello, but I always really wanted to play bass violin. And bass violin has been my love for many, many years.”
At age 12, already a burgeoning bassist, school classes led Marion to close collaboration with fellow young jazz musicians and earned her admission to the Metro Arts summer program. It was an incredible opportunity to work directly with veteran players and Detroit’s jazz greats. To this day, Marion fondly remembers the community and kinship she found there.
“Detroit has always had a great legacy of musical mentorship in the community. That’s been a really important part of how I learned music.”
She’s quick to credit the city’s ingrained nurturing atmosphere for fostering such a vibrant, evergreen music scene.
“There’s a really strong sense of community in Detroit. And you see it made manifest in the number of young people that continue to come up and play, continuing to be an influential part of the musical traditions here. And not just jazz. All musical traditions have a legacy here.”
Marion believes that the resulting cross-pollination is, on some level, responsible for all the signature Detroit sounds, from Motown to J Dilla, “When you talk about Detroit music, you’re really talking about a musical legacy that broke off into jazz, some rock, some rhythm, and blues. You can’t tease one out from the other. They’re all the same tradition.”
It’s an evolution that only gains steam as time goes on.
“Every generation brings something a little different to the table. They take something that’s already happening and put their own perspective on it. They put the flavor, the zeitgeist, of their time on the music. That’s what went on with Motown, and, of course, it continues now.”
Marion finds the ebb and flow of change exciting. Brimming with a rich tapestry of experience gleaned over the years coming up in Detroit and an insatiable love of music, she strives to continue the legacy; passing along her knowledge to the next generation, both formally and informally. Teaching jazz studies at the University of Michigan, mentoring middle and high school students via Michigan State University’s Spartan Team Jazz program, supporting an all-girl jazz camp and promoting a yearly youth ensemble performance at the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, all in addition to her performance schedule, keeps her energized.
The mentorship is an experience that, for most young Detroit musicians, stays with them. Marion says, “Once a person is in your sphere, they pretty much don’t leave your sphere. You know that you’re always engaged in doing something with them.”
In a post-YouTube world that curates for comfort rather than challenging you, it’s a connection with the younger generation that she relishes. “I feel like I can be a part of helping to recommend recordings and artists that maybe they don’t know. I can give them perspective. It’s really wonderful to see them light up and say, ‘God, I love such and such! I never knew about them before. What a great tune! What a wonderful record!’”
But the proof of the mentorship effect is in the strength of the relationships forged and the positive outcomes achieved. According to Marion, “A lot of the young people that were students of mine over the years have become young musicians that I now have a personal relationship with. I hire them for gigs. They’re great, and that’s the real joy of it.”
That joy makes her proud to be a part of Detroit. Where she can pass down her knowledge to the city’s next generation of musicians. Just like her solid gold mentors did.
“People always look at Detroit and only see how many buildings are abandoned. When they do that, I think they miss what’s really important. People are often looking for gold in the ground, but the gold is actually walking around. The value of the city is walking around in its people. The folks that live here… that really is the gold in the gold mine.”