Although he’s made a living in the last seven years performing a Louis Armstrong tribute show, composer, arranger, bandleader, educator, and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave missed an opportunity to meet Armstrong one time when both musicians were in Paris in the early 1970s.
“I had one opportunity to meet Louis and it was in Paris, but Ray Charles was invited to dinner at Hugh Pannassi’s house (publisher of Jazz Hot magazine, a French jazz and blues journal) and somehow I got invited too,” Belgrave explains, laughing about it now. “I opted to go to the dinner at Hugh’s house. That’s how I missed meeting Louis.” Belgrave still kicks himself when thinking about that time in Paris.
He brings his Louis Armstrong Tribute to the State Theater in New Brunswick on Saturday, March 4.
Belgrave, born and raised just south of Philadelphia in Chester, has been based in Detroit since 1963, when he began to find more steady work as a staff trumpeter at then-burgeoning Motown Records. In addition to being part of Charles’ various bands, Belgrave was also an original member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis. Since forming his hand-picked octet in 1999, Belgrave has made almost as much of a name for himself for his tribute shows to Armstrong’s music as he has made a name for himself in the world of classic jazz.
He began playing trumpet as a six-year old and as a 12-year-old began playing professionally in nursing homes and other venues around Philadelphia. “My father put me in the musicians’ union, and that’s when I met [trumpeter] Clifford Brown, and so I always like to say I grew up in the bebop era,” Belgrave says. In high school he played in an all-state band and began playing with a number of orchestras.
Belgrave realized he might be able to make a living playing trumpet in 1957, when he was still in the armed services. “I was in Texas, waiting to see Ray Charles, hoping to get the chance to sit in (audition) with him,” he says. “I had been listening to his music three or four years at that time. After I had the chance to sit in with him, I didn’t get the gig.”
Belgrave returned home to Chester after being discharged. A month later, Charles and his band had a two-week residency at Philadelphia’s Melody Lounge. “The trumpeter with his band had told me he was thinking of leaving the band,” Belgrave recalls of his first big break. “One night soon after I went to hear [drummer] Max Roach, and I was coming back home. I happened to drive by the Melody Lounge and I noticed people were just coming out. I went inside and asked, ‘Are they still playing?’ and this woman said, ‘Oh, they been looking for you all night!’ and so Ray asked me if I could be ready to go (on tour) in an hour. The rest is history.”
Belgrave stayed with Charles’ touring band for a year and a half, and then went to New York at the urging of drummer Max Roach. “I stayed in New York for another year and a half, worked with Charlie Persip, Ron Carter, Ronnie Matthews, and Booker Little,” Belgrave says, adding that he also worked with Roach and did some recording with Charles Mingus.
He then went back out on the road again with Charles. “New York was rough for musicians at that time, so I decided to go back out on the road. I looked at places like Dallas, Houston, and Washington, D.C., as places to live, but none of them hit my fancy like Detroit, and when I left Ray in 1963, I decided to go there.”
He left Detroit a little more than a year later, because his father was ailing back home, but returned in 1967, a couple of days before the riots. That summer he was on the touring bus with classic soul blues singer Bobby “Blue” Bland, en route to Newark. “By the time we got to Newark, they were rioting there, and the next stop with Bobby was supposed to be California, but they were rioting in Watts, so I decided to stay in Detroit.”
“The whole thing didn’t make much sense,” Belgrave says of the period of pronounced racial strife, “and it really separated the people. People were more unified — whites and blacks together in jazz clubs — before all this happened. Jazz clubs were flourishing in lots of cities,” but the riots shut them down.
Belgrave says he started out doing a Louis Armstrong program at Wayne State University in Detroit. “They had an exhibit of Louis Armstrong artifacts at the local museum, so this lady connected with the university asked me to play some Armstrong tunes. She asked about some Hot Five and Hot Seven tunes,” he says.
“I started re-listening to some of Louis’ stuff, and it intrigued me. I began transcribing them, and it got a little burdensome because I was teaching at the time, at Wayne State University. So I asked one of my students to do a few transcriptions for me. By the time we did the concert in tribute to Louis at the Greystone Museum, we had eight pieces in the band.”
That student was Hugh Leal, who now performs with Belgrave on banjo. Belgrave’s octet also includes Charles Gabriel on tenor saxophone, clarinet, and vocals; Paul Keller on bass; Peter Siers on drums; Bill Meyer on piano; Chris Smith on trombone; and Dave Flanigan on alto sax and clarinet.
“The project has really only become fruitful in the last three years,” Belgrave says, noting the octet’s repertoire includes familiar Armstrong fare like “Sleepy Time Down South,” “West End Blues,” “Potato Head Blues,” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” He says the Armstrong tribute concerts draw a mixed audience, racially mixed and cross-generational. “Most of our audience is 50 and over, but in California recently, there were quite a few people in their 20s, who are discovering Armstrong for the first time.” During the concerts Belgrave takes the time to educate the audience about the background of each tune with an introduction.
“I get quite a few comments from people in their 50s who say, ‘I close my eyes, and I go back 40 years to when I saw him perform.’ (Armstrong died in 1976.) The people in their 20s say, ‘I never realized this music was so vibrant and happening,’ and that’s because every person in the group is a specialist on their own; they’re not just listening to me, they’re also listening, for example, to (saxophonist) Charlie Gabriel in our group, whose father played with Armstrong.”
Aside from his current teaching endeavors at Oberlin College in Ohio and his past jazz teaching posts at Wayne State and Michigan State universities, Belgrave says he is proud of his accomplishments as a nurturer of talent. People who have come through his various bands over the years include saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Bob Hurst, and pianist and singer Gerri Allen.
“It’s very difficult making a living in the jazz business,” he says, “so of course you’ve got to love it, and that’s one reason I came to Detroit. It probably saved my life. The things musicians would get into when they’re suffering is really not good.”
Belgrave says his teaching allows him greater flexibility and stability in income. “I found out I could teach, but of course, I was taught really well myself,” he says, “so I just see it as passing it on. You might not make any money in this business, but if you love what you’re doing, you can do it forever.”
Marcus Belgrave’s Octet, “A Louis Armstrong Tribute,” Saturday, March 4, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $25-$45. 732-246-7469.