Detroit summer, Detroit music, Detroit fun

 

The best Detroit weekend I’ve had so far this year began around 12:30 p.m. on a perfect blue sky Saturday afternoon.  Salim called my cell to let me know he was in town from New York and headed on his way to Southern Fires, a ridiculously popular soul food restaurant located on the city’s east side not more than a few blocks from the house where he grew up on Concorde. Like so many other areas of Detroit, his childhood home is one of about two homes still standing on the entire block, and that includes the empty fields across the street where he can systematically point at one vacant lot after another and describe in detail what used to be there.

Anyway, Southern Fires. Salim was in town to perform at a very unique jazz venue that I had never been to before called the Bohemian National Home, which was hosting its Second Annual Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music. The place definitely lives up to its name as it appears to be little more than a huge abandoned warehouse structure with several very large wide open rooms with high ceilings used as makeshift concert halls. Turn one corner and you might see what appears to be someone’s ramshackle bedroom tucked away between a half kitchen that is tacked to the side of some other large room populated by overly friendly and consciously hip new millenium hippy types that have apparently claimed this structure as their own in the name of the jazz nation.

Or something like that.

There is much to commend this spot, particularly for folks like myself who much prefer the raw and uncut to the exquisite and refined. And the music that was pulsing through those walls was some of the most raw and uncut jazz I’d heard in quite some time in a public venue. Straight no chaser. My man Salim, who is well on his way to becoming a nationally-renowned jazz composer and saxophonist, was the headliner for the night along with bassist Hakim Jami, another Detroit native.

But long before the gig I was hanging out with Salim and members of his family at Southern Fires where everybody was pretty much into being relaxed and getting fed. To give you an idea of just how relaxed we were, we didn’t leave the place for nearly two hours as we ate, talked, ate, talked, ate, then talked some more.

From there we went to Salim’s sister’s house for about a half hour where we waited for Hakim and Howard to show up so that we could all head over to Pamela Wise’s crib for a brief rehearsal that lasted about an hour.  Pam was on board to handle keyboard duties, with Sean Dobbins on drums. I sat on the floor and listened as they worked out arrangements – and corrections -for the tunes they thought they might try. At certain points it sounded a little precarious to me as I tried to figure out how some of those holes were gonna get plugged between rehearsal and the stage, but I figured it would work itself out some kinda way. If you’ve got good cats, the music usually does tend to work itself out.

From there we packed up and scooted on down to the Bohemian where we sat around and talked shit in a rather large back room for about a half hour before Salim’s group went up. The room was close to packed as the band lit into some jazz so ferocious it was damned near life-threatening. Listening to it I was reminded of a jazz book I read once entitled “As Serious As Your Life.” That title definitely applied here. These cats were playing as if they were attempting to exorcise demons, which made the beauty of the music that much more arresting. At times it resembled what Hurricane Katrina might sound like if put to music.

An hour later it was over and we were all back in the back room, talking more and telling  more stories. We hung out for at least an hour before departing and going our separate ways. Salim had to catch a 9 a.m. flight the following morning, and Hakim had some stuff he had to handle before catching a later Sunday flight. As always, Salim and I embraced and said we looked forward to the next time. Our friendship goes back more than 35 years, so at this point we’re much closer to being brothers than simply friends.

The next day my wife and I decided to head on down to the Detroit Festival of the Arts, just like we do every year. Once again the weather was a perfection in blue, and we enjoyed just being around each other with nothing else on our minds as we wandered the streets looking at the art, the people, the music. And as always, we made sure to stock up on the ice cream and the kettle corn, which is another tradition of ours. We steadfastly refuse to eat healthy whenever we go the Fesival of the Arts, or any other festival. To us, that somewhat defeats the purpose of a festival.

One of the highlights was a remarkable bit of street theater involving these performers on stilts who put on a show that had to be seen to be believed. One guy was walking around approximately ten feet tall speaking in some sort of gibberish that resembled something you might hear in an Eastern European country somewhere. Or what you might imagine you’d hear. He was dressed in black tails with a two-foot-high stovepipe hat. He also had wings that spread out at least four feet on either side when he extended his arms.

And that’s when the dinosaurs came running. Silver dinosaurs on stilts who ran back and forth through the wide-eyed crowd with high-pitched roars that seemed to echo back and forth as if bouncing off the walls of some far-away canyon. Every so often these dinosaurs would dip down their chrome-colored heads and flapping jaws to attempt to take a bite from a nearby passerby who perhaps didn’t fade into the crowd quickly enough to play anonymous.

It’s been a long time since I was a kid, but for that brief moment in time it all came flooding back…

Detroit summer, Detroit music, Detroit fun.

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~ by Keith A. Owens on June 11, 2007.

2 Responses to “Detroit summer, Detroit music, Detroit fun”

  1. Wonderful post, taking us along on your festive excursion! That “jazz shack” sounds awesome, a bit like an abandoned-looking place I hung out at in NYC in the ’80s called 8 B.C.

    Your friend, Salim, sounds like he’s doin’ it! Which instrument does he play? I’m a jazzhead, too, and want to keep an eye out for his name. 😉

  2. Kweenkong!

    Glad to see you back in da house, and I’m glad you dug the post. That really was a good day. You asked about Salim? His full name is Salim Washington, and he’s now an alto sax player and flute player based out of Harlem. He used to head a group called the Roxbury Blues Aesthetic, which was also a monster group. I’m really proud of him, and I can definitely say I knew him when! We’re still trying to figure a way to work together on some stuff, which is what we’ve wanted to do ever since we first played together as kids more than 30 years ago. I think it’ll be soon, and when it hits it will be DA BOMB! If I do say so myself…

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