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Remembering Marcus Belgrave

Marcus Belgrave with a young Anthony Stanco

Known as Detroit’s “Jazz Ambassador,” Marcus Belgrave's reputation in the jazz world as a musician and human being of the highest caliber was renowned worldwide.  Yet, Marcus always had time for his hometown friends be they in Detroit, Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti.

Credit Marilyn Gouin / 89.1 WEMU
89.1 WEMU

His impact on the Jazz Community

From Facebook posts to blogs to newspaper articles on Marcus Belgrave – one thread runs true all the way through.  Everyone appreciated Marcus Belgrave’s generous nature, his boundless energy, his musical wisdom, his natural talent and his natural presence as a performer.   Whether it was on the Amphitheater stage of Hart Plaza, in Hill Auditorium or Orchestra Hall or a Cliff Bell’s nightclub Marcus Belgrave communicated directly with each audience member.  His sense of swing was unstoppable and his sparkling spirit made everyone feel quite all right.   Many have said that his smile lit up the room. 


When WEMU established the station as the jazz radio voice for the Detroit – Ann Arbor area, we partnered with the Depot Town Association in Ypsilanti to present a winter jazz and blues series in the Depot Town freight house.  Marcus Belgrave inaugurated the series with such vigor and class that his image beneath the banner became the logo for the series and helped establish Ypsilanti’s Depot Town as a jazz destination.   Marcus was a perennial headliner and featured guest at the legendary Frog Island jazz festivals in Ypsilanti’s Frog Island Park.  My most vivid memory of Marcus at Frog Island was in the early 1990s.   It was 102 degrees.  Marcus, saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman and pianist Kirk Lightsey presented a riveting reunion concert in the height of the sweltering heat.  With a wet towel on his head, Marcus played at his power and helped all keep their cool under the big tent.   Marcus never missed a note or a beat in that heat.  Whenever anyone at WEMU needed a favor from Marcus, he granted the request with grace and joy.


When I learned about Marcus Belgrave’s passing, I thought about trumpeter Anthony Stanco who we presented at our 5:01 Jazz shows to your rave reviews.  Marcus Belgrave was Anthony’s first jazz teacher and mentor.  And like Marcus, when asked for a favor, Anthony granted the wish in a heartbeat.  Anthony recalled his first experience hearing Marcus and the inspiration to become a jazz musician.  Anthony also shared what it was like to have Marcus as understanding and encouraging teacher. 


Teacher, technician, band leader, counselor, mentor, composer, father, husband - but most all – gracious friend with a sunlight smile is how Marcus Belgrave will be remembered. - Linda Yohn

Working with Marcus (Greg Maxwell, Gifts of Art Program at the UM Hospital)

How incredibly fortunate I am to have known this wonderful man. We played together a half-dozen times over the past three years during Marcus’ admissions and each visit was memorable.

How cool was Marcus Belgrave? We once jammed on ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ through an entire blood draw, with Marcus  leaning over onto the right arm of the chair he was sitting in, he played his pocket trumpet with his right hand while the phlebotomist prepped his left arm, drew multiple vials of blood, and bandaged him. Marcus didn’t flinch or miss a beat. When we finished the tune I remarked on his steadiness playing through the poking and prodding.  “It don’t bother me”, he said with his  gravelly voice,  “I’ve played in way rougher places than this!”

Marcus and I had a wonderful final visit on the Saturday morning of Mother’s Day weekend. I needed to come in to the hospital  to retrieve one of my songbooks, and since I had missed visiting with Marcus the previous day (he’d been sleeping both times I stopped by) I had told Joan that I would get back to see Marcus as soon as I could. When I arrived at his room Marcus was alert and bright eyed and just finishing breakfast, and as always he immediately suggested we play something. We soon discovered, however, that Marcus’ horn had gone  home overnight with Joan for safekeeping. Regardless, he encouraged me to play and I began doing an old standard. Marcus began singing along, swinging into a call and response to my lead, his voice sounding like he was channeling Louis Armstrong.  I will never forget the smile on Marcus’s face as we laughed and finished the song…. he was bursting with joy at making music. Sitting in Marcus’ presence and playing together was inspiring and transporting beyond words.

When we finished playing, our conversation turned to our musical instruments. Marcus told me stories about tracking down horns that had been stolen from him, and about the pawn shops and their ‘colorful’ owners he had dealt with; he had a special memory of the pawnbroker  in Kansas City who refused to return a horn to Marcus that had clearly been stolen. Marcus lit up talking about his favorite instruments, particularly the horn he had been playing for the past few years … a strikingly beautiful instrument with a copper bell.  He said it had been made by a horn maker and friend of his  in California for one of the most famous trumpet players on the planet, and during a visit to his friend’s shop Marcus had tried the instrument and then managed to convince his friend that he had fallen in love with the horn and just had to have it … he said he had been playing it practically every day since he acquired it.

We played a final tune … ‘If I Had You’ - Marcus knew every word and sang with a smile and a joyful energy that overflowed the room, washing over the staff and visitors that had gathered at the door to hear him play. Unforgettable.

See you upstairs in the Elvis Wing Marcus!

Here’s a sample of his beautiful music: 


Arwulf Arwulf Tribute

The Marcus Belgrave Memorial Service will be held on Saturday, May 30th at:

Greater Grace Temple
23500 W 7 Mile Rd
Detroit, MI 48219
(313) 543-6000
10:00 am family hour
11:00 am service

Flowers may be sent to PYE Funeral Home
176000 Plymouth Rd
Detroit, MI 48227

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to:
Jazz Development Workshop
C/O Detroit Jazz Musicians Co-Op
P.O. Box 36426
Grosse Pointe, MI 48236

Linda Yohn simply cannot remember a day in her life that was not filled with music. Her early life was full of changes as the daughter of a well-respected cancer research scientist who moved his family about, but one thing was constant: the love of music instilled by her mother. So, when it seemed life was too hard to bear, young Linda would listen to her radio, play her guitar, dance her heart out and sing at the top of her lungs. So, it isn’t so strange that “older” Linda still does all those things!