Marion Hayden believes mentorship is a significant part of Detroit’s jazz community.
Her mentors over the years, who Hayden affectionately calls her “professors,” include fellow Detroiters saxophonist and clarinetist Wendell Harrison, singer Ursula Walker and former trumpet player Marcus Belgrave, who died in 2015.
“These are people I began playing music with when I was very young and who stayed in my life personally and professionally for years,” Hayden said.
“This idea of mentoring young musicians is a really important thing. I think when you come up through that process, then it can tap into the cultural fabric of the city.”
Now in her 50s, Hayden has become a well-known and celebrated jazz bassist in Detroit, who pays it forward by mentoring the young musicians that come her way.
Her career, along with about 40 other Detroit musicians, are featured in “Detroit Jazz: A Legacy Continues,” a new exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The exhibit, open through Feb. 28, focuses on Detroit musicians and places that have made an impact on the local, national and international jazz scene.
“Detroit Jazz” serves as a companion exhibit to “Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection,” which consists of 31 images from the 1920s to the 1980s featuring famous artists like Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.
“I’m hoping visitors learn something new, something they didn’t know about jazz or a person they’ve seen perform; they might see something that excites them or reinvigorate their love for that person,” Exhibitions Manager Jennifer Evans said.
“And for Detroiters, I think having that Detroit-specific history is always exciting. They get to learn about places that they have either driven past a hundred times or they might’ve seen certain musicians perform at the (Detroit) Jazz Festival and not really thought about that person until they discovered them at the exhibition.”
Showcasing artists of past and present
The jazz exhibit at the Wright museum has been at least two years in the making, Evans said. “Jazz Greats” was set to open in 2020, but was delayed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The traveling exhibit is a partnership with Bank of America’s Art in Our Communities program, with photos coming from the bank’s private collection. Photographers highlighted include William Gottlieb, who captured images from the golden age of jazz in the 1930s and 1940s and self-proclaimed “amateur photographer” and jazz bassist Milt Hinton, who took intimate photos of fellow musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Cab Calloway.
However with the exhibit’s delay, this gave Evans and other staff members time to curate their own exhibit that focused specifically on Detroit jazz.
Evans said the process of selecting the artists was difficult, but she ultimately decided to focus on artists who often popped up in her research and had photos that could be replaced in the exhibit.
“Those are the hard decisions when it comes to curating, going back and forth between the historic accuracy of your story and what’s visually available to tell that story.
“But the people in the exhibit…they reflect the core Black musicians that did a lot of work around jazz, influencing jazz, people that revolutionized jazz from the 1910s to the present.”
Becoming a master in her craft
Hayden said her love for jazz music began when she was a child, hearing her father play records from Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson She initially started playing the cello when she was around nine years old, but switched to the bass by the time she was 12.
Hayden began performing at age 15 under the mentorship of Belgrave while a student at Cass Technical High School. But it wasn’t until after graduating from the University of Michigan that she considered having a career in music.
“I was doing some work around and I was really enjoying it,” Hayden said. “And I remember a dear friend of mine said to me, ‘You know, you can do this for a living.’ And I think that really turned on a light bulb for me. And so, I began to seek more performances, opportunities.”
She has since gone on to perform with jazz artists such as Bobby McFerrin, Nancy Wilson, Geri Allen and Steve Turre.
In 1987, Hayden helped form an all-women jazz group called Straight Ahead with Regina Carter, Cynthia Dewberry, Eileen Orr and Gayelynn McKinney. The group recorded three albums for Atlantic Records in the 1990s and still perform today, Hayden said.
The bassist is also an educator, teaching music classes at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Oakland University.
Hayden said she had an idea that the Wright Museum was going to highlight her, but didn’t know what it was going to look like. She finally had a chance to view the exhibits last month at the opening reception.
“It was really beautiful,” Hayden said. “I was glad to be recognized in the way that I was.”
And following in Hayden’s footsteps is her son Tariq Gardner, who is also featured. The 26-year-old Detroiter plays the drums in the band Evening Star, which he formed in 2019 with two high school friends. The group’s next gig is on Nov. 19 at the Blue Llama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor.
Graduating from U-M’s Jazz Studies program in 2018, Gardner has led groups at the Wright Museum’s African World Fest, performed with the Detroit Jazz Fest All Star Alumni Band and at the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, New Jersey.
Gardner also steps in for his mom when she needs a drummer.
“She demands a lot of me musically because she knows what I’m able to do,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see her trust me to bring her music to life.”