His name may not be as familiar as some of Detroit’s jazz greats – think Thad Jones, Howard McGhee and Marcus Belgrave – but tenor saxophonist Marcus Elliot is carrying on the legacy with his imaginative improvising and thoughtful voice.
Elliot, who performs with the self-titled Marcus Elliot Quartet every Tuesday at Cliff Bell’s, an Art Deco jazz club in downtown Detroit, has been part of the city’s music scene since he was a teenager. His father frequently brought him from their home in Milford to the clubs in the city, exposing his son to the always-vibrant jazz scene and music legends.
“I have a lot of family here in Detroit and both my parents are from Detroit,” Elliot says. “I’ve always had a connection to the city, even learning how to play music here. I didn’t learn by hanging out in Milford. I had to come to the city.”
The Golden Age of Jazz in America might seem like a distant memory for many, but the genre remains alive and vibrant in Detroit. While it’s neither New York nor Chicago, a close-knit jazz community endures in the Motor City and is expanding, attracting young talent ‒ musicians who choose to remain in their hometown rather than relocate to glitzier locales.
“The jazz scene here is very strong and very deep,” Elliot says. “We have a deep history here and the scene is pretty deep rooted. It’s expanding, growing fast with younger people finding places to play and making themselves heard.”
Just 26, Elliot is among the young musicians who are the modern face of jazz in a resurging city.
“Whenever people try to tell me it’s not possible to make a living as a musician, I’ll say, ‘Have you tried it? Where are you getting your information from?’” he says. “Anybody who is hungry for something is going to make it happen. That’s the story of Detroit right there.”
It’s a story he’s witnessed during the past decade or so, as the city has begun a transformation.
“Gentrification is definitely happening,” he says. “It’s really interesting to see what is happening in the city, especially as an artist. I feel like one of the jobs of an artist is to observe what’s happening around you and let those things inspire you. This is such an interesting time to be in the city.”
While he expresses concerns about how gentrification will impact lower economic and social classes, he acknowledges it’s an issue not just for Detroit but other American cities on the rise.
“There’s no doubt beautiful things are happening here.”
Elliot’s Detroit connections run deep.
As a teenager, he became involved with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s City Jazz Ensemble, which he now directs.
“Once I got into that it tied me into a whole community of young musicians living in the city and across metro Detroit,” he recalls. “It was the beginning of that connection between me and the city. So many elder musicians began taking me under their wings and helping me out.”
He counts his mentors as Donald Walden (who backed Aretha Franklin and toured with the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and The Four Tops), Faruq Z. Bey (known for his work with avant-garde jazz band Griot Galaxy), Sam Sanders (post-bebop jazz master who led prominent Detroit group Sam Sanders and Visions and played with the likes of Smokey Robinson) and Wendell Harrison, whose work can be heard on recordings with Aretha Franklin, Sun Ra and Marvin Gaye.
“These are all local guys. Wendell is the only one still living. They’re the reason why I stuck around the city, why I dug into what’s happening here. These are the musicians who laid the ground work for what I want to continue. These are people who really did a lot for music on the city and national level. Their story kind of gets lost.”
His talents landed him a scholarship to attend Michigan State University Jazz Studies Program, where he studied with Wes “Warmdaddy” Anderson, Diego Rivera and Rodney Whitaker. After graduating from college, he performed around the world in Canada, Cuba, South Africa, Namibia and Indonesia.
In 2015, Elliot self-released “When the City Meets the Sky,” which was recorded with the members of his quartet. The Detroit Free Press said the CD “shows off the thoughtful muscularity of Elliot’s playing and composing and offers a personal take on the swinging post-bop idiom.”
Besides performing weekly at Cliff Bell’s and working with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Civic Jazz Ensemble, Elliot is also the artist-in-residence at Troy High school.
While he spends a lot of time in the city, he recently moved from the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck to Ferndale, just across 8 Mile Road, where he lives with his girlfriend. When he’s not composing or performing, Elliot likes to spend time outdoors, and one of his favorite escapes is Belle Isle, the state-run park on the Detroit River.
“I really like being in nature,” he says. “I try to spend as much time as I can outside. I love camping, fishing and a lot of outdoor activities.”
For Elliott and other aspiring and established musicians in the city, it’s not just about making money.
“My attitude toward being here and the attitude of musicians here is not necessarily how much money we are going to make – it’s really about the music,” Elliot explains.
“If you take care of the music, the music will take care of you. That’s what I was always told by elders. I feel like I’m a living example of that. I’m making a living writing and performing music, and traveling around the world. I keep the music to the highest quality as I possibly can.”
Images above were photographed by Christian Lathers. This article also appears in the Winter 2017 Print Issue of TBD Mag with additional photography from Sal Rodriguez.