Imagine an alternate reality in which world-class musicians perform in living rooms in front of small, intimate groups enjoying champagne and perhaps even a roaring fire.
Sound too good to be true?
For the past 10 years, residents of Detroit’s historic Palmer Woods neighborhood have been hosting a wildly popular concert series called Palmer Woods Music in Homes, featuring Jazz, Classical & World music. The eight-concert series is the brainchild of internationally acclaimed Jazz guitarist, A. Spencer Barefield, and his wife Barbara, a graphic designer, photographer and ceramic artist.
Esteemed performers have included New Orleans clarinet master, Charlie Gabriel, Kresge Eminent Artist trumpeter, Marcus Belgrave, and musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, as well as various Grammy and Juno awardees.
“We wanted to combine top-notch performances with a terrific setting,” Barbara Barefield says, “and one day it just hit us – we should do this here in our own homes.”
The idea wasn’t far-fetched for the Barefields, who were already deep in the jazz milieu. Bill Shoemaker of the JazzTimes calls Barefield, “an extraordinary guitarist/composer, (who) melds the techniques of Segovia and Jimi Hendrix into a startling jazz lexicon.”
A widely acclaimed soloist, composer and ensemble leader as well, Barefield has performed, toured and recorded extensively for nearly four decades and has received numerous grants and honors, including the prestigious 2010 Kresge Artist Fellowship.
Not surprisingly, during the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival, visiting musicians were frequent visitors in the Barefield’s home, and often those visits morphed into spontaneous concerts. The Barefields decided to ask their Palmer Woods neighbors whether they would be interested in opening their homes to listen to good music and raise money for neighborhood improvements.
From the beginning, the Barefields’ intention was to showcase rising stars who were either from Detroit or had a connection to the Detroit area, among them well-known actor and comedian, David Alan Grier of “In Living Color” and “Porgy and Bess” fame.
“He’s a talented actor, but most people don’t know that he’s also a master blues guitarist,” Barbara says. The David Alan Grier Quintet performs jazz standards by Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Horace Silver, among others.
Since it’s inception in 2007, every single one of the Music in Homes concerts has sold out, with audiences of around 100 in the winter, to as many as 225 at the garden summer concerts.
“We are constantly trying to keep music and the arts alive. During the recession, foreclosures were escalating, people were walking away from the city. It was frightening to see. We loved the city and there was so much talent, we felt that we needed to do something that would bring people into the neighborhood to cast a positive image on it,” says Spencer.
During that period, the Barefield’s, who have lived in their beloved Palmer Woods house for 29 years, were concerned about the future on many levels – a musical program they’d produced at the DIA had been nixed for lack of funding and the city seemed to be crumbling around them.
“I think the series has been so successful because we are professional producers and we have the tools in place to put on some great shows,” Barbara says.
Concert-goers are drawn to both the music and the ambience. Opulent homes on display include a 12,000 square-foot Tudor Revival mansion listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a 1921 Dutch colonial with a spectacular foyer and a grand-colonial-style staircase, as well as houses designed by acclaimed architects Wallace Frost, Richard Marr and C. Howard Crane, among many others.
This past December, Grammy-nominated, New York-based jazz vocalist, Carla Cook, joined Barefield, Canada’s esteemed bassist Dave Young, and percussionist Djallo Keita on stage.
Cook, a Detroit native, told the audience she was thrilled to be back in Detroit where the radio-station, WJZZ, first turned her on to Jazz. After Cass Tech, Cook attended Northwestern University and then moved to New York. In 1999, she released her debut album, It’s All About Love, which received a Grammy nomination. She has performed all over the world with everyone from the Count Basie Orchestra to Lionel Hampton’s Big Band.
The December 2016 concert took place in an English Tudor Revival on Balmoral built in 1925. The house has its own music room complete with carved stone fireplace, wood-paneled walls and pegged wood floors, added by the original owner in 1935. The band’s wide-ranging repertoire included everything from Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia to Miles Davis’s If I Were a Bell and even Winter Wonderland. During intermission a holiday buffet complete with champagne and sparkling wine added to the festive holiday spirit.
“How often do you get the chance to sit this close to the artist in a beautiful home and enjoy delicious food?” said attendee Rochelle Rubin, who had made the short jaunt from Bloomfield Hills for numerous concerts in the past and plans to keep attending as often as possible.
Another attendee, Wendy Wagenheim, grew up in Palmer Woods. She loves returning to her old neighborhood. In 2015, she had a front-row seat for celebrated Jazz saxophonist and Detroit native, James Carter. “The beauty of this series is you get to listen to music in an intimate setting as well as a beautiful location,” says Wagenheim.
The 2017 season features the Alvin Waddles Fats Waller Review, a Black History Month Jazz tribute, the Wendell Harrison World Music Quintet, and classical pieces by the pianist, Maria Meirelles, and violinist, Jannina Norpoth.
Norpoth is the Barefields’ daughter, and is fast becoming famous in her own right. Her string quartet, PUBLIQuartet, has spent several months as musicians-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Two other concerts this season feature Orquesta La Inspiracion, who will provide Caribbean-inspired music, and The James Carter quartet for more homegrown Jazz. The series closes out on June 17th with The Alan Grier Quartet.
Along with the music and the fabulous locations, every concert includes a buffet meal preselected by the food committee who pair their selections to the night’s repertoire.
Palmer Woods Music in Homes is sponsored by the Creative Arts Collective and the Palmer Woods Association. Both organizations are committed to sharing music with the next generation and also offer two free concerts for area children each season. http://palmerwoods.org/music-in-homes-2/