By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

April 11, 2018

I took a brief trip to Detroit, Michigan last month. During my visit, I prowled the city in search of ‘live’ jazz. I was not disappointed. My hometown has consistently birthed and/or inspired a long and stunning succession of jazz icons including Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson, Della Reese, Harold McKinney, Aretha Franklin (who sang and recorded jazz on Columbia before her hit, R&B records ), Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers, Barry Harris, Elvin Jones, Yusef Lateef, Ron Carter, Curtis Fuller, Frank Foster, Roland Hanna, Donald Byrd, Kenny Cox, Sonny Stitt, Alice Coltrane, Dorothy Ashby, Roy Brooks, Pepper Adams, Charles McPherson, Betty Carter, Geri Allen, Rodney Whitaker, Phil Ranelin, James Carter, Regina Carter and Thad Jones. Let me add, this is just a short list. Our own California-based vocalist, Barbara Morrison, who manages the Leimert Park Performing Arts Theater in Los Angeles, has deep roots in Detroit. I want to introduce you to another amazing woman and working musician in Detroit who is a multi-generational bassist, educator, recording artist, wife and mother. In celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, meet Marion Hayden.

Marion Hayden is a double-bass player who has excelled in a mainly male dominated music industry, especially when it comes to females who play the upright bass. She is a phenomenal player; a fast and competent reader of musical charts and she exhibits exquisite tone. Not to mention, her timing is unreproachable. We recently met in her Detroit, Michigan home, where she fixed me a cup of Good Earth, Orange Spice Tea. Sitting in her comfortable kitchen, I found her smile as warm as the tea cup she handed me. Marion Hayden has a way of making people feel comfortable, both on and off stage.

MARION: “My whole thing is multi-generational. I was probably about fourteen or fifteen when I had my first gig with (reedman) Wendell Harrison and I just know that having that relationship with him, and with Marcus (Belgrave), (trumpeter/composer/original member of the Ray Charles band), Buddy Budson and Ursula (Walker), (pianist/producer/arranger and his vocalist wife) iconic drummer, Roy Brooks, those experiences I had were deeply formative for me as a musician. Deeply, deeply important! They made such a difference in my whole understanding of the music and how you put the music together. You know, how to work in an ensemble. My understanding of the whole musical concept was greatly enhanced by my relationships with those people over the years.

“I switched from cello (her first instrument) to bass when I was twelve. I was always a lover of jazz. My father was a huge jazz lover and had a big record collection. He actually played Piano. His listening choices were, … Oscar Petersen and that was probably his big favorite. I remember very distinctly, he had a record player with a long cord that stretched so he could put it outside while he was mowing the lawn. Right in the driveway, he would play some Oscar Petersen or Miles Davis while he was mowing the grass.”

NOTE: A young Marion Hayden would have been listening to the bass work of the great Ray Brown, who was part of the early Petersen trio, along with guitarist Herb Ellis, and Miles Davis would have featured Paul Chambers on the double bass.

MARION: “Then, my cousin, Kamau Kenyatta, you know him. He’s a wonderful pianist and saxophonist. At that time, he and a number of other young people spent many hours in our little young people incubator, playing music with each other. I learned a lot from Kamau. You know, how sometimes you can have a peer mentor? He’s like a brother to me and a peer mentor”

NOTE: Kamau Kenyatta produced groundbreaking, GRAMMY-winning, jazz albums on Gregory Porter and is currently based in California.

MARION: “I listened to a lot of Paul Chambers, a lot of Ray Brown and then one of the records that was really important to me was a record that Quincy Jones did in 1970 and it’s called, “Walking In Space.” It was a big band production, but it had a little contemporary feel at the time. That was one of the records that really helped me to understand the playing of the music and how big bands work. I also really loved Thad Jones’ music. My dad was a big fan of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis. In fact, he took me to see Thad Jones and Mel Lewis once.”

“My other favorite album in the whole world was the Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley album. That was the first record I ever tried to transcribe. The first tune I ever tried to transcribe was “Never Never Will I Marry” from that record.”

NOTE: She was only ten-years-old when the famed Cannonball Adderley collaborative album was released, featuring up-and-coming vocalist, Nancy Wilson. This had to be another album Marion heard her dad, Herbert Hayden, play on his portable record player.

“You know, I had a chance to work with Nancy. Sometimes life will send you that quirky opportunity. It was maybe fifteen years ago, 2003 or 2004, and I was on a date with “Straight Ahead” (the all-girls group she has performed with for decades). I got a call from a friend who was working at the DSO (Detroit Symphony Orchestra) at that time, doing a lot of their programming. He said Nancy’s bass player, John B., couldn’t make the gig. What happened, after 911, they started making it very hard to get basses onto the airplanes. It just got crazy. I can’t even tell you how crazy it got and expensive. So apparently, something happened with John at the airport and he just couldn’t get into Detroit. I could have loaned him a bass. Anyway, my friend John at the DSO said, can you work with Nancy? I was like, YEAH! Needless to say, I could not have been more scared. I didn’t even have a chance to look at any of the charts and back in those days, the internet wasn’t rollin’ like that anyway. They weren’t sending pdf charts and all that stuff. It was paper charts. She had sent her charts ahead of time to the orchestra of course. But not for her bass player, because she had her established trio. I showed up there and tried to keep my little wits about me. That was one of the most thrilling things that happened in my life, because Nancy Wilson is such a hero to me. And she was so beautiful to me. She really treated me nicely. Let’s just be honest. She’s coming in. She doesn’t have her regular bass player and on top of that, a girl shows up on bass. I don’t know how many times even women don’t work with other women. I have to tell the truth about this bass. But I could imagine she was looking at me, a younger woman, and wondering, can she handle this? Is she going to F-up my show? She had to go on complete faith, because when I showed up, at that point, there was nobody else. Those other cats in the orchestra, they might be able to read some notes, but …. of course, I know the idiom. Basically, I had one rehearsal to look at her music. She did some things that I knew. The trio was me, Roy McCurdy and Llew Matthews. Her musicians were very gracious to me. A lot of times, people don’t know this, but the thing not to do, is to not be gracious. They accepted me and made me feel comfortable. I’m going to give myself a B plus. Later, her pianist, Llew Matthews, wrote a very nice compliment to me after that concert.“

I had to stop Marion right there. I know Nancy Wilson’s longtime musical conductor, Llew Matthews, very well. I am positive he would not have given her a compliment, and certainly not written her a letter of commendation if she hadn’t performed an A-plus, number-one job. She told me she had kept that E-mail letter from Llew for all these years. Marion Hayden went into another room and humbly retrieved the printed page to show it to me. It was then and only then that I remembered Llew Matthews sending me that very e-mail to compliment Marion Hayden on her bass excellence accompanying the great Nancy Wilson and working superbly with him and Roy McCurdy. He knew I was from Detroit and that I knew Marion. He hadn’t known how to contact her. So, I had actually forwarded his letter to her and then, totally forgotten about it. We had a laugh about that.

MARION: “Then, I had the chance to work with Llew again. Probably about three or four years ago down at Notre Dame with Jeff Clayton, fabulous alto saxophone player, sounding like Cannonball Adderley and he had Llew Matthews with him. I reminded Llew about the first time we had met and how meaningful that was to me.”

It hasn’t always been a smooth musical path for Marion Hayden. After attending Cass Technical high school and graduating from Henry Ford high school, she took classes at Michigan State University and later attended the University of Michigan, gaining a liberal arts degree with a minor in Entomology. That minor in the study of insects led the developing bassist to a day-job with the Michigan Department of Agriculture. In the 1970’s, Marion found herself frustrated and unsure of her musical career direction. She took a two-year hiatus before the encouraging of mentors, Kenny Cox and Roy Brooks cajoled her back to her instrument.

MARION: “I was in my early twenties and I just got frustrated. You know, it’s like when you say something to your children and it’s something that they probably need to hear and they get a little hurt. You know, when a person has been willing to give you some critical feed- back, especially when you needed it, even if you didn’t like it. But when that person turns around and says something good to you, then that means a lot! So, I love the ones who loved me. I just completely loved Ken Cox. I love Ken’s music. Ken just became someone I completely cherished. I’m very active in keeping his legacy alive. It meant so much to me when somebody turned around and said something like, I feel like I have Paul Chambers behind me … or said, you remind me of Doug Watkins. … Then you feel like you’re on the right path and steeped in the bass legacy. Probably one of the things that has been the most difficult for me is the loss of some of my mentors in the last several years. They just poured so much music into me and I thought, that can’t be the end of it. You’ve got to keep that legacy alive and continue to share it. So, I try to really pour that into the young folks I mentor. It’s just got to go down like that.”

While still working days, at night Marion woodshedded and joined the jazz nightclub circuit, playing with masters like trumpet icon, Marcus Belgrave, pianists, Charles Boles, Teddy Harris Jr, Buddy Budson and Kenny Cox. She added her sturdy bass lines to groups headed by reed master, Donald Walden and saxophonist, George Benson. She found herself very busy in the 1980s. She was part of the Ray Brooks historic group, “The Artistic Truth.” She worked on symphonic and cinematic music, pulling from her classical training. In the late 1970s, she worked with the all-female group, “Venus.” In 1989, She was one of the founders of another all-girls quintet that became quite popular in and around Motown. They called themselves, “Straight Ahead” and featured, Miche Braden on vocals, violinist, Regina Carter, pianist Eilene Orr, drummer Gayelynn McKinney and Marion Hayden on bass. When Braden moved to New York City to pursue an acting career, they replaced her with Cynthia Dewberry. In 1990, “Straight Ahead” opened for the amazing activist/pianist/vocalist Nina Simon at the Montreux-Switzerland Jazz Festival. Soon after, they were signed to Atlantic Records and cut three albums. Another member soon left to pursue a solo career. That was their violinist, Regina Carter, who has found great success on her own. However, the “Straight Ahead” group remains active to date, with the core members, Hayden, McKinney and Orr remaining in tact and close musical friends.

I told Marion that I remember interviewing Betty Carter and how she told me it was difficult to be female in the business of jazz. One reason was because she heard things in her head so far outside the box. Betty instituted a whole new realization of jazz and musicality, thinking more like an instrument than a vocalist. She said her male counterparts gave her a hard time, often not willing or unable to play the arrangements she heard in her head. Consequently, that led Betty Carter to learn to write her own arrangements. Once it was documented on the page, they had to play it. I asked Marion Hayden if she had encountered challenges because she was a female bassist?

MARION: “Well – you know what? It’s hard to say. But I’ll say this. I’m sure there were opportunities that I should have had. But I’ve not always been a person to dwell on such. My way, has always been to blossom where you are planted. Whatever circumstances that were given to me, I tried to enhance those circumstances fully. I tried to be tactful and make my presence known on my instrument. I tried to be a musical force for whoever I was working for. So, that made my presence there meaningful. I’m certain that there were some opportunities that I was probably over-looked for, but I prefer not to really dwell on that. I feel the ones that have come to me have been the ones that were meant for me. Detroit is not New York. True. It’s much smaller. But I have an entire college and jazz incubator in Detroit that I don’t know if I could have gotten in New York. I had my New Orleans education and introduction to traditional music through Charlie Gabrielle. Actually, he was the one that brought it to Marcus Belgrave. Charlie Gabrielle is the head performer with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I don’t know where you would get any better than that! My Ragtime tradition and education came through my girlfriend, Tasilemah Bey, who is probably one of the few black women in the world to spend her entire life studying the music of Scott Joplin. She’s fantastic.

“I got my education in Avant Garde and Free Jazz with Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison and with Spencer Barefield, who brought in people like (legendary saxophonist/composer) Roscoe Mitchell and I worked with Lester Bowie. It’s been a complete education and I’m not sure that I can find that education anywhere else the same way. So, I’m thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had. I believe more will come to me.

“One of my little stories is, and I tell this with love, because I truly love Donald Byrd. He gave me a really beautiful interview before he passed. I worked with him as a teenager and later, as an adult on the gig. Drummer, Roy Brooks put me on the gig. Roy Brooks was a huge supporter of my musicianship. So, we had a quartet with Donald Byrd at Baker’s.”

NOTE: Baker’s Keyboard Lounge is one of the oldest running jazz clubs in the United States.

“He kept a little baby metronome on a little string around his neck. He came up to me and said, we’re going to play “Lover Come Back To Me” about here, 300 beats per minute. Super-Duper fast! I think he was trying to intimidate me. (LAUGHTER)

MARION: “He didn’t know, I cannot be intimidated. He played it wherever he did it at that time and I was up for it. I was about twenty-six-years old. But he didn’t know that I was already in the habit of doing fast tempos, because I was raised by such great players. And I have to say one thing. I really loved these players. They were primarily men that raised me in the rhythm section sense. Because I was female, they didn’t expect any less of me. The bass is a work chair and the rhythm section is the engine of the band. No part of the engine can be weak. Somebody might like you, but they won’t hire you in their rhythm section if you can’t take care of business. That much I already knew. I always felt pretty confident that whatever situation I was in, I could handle it. … The bass is a pretty serious part of the engine. They might take away the piano, but they won’t get rid of the bass. Most people are not going to do without a bass.”

When Marion Hayden was growing up, she enjoyed and participated in confident-building programs like, ‘Metro Arts’ in Detroit. She has made it a point of creating and participating in community and private programs that encourage art and music appreciation in youth. The multi-generational aspect continues to motivate Marion, because she recognizes that what she learned from listening to and performing with music masters, those born in another generation, primed and inspired her. Now it’s her turn to share knowledge with young musicians from another generation. She explained her passion for these programs to me.

MARION: “Well, primarily I teach and I’m involved in some institutional programs; programs that are supported by the Detroit Jazz Festival. I’m the Resident Artist at an elementary and middle school via the Detroit Jazz Festival. I also teach through Michigan State University, a night class for teenagers. I directed a mentoring program that is an outreach program on behalf of the University of Michigan. We went into Detroit Public Schools and brought students from U of M down to work with public school students. I directed a Summer Camp for several years. Those have been very important contributions in a formalized way. I also believe, even more importantly, in the ‘informal’ programs. It’s a unity of one-on-one, in an African centered way. In other words, you come to my house. We play music. I also find performance opportunities for young people.

“Another little thing that I’ve been working on, kind of a little spiritual resurrection of some of Detroit’s places that ‘used to be’. Because one of the things that occurred to me, when you stay in the same place for a long time, … one of the things I noticed about black folks is that our precious cultural things that we develop, using music and art, a lot of times they don’t go on to institutions that are really lofty, high-funded institutions. They go on in little churches; you know? Our music gets developed in bars; in somebody’s basement; in somebody’s house. The cultural things we create in these circumstances are really important. But the environment in which they’re developed are often ephemeral. Playing music in the club, for example. The next thing you know, somebody else leases the club or they come through and bulldoze it. Because they like to bulldoze our black community, so they can put up whatever. Consequently, it occurs to me, that part of our legacy should be preserved. You and I. You have me, I go to your house and we work on music. So, as well as being involved in these beautiful, formalized programs, I try to have a more accessible, informal relationship with these young people. That’s important, because when you study music a certain way, then you start to hear things in thirty-two bar phrases. You know what I mean? And all that stuff is OK. But, you can also totally do it YOUR way.

“I remember, I’d go around the corner, park the car and go into Teddy Harris’s house. I’d go right down to his basement. Say ‘Hi’ to Martha (his wife) on my way down. See all those pictures on the wall of music people. I can’t remember who, but I had a conversation with someone who said, so-and-so is a mentor to you, right? Did they sit down and teach you things? But that’s not how I exactly learned. For me, it was more of an observation.”

Note: Teddy Harris Jr. always had a house full of musicians. He formed and rehearsed a big band regularly made up of seasoned players and young people learning to play. He wrote charts for people and for a while, acted as musical conductor for Motown acts like the Supremes. As well as being steeped in jazz, playing piano and a competent reedman, he was also an arranger and music educator, informally available to the community in his basement studio.

MARION: “I grew up under my mother. My mother was super beautiful and she would show me the details of how to set a table and those things were definitely specific. She was a super fabulous cook. Some things, like cooking, she’d go to the cook book and if it said ‘fold’ she’d show me how to fold the eggs in. Other kinds of things, I just learned by watching.

“The same is true in music. If I spent time on the bandstand with you, I learned by watching. You become one of my mentors. I took a lot of notes. First of all, if someone has you in their sphere on a regular basis, then there’s a reason why they had you there. I didn’t always need someone to sit down and tell me blah – blah – blah. But over time, they may be showing me what they did or how to put a show together; or how the business gets done, or how they write a grant. That’s mentoring as well. The lesson is in the living.

“Recently, I was on a recording session and it was really lengthy. But there were some things that the piano player was doing that were really extraordinary. His comping was really engaging me. Ken Cox and I were both huge fans of Horace Silver. So was Marcus. We loved Horace. One of the strongest parts of Horace Silver as a composer was that his piano comping was not random. His comping was deeply rooted in whatever composition he was performing. People forget about how important piano comping is to setting the rhythm section up to really be an important platform for the soloist or vocalist. Sometimes we get caught up in our egos and we feel the most important contribution we can make is during our solos. But my feeling is, as rhythm section players, you’re contributing on a moment-to-moment basis to the entire musical experience. So, your solo is, frankly, probably ten percent of the whole thing. The solo is fabulous, don’t get me wrong. But if you brought the entire ensemble to a really high level of musicality and expression, what higher importance could you have leant to the whole experience? I’ve had some great time on the stand with some wonderful comping pianists, that were not super fabulous soloists. But just to be in that space with them, and be a part of that engine, is just really what it’s all about.”

Jazz is a music always evolving. I asked Marion Hayden what she saw happening with young musicians today, compared to those coming up in yesteryears.

“I do see a lot of enthusiasm about the music. I really love that. I think that as much as they know, they still need those of us in the earlier generations to fill in the gaps. Just like I needed the musicians of my generation to fill in gaps for me and introduce me to somebody I didn’t know about or give me a different point of reference. … The pursuit of music is difficult and it’s very personal. A lot of times, young musicians may feel like, is anybody hearing me? They may feel a little different. I tell them, yeah – here’s some more people who were different. Don’t worry about that. Some of the people that I really like a lot were very, very different.

“I have a really good student out of Cleveland. You know I taught at the Tri C in Cleveland, Ohio, (Cleveland Community College) for seven years. I have a wonderful student down there. His name is Dean Hewlett. He’s fantastic. He’s one of my students that is just a tremendous young bass player. We have a couple of wonderful young students here in Detroit. One is Jonathon Cotten and another is Brian Juarez, both wonderful, young bass players. Brian’s from California. Then I have a really lovely, super young student who is in the sixth grade. His name is Troy Perkins.”

When Marion Hayden isn’t teaching at the University of Michigan, or giving private lessons, you’ll find her on the bandstand as part of several local ensembles. She is also a member of the Modern Jazz Messengers, led by drummer Sean Dobbins. Before his unexpected death, she was part of the Allan Barnes jazz ensemble. She still tours and does occasional concerts with the “Straight Ahead” girl’s group. She has created the Detroit Legacy Ensemble to carry on the jazz music of her mentors and to celebrate the music of some of our iconic ancestors. You may find her on the stage of The Dirty Dog Club or Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the oldest jazz club in the United States, or performing in concert at various stadiums, theaters and/or festivals. She is part of the faculty in Michigan’s Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisational Studies and often directs the Carr Center’s summer jazz program. In 2016, she won the Jazz Hero Award from the Jazz Journalist’s Association. She was recently featured on Blue Note TV with an ensemble of outstanding Detroit jazz musicians and performs regularly at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, sometimes supplying music for her husband, abstract painter Safell Gardner’s art shows. Somehow, in between raising two very creative sons as a dedicated mother and loving wife, she has managed to host panels for “Meet the Composer,” participated in the Detroit Council for the Arts, and served as part of the committee for the Detroit Historical Museum. I asked her, as one performing mom to another, how she balanced her career demands with her personal life.

MARION: “I just have to say, my husband is a lovely man and he is just super-supportive. Between him and my mother, who really helped us raise these two boys, she never turned me down. I’m talking about road gigs and that kind of stuff. A lot of times, nobody wants to be bothered with your kids; their daddy or their grand mama’s. So, they had a grandmother who was right there. Also, I took my husband, children and mother on a lot of trips with me. That was one of the things that I made a decision about. I did not want to be a musician that went on the road and said ‘Bye bye, I’ll see you later’. So, whenever it was possible, I took my husband and my children on tour with me. They went to Mackinaw twice with us. Once, I took my husband, children, mother and her girlfriend to Jamaica with me. They had a great time. We’ve been on short appearances with me, like to Chicago and we flew down to Atlanta for tour dates. Whenever I could take my family with me, that was one of the ways I coped. It was a financial sacrifice for us sometimes, but it was a gift to have them with me. I could include them as a part of my life on the road. It was good for them and nice for my mother; a little vacation for her.”

Watching their mother perform, sometimes getting the opportunity to tour with her and also observing their talented dad paint and create beauty on canvas, both of her sons have followed a path of creativity.

MARION: “I encourage my youngest son, whose name is Michael Tariq Gardner, but he goes by Tariq. He plays drums in a really beautiful jam session that’s run by John Douglas, who is a wonderful trumpet player. He used to be in Teddy Harris’ band and was one of the younger cats. I totally appreciate him for giving my son an opportunity. Because that’s how you really learn how to play. Tariq’s in school and has some really, really beautiful teachers, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the major part of your growth as a musician will be on the bandstand. That’s really how all the wonderful things that you learn in school, that’s where all that comes together. It takes a good amount of time on the bandstand to really understand the music. He’s got a beautiful sound, a little different sound. Kamau says he reminds him of Joe Chambers plus Tariq is a composer. There’s not a lot of composing drummers. My oldest son, Asukile, just turned twenty-eight and he’s a visual artist like my husband.”

Like Marion Hayden told me, at the beginning of our conversation, it’s all just multi-generational. You encourage and keep passing the legacy on. This talented woman is a perfect example of walking the walk and setting a strong example of not only what to do, but how you do it. I’m honored to document a piece of her legacy as a creative and tenacious life lesson for us all.


  1. Earl DeShazor Says:

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