Before the construction of Interstate 75, the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods in Detroit were hubs for Black life and culture. Paradise Valley, in particular, was known as an arts and entertainment district that drew people to from all over to hear artists like John Lee Hooker, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, and Sam Cooke.
The demolition of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, under a campaign of "urban renewal," started in the late 1940s and accelerated in 1956 when President Eisenhower passed the National Highway Act. That act funded the construction of Interstate 75, which tore through the neighborhoods. While Black life in Detroit went on, it's hard to calculate the value of that loss.
A 25-minute composition, "Homage to Paradise Valley," will premiere this month as part of a virtual event with the Akropolis Reed Quintet. It was written by African American composer Jeff Scott, an associate professor at Oberlin College and french hornist with the quintet Imani Winds. Originally a New Yorker, Scott visited Detroit and spent time researching the history of the neighborhoods before composing the piece.
“Really what grounds us is the art that we create. So, we want to make sure that the art is created authentically from a voice that is authentic to the struggle of these black communities that have been razed all over the country,” said Matt Landry, executive director and saxophonist for Akropolis Reed Quintet.
Marsha Music is a writer and documentarian of Detroit stories. She’ll be accompanying the Akropolis Reed Quintet’s tribute to Paradise Valley with a spoken word poem. Music has close ties to Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. She is the daughter of legendary pre-Motown record producer, Joe Von Battle, who owned a record shop and recording studio on old Hastings St., the main commercial thoroughfare that ran through Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.
Music says it was “a street of great density,” and “replete with activity.” Musicians and preachers both took to the streets to spread their work. And though the neighborhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were forcibly segregated communities, Music says that they were still a “pressure cooker” for culture within the city.
“The segregation in which the community was compelled to function also at the same time compelled people to exercise this great creativity,” Music said.
Scott’s composition, Landry explains, aims to capture some of that creative energy. The fourth movement of the piece is called "Paradise Theater Jump." A “jump” was a really common uptempo dance from the 1940s and 50s. Scott’s music draws influence from those jazz and blues classics, but puts them into a contemporary classical setting.
“It’s this way of connecting us back to this older jazz music that was so popular and prominent. I mean it’s just so hard to put ourselves in a position of understanding how popular this music was and how much it just drove everyone to just get up to dance,” Landry said. “It was just everyday life. So, the final movement just tries to capture that a little bit in just a real exciting piece of music.”
While blues and jazz may have ruled the music scene in Paradise Valley, Music says Scott's work does a good job of evoking those places within the classical tradition.
“I think that its importance is that, in the classical world, ensuring that this history, that this important cultural bedrock be acknowledged and celebrated in the classical image,” Music said.
The new work inspired by Paradise Valley will be featured in a series of virtual soirées through July 19. They will feature live performances from Akropolis Reed Quintet, interviews with composer Jeff Scott, and poetry and a dicussion of the history of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley from Marsha Music. You can find more information about the event here.
This post was written by production assistant Catherine Nouhan
Support for arts and culture coverage on Stateside come in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.