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  • Kirk Lightsey


I was very lucky to grow up in Detroit with so many future famous musicians - classical, jazz and pop in my community. I went to school with some, played with some and watched others become accomplished and well-known artists around the world. But it all started in Detroit where music was everywhere: in church, in school, in the clubs and at home.

Club 666

When I started going to clubs in Detroit there were maybe twelve or fifteen of them at least (The Blue Bird Inn, Kline Show Bar, Levert’s Lounge, etc.). But one of the most important places wasn’t a club. It was a theatre called the World Stage started by Yusef Lateef, Kenny Burrell, and Barry Harris. This was in the 50s before they all went to NY or LA. On their nights off whoever was in town and wasn’t working, usually showed up on the World Stage.

Barry Harris (p), Donald Byrd (tp) and Rudy Tucich (dr)

The first set was always a house band made up of two of the pros, Barry Harris or Paul Chambers. And then maybe two of the younger players who were coming up. The World Stage was a rented loft space upstairs over some stores. The acoustics were great. People sat in beach chairs. They brought their booze and their smile. You could do what you wanted to do there. It was all the younger players’ school of performance, and Barry Harris was the coach of them all. The World Stage was where I studied Elvin Jones until he left for New York for good. Paul Chambers had already gone to NY, but would come back periodically and we would get to play with him. That was during the time when Ron Carter did not exist in the music yet. We knew him from high school where he was playing the cello. But he wasn’t a part of the World Stage. Ron was always quiet. He wasn’t out there. He was in a zone of his own, playing cello in the orchestra.

Every Friday night my mother took me to the Paradise Theater on Woodward Avenue and Orchestra Place to see the show and that led me to playing the music I play now.

The first time I heard eloquent speech was at the Paradise Theater, and the speaker was Duke Ellington and I heard him say, “I love you madly,” at the end of the show. And for the people from our neighborhood, who were working class black people who could afford to go to the Paradise Theater, it was probably their first time to see and hear an eloquent black man to be so elegantly dressed and so eloquent in his speech. And I was taken as a seven year old little boy. Duke Ellington was the person I wanted to be like if I wanted to be like anyone else.

As for his band, I think he was a great psychiatrist. Hearing Duke Ellington, watching him, just being amazed by his aura let me see a great presence on stage and what it was like to give such power to the people, as Joe Henderson would say. Such exuberance. Such a high level of humanity for people who truly needed it. And although Detroit was a thriving successful metropolis, even to people in my neighborhood, who could be on that level, he was a leader. They all needed a spokesman or a person to look up to, to hear from. A role model. A leader. And Duke Ellington was truly that. The way he spoke, the way he dressed, the way he led his orchestra, the way he took the stage and embraced the whole audience.

The Paradise Theatre was walking distance from home. Going often to the Paradise Theatre was one of the big lessons for me because I heard and saw a lot of the biggest stars in show business at that time. A show at the Paradise Theater consisted of a movie and then you went and bought popcorn and got ready for the big show and the first person you would see come out on stage would be the MC and he would introduce the first act or the band. The first act didn't need to be a band; it might be a dance routine. Second act might be a comedy like Step ’n’ Fetch It. And then there would be the big band of Duke Ellington or Count Basie, or Lionel Hampton. Paradise Theatre was on the circuit. In every big city there was the equivalent of the Paradise Theater. In New York it was the Apollo. And the Paradise was one of the really big ones. The show would probably be 2 or 2.5 hours with all the acts, movie and final number. Duke was my favorite then. For years we went there on Fridays to catch the first show of the week. Today it’s still a performance place called Orchestra Hall.

Another venue just a few blocks away from the Paradise was the Flame Show Bar (1949-1963). That’s where I first saw Ray Charles with Fathead Newman and Marcus Belgrave and not only was Ray Charles singing and playing the piano; he also played the alto saxophone. That’s where I first encountered gay people in a show called « The Jewel Box Review » and where I last saw Lady Day Billie Holiday in one of her final performances with Mal Waldron. I was thrilled to see her but you could tell she was working under extreme duress.

The first clubs we tried to get into with fake IDs and painted mustaches were the Club Three Sixes and Blue Bird Inn, the most important live outlet for bop. When that didn’t work we listened from outside. The only act we missed was Charlie Parker.

Charlie Parker and John Coltrane

Donald Towns had a group with Leon Williams on sax, Robert Friday on bass, Earl Williams on drums, and me on piano. The band was called the Heavy Dippers and we were still in high school.

The first money I earned as a musician was playing the clarinet with a high school marching band and then I played the piano at lots of ball room dances at places like the Urban League, YWCA, the City Center on the Detroit River. My only problem was I could never dance because I was working.

Cass Tech Thanksgiving Parade 1954 (where is Kirk Lightsey?)

Playing for dancing is much different from playing in a club. You knew when the band was on when everyone got up to dance. People love to dance: the better the music, the better the dancing.

Leon James and Albert Minns

The older guys played at the World Stage and each night they picked one of the younger guys to play with them. We usually played in the second or third call band.

My first bandleader was a baritone player, Harold “Beans” Bowles. Along with Albert Aarons, Roy Brooks, Joe Henderson and Clarence Cheryl, we first played for shows for performers like Betty Be Bop Carter in a club attached to a bowling alley and then for acts at the Frolic Show Bar.

Kenny Burrell was one of the stars of the Community Music School, then Yusef Lateef formed the most popular band in Detroit at that time. Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers and Elvin Jones were in that band. The second most working band in town was Barry Harris' band with Charles McPherson, Lonnie Hillyer, and Sonny Red Kyner, Hindel Butts, and Alice Coltrane’s brother Ernie Farrell.

The point here is most musicians in the working band came out of the Community Music School and I soon became one of them. And if you had a gig you might be working six nights a week for three months or more. And every organized band in town had a gig. Because there were enough gigs to go around. We had music on every corner, in every bar in town. Detroit then was a wonderful place to grow up playing this music.

Kirk Lightsey (p) John Henderson (sax), Roy Brooks (dr) and Herman Wright (Bass)

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