Detroit 1968

I’ve been listening for the last little while to KPLU in Tacoma/Seattle (Pacific Lutheran University, if you can believe that!). Here on the Central Coast with its (blessedly) relatively low population density, what’s available on the broadcast spectrum is a bit anemic (bright spot if you, like I, like classical guitar, is the show “La Guitarre” on Sundays at 1 PM, Pacific, at kcbx.org).

As a consequence, I’ve happily collected a whole bunch of URLs for radio stations all over the world that play music I like. A more recent addition was KPLU (as a passionate jazz buff, my long-time late night favorite has been WBGO, but it went down about a half hour ago).

Anyway, KPLU just played Nina Simone’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”. You may not know her name or her music, but I’ve been a fan for decades. She’d studied classical piano for years before she switched to jazz and started to sing, and it shows in her playing.

What all this leads up to is this: One night in 1968 (if my memory is still working halfway right), on one of my–by then–infrequent trips to the Detroit area to visit with my parents still living in Birmingham, MI, I persuaded them to go with me to a big Nina Simone concert in the big downtown Cobo Hall. I have no exact memory now of what the capacity of that venue is/was, but suffice it to say it was relatively huge (think 20,000). My parents had some misgivings from the gitgo, but trusted my judgment enough to go with me.

Now understand the background: only a few months before this, there had been a massive (mostly racial) riot throughout much of downtown Detroit—many millions of dollars worth of property damage—fires, looting…you get the picture.

So I get Mom, Dad, and me to Cobo Hall to see Nina Simone. We find ourselves maybe 1% of the white faces in Cobo. Mom and Dad are already looking visibly uneasy. (They brought me up in Atlanta and suburbs when there were still “White” and “Colored” drinking fountains and restrooms.)

I spent my last year in high school and all my undergraduate years prowling around downtown Detroit looking for jazz clubs that would at least let me listen at the front door. I was a minor most of that time and still couldn’t get in at most. One club, however, had a “no alcohol” section and no age limit. That was the “Minor Key”. What a great little club! In a converted former lingerie store in an inner-city Detroit venue. I stayed down there on multiple occasions literally until sunrise–since sometimes the music lasted that long. I saw may greats of the day there: Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Maynard Ferguson, Nancy Wilson… the list goes on and on. I was never bothered whatsoever on any of my numerous visits to those clubs.

Mom and Dad were nervous going to Cobo that night, but not I. But then Nina comes on stage. After the initial cheering calms downs, her first words are:“Good evening Detroit! I’m PROUD of Y’ALL!!” This is weeks after the riots. The crowd went wild! Mom and Dad were trying to figure out to slink under their seats. Even I started to feel a little bit nervous, despite my previous experience prowling late night inner-city Detroit.

As I had expected, it all worked out just fine. Mom and Dad and I got back home without incident. I will never forget that experience, however.

After enduring all that palaver, you’ve more than earned a chance to hear Nina doing the song cited above.

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