Detroit jazz great Charlie Gabriel reflects on what brought him to Motown; 'It's bebop city'

DETROIT – "This instrument is like an organ in my body. It's an extension of what I am. Everything that comes through the horn is part of an experience of who you are."

Charlie Gabriel was born in 1932 in New Orleans, but his family musical history in the Big Easy dates back to 1856. He currently plays the clarinet, saxophone and trombone for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans.

He got his start playing with the Eureka Brass Band in 1943 at the ripe old age of 11. He spent the next 5 years playing traditional jazz music in the Big Easy. The draw of jobs in the auto industry brought Charlie's family to Detroit in the early 40's and he followed in 1948.

He soon noticed there was a different sound being played up in Detroit -- more of a swing style of jazz.

"Detroit has a jazz of its own. Out of the Motor City you have some of the greatest jazz musicians in the universe. The pace is different. It's the bebop city," he said. 

Gabriel embraced the new sound because he viewed it as more modern and hip.

"It had all the clubs on the east side. From the Flame, the Chesterfield, the Frolic, the Derby. You can go on and on, everyone of them had bands. You have the people that worked in the plant at that time, and they got off of work on Friday and they wanted to party until Monday. They'd be looking for something get them moving and get it hot."

He recorded at Motown, played with the J.C. Heard Jazz Band, toured with Aretha Franklin and was the band director for Joe Simon, among many other musical adventures.

"I had a pretty interesting and successful life, musically. I never did anything else in life since I was 11 years old, but play music."

One uniquely Detroit connection to New Orleans is used instruments. Charlie's father and uncle would gather up any instruments they could find in Detroit secondhand stores. They would repair them and send them south to get them in the hands of New Orleans kids to continue to pass along the tradition of jazz music to the younger generation.

It's clear music truly is in Charlie Gabriel's blood.

"What does music mean to me? Music is everything I eat and breathe and see. Everything to me has the sweetness of music," he said. "It's the love, what it does to me and what it does to other individuals when I play. The reaction that comes back to me in a different form and the joy you can receive by touching other people's emotions. It's a wonderful thing. It's life to me, music is life."

Check out Charlie Gabriel and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band tonight at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. A Creole Christmas.

Online: Preservation Hall

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