Michigan and the Great Lakes

Before Motown

A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-60
Lars Bjorn with Jim Gallert
The history of Detroit jazz comes alive with remarkable photographs, advertisements, and interviews


When most people think of Detroit and music, they think of the Motown sound. But what many people forget is that Detroit has a remarkable jazz history, which became a major influence in what came to be known as the Motown sound.

Before Motown is the first book about the history of jazz in Detroit. It shows the significant impact Detroit has had on the development of jazz in America, with its own sound, distinct from that of the other jazz centers of Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis, or Kansas City. Starting with the big bands in the 1920s,with groups like the McKinney's Cotton Pickers and Jean Goldkette's Orchestra, and continuing into the 1950s, Detroit experienced a golden age of modern jazz centered around clubs like the Blue Bird Inn. That jazz scene comes alive in interviews with musicians and club owners, combined with unique period photographs and advertisements. In addition, Detroit's vital jazz scene is placed in its social context, particularly within the changing relations between blacks and whites at the time.

Long overdue, Before Motown tells the story of Detroit jazz as it really happened, told by the people who lived it. More importantly, it shows how life can mirror art in the most pragmatic of American cities, Detroit.

Lars Bjorn is Professor of Sociology, University of Michigan, Dearborn, and the author of numerous articles and publications about jazz.

Jim Gallert is Vice President of the Jazz Alliance of Michigan and a veteran jazz broadcaster. He has been involved with the Detroit jazz scene for over twenty-five years.

Praise / Awards

  • "Detroit's importance as a civil rights, labor and radical town—and as the home of Motown—has been the subject of numerous historical works. This book documents an equally vital, if less documented, dimension of the story."
    —David Finkel, Against the Current, July/August 2002

  • "In providing what will inevitably remain the definitive study of Jazz in Detroit, Bjorn and Gallert offer along the way a rich and academically-grounded cultural history of the Motor City. But the book offers still more: it serves to remind us how various and lively Jazz once was in different territories, regions, and even cities. . . . Bjorn and Gallert demonstrate the real passion they bring to their project."
    —Michael Coyle, Cadence, January 2002

  • "In this thoughtfully written book, many of the players who brought jazz to life in Detroit—and the country—are finally remembered. . . . The book brings the community alive."
    —Sharon Luckerman, Detroit Jewish News, August 2001

  • "This is an essential book for those interested in the history of jazz."
    IAJRC Journal (International Assn of Jazz Record Collectors), Summer 2001

  • ". . . Before Motown is a thought-provoking book that engagingly sets out important social and economic, as well as musical, factors that have contributed to the development of jazz and R&B in Detroit."
    —Virginia A. Schaefer, Jazz Improv, Volume 3, No. 4

  • "A most welcome book that puts Detroit firmly on the map as a very important city in the story of jazz."
    —David Lands, Jazz Journal, Volume 55, No. 3 (2002)

  • "Several things recommend this book to everyone with more than a passing interest in jazz history - it is very attractively produced, with scores of photographs, maps and graphics; despite that, it's price, particularly in paperback, is a bargain; but, above all, it brings to life the early history of one of the most influential but scantily-assessed development in jazz history and developement. . . . One comes away feeling that one knows the city and its nightspots and the streets they lined and has a measure of its importance."
    —Chris Sheridan, Jazz Review, October 2001

  • "Lars Bjorn and his collaborator Jim Gallert have written a book equal to the music they chronicle so superbly. Give this one 10 stars."
    —Mark E. Gallo, JazzReview.com, October 1, 2002

  • "A well-researched volume, that packs a huge amount of detailed information yet gives the overall picture too. . . . Fascinating stuff."
    —Brian Priestley, JazzWise, October 2001

  • "[An] engaging, intense review of the musical developments of Detroit's jazz artists - apparently the first book length treatment of the topic. . . . Highly recommended for academic, large public, and music libraries."
    —William G. Kenz, Library Journal, September 2001

  • "This book combines social history, nostalgia and, best of all, dozens of personal memories to tell a forgotten jazz story."
    —Hugh Gallagher, Livonia Observer, September 2001

  • "The stories of the musicians are here--plenty of them being rescued from obscurity--as are the stories of the clubs where they played. . . . [T]his is very much a social history; music always runs parallel to the story of the city and the interplay of black and white: migrations and segregation, who lived where, who played, who danced, who owned, who chafed, who mingled, who protested."
    —W. Kim Heron, MetroTimes, August 29-September 4, 2001

  • ". . . combines a social scientist's penchant for thick socioeconomic context with a collector's love of minutiae. The result is a highly readable, meticulously documented chronicle of jazz musicians, audiences, and venues in a city that is far better know for its rhythm and blues and automobiles than for its jazz. While presenting a more complete picture of Detroit music history than is generally acknowledged, the work also compels a reconsideration of dominant jazz narratives that privilege New Orleans, Chicago, and New York."
    —Sherry Tucker, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Michigan Historical Review, Volume 28: No.1 (Spring 2002)

  • ". . . a fascinating account of the history of jazz in the Motor City during the first half of the twentieth century. . . . Before Motown is a well-researched, interesting account of an exciting period in the history of Detroit. The book will be appreciated by researchers, Detroit area residents, and those who simply love jazz."
    —James Petrucella, Rochester Hillls Public Library, MLA Forum, Volume 1: Issue 2 (June 14, 2002)

  • "Besides the auto industry, Detroit is best-known for Motown the jubilant pop tunes of '60s bands like the Temptations. But Detroit produced music before the '60s, argues Lars Bjorn in Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960, written with veteran jazz broadcaster Jim Gallert. Swedish-born Bjorn, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, explores the city's music scene from its pre-Big Band era to its 1950s "Golden Age" to rhythm and blues. Copiously researched, Bjorn and Gallert interviewed over 90 club owners and musicians with never-before-published b&w photos and period advertisements, this large-format book will appeal to jazz enthusiasts and Detroit denizens. For the many European fans of American jazz, Plymbridge will make it available in the U.K. and Europe."
    Publisher's Weekly Aug. 13, 2004

  • "I can't say it strong enough: GET THIS BOOK! . . . [T]his is the definitive book on jazz in the Motorcity [sic]."
    RJ's Blues News , August 2, 2001

Product Details

  • 8.5 x 10.
  • 256pp.
  • 74 photographs, 9 maps, 25 illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2001
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-06765-7

Add to Cart
  • $24.95 U.S.