(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKSTONES' "BLU-BOP")
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm David Brent Johnson. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars, writers and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is writer Mark Stryker.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOE HENDERSON’S “ISOTOPE”)
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Mark Stryker was born in Bloomington, Indiana, and earned a bachelor's degree in American history from the University of Illinois, as well as a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University. He also worked as a jazz saxophonist, before turning to a career in journalism. He worked for the South Bend Tribune and Dayton Daily News before arriving at the Detroit Free Press, where he covered jazz, classical music, and the visual arts for 21 years from 1995 to 2016. His many national prizes include 2 ASCAP Deems Taylor awards for music writing about bassist Ron Carter and composer Elliott Carter, as well as several reporting awards for coverage of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the City of Detroit bankruptcy. His book, Jazz from Detroit, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2019. Mark Stryker, thanks so much for joining us on profiles.
MARK STRYKER: Thanks for having me. It's great to be here in my hometown.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Yeah. So, how did what would eventually become the Stryker family of your parents and many siblings - how did the Stryker family land in Bloomington?
MARK STRYKER: My father got a job teaching sociology at Indiana University in 1950, and so he and my mother moved here. My dad was a very distinguished sociologist who just died a few years ago and was working all the way up into his 90s - a pioneer of what's called identity theory. So, sociology brought the family here. And there are five children in my family. All of us were raised here, and all of us continue to have great affection for Bloomington and for Indiana University.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Where did your parents come from? Where were they born and where did they grow up?
MARK STRYKER: My mother was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, and grew up in Saint Paul. And my father is from Saint Paul. And so they met in Saint Paul. I still have extended family up there in the Twin Cities. Their first date was at a Stan Kenton dance.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Wow.
MARK STRYKER: So, you know - and my father was a really big jazz fan going back into the 1930s and '40s, and he told me a lot of stories about when he was in the Army during the war, and in New York on 52nd street, and then going up to Harlem to see Lionel Hampton and the band playing Flying Home, and just how rocking the Apollo Theater got to be when the band was playing. And, you know, I now have my father's old 78 rpm records, including really important records by Billie Holiday like Strange Fruit and Fine and Mellow, and records by Nat Cole and by Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. And those are records I discovered when I was about 10.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: They were around the house, right?
MARK STRYKER: They were around the house. And - oh, what are these, dad? Oh, those are - and they had a big impact on me when I was a kid, and I still have those records and I totally treasure them.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Oh, I can imagine. That's so cool, you know, because - I mean, you grew up - you were a teenager in the 1970s. For most people, they think of it as the era when kids had no interest whatsoever in their parents’ music. That's the stereotype that’s…
MARK STRYKER: …Right. Of course. You know, I got interested in jazz very early, so when I came across those records I already had a bit of a context in which to understand them. I will tell you, one of my strongest childhood memories is, in the fall of 1974, Frank Sinatra did a live TV show concert called The Main Event from Madison Square Garden in New York, and they broadcasted it live on TV. And I watched that with my parents in their bedroom, and I can remember how much they revered Sinatra. And I can remember my mom saying things like, "listen to how he phrases," and "you never see him take a breath," and things like that, and that made a huge impact on me. So, I was definitely the odd kid, musically, listening to Frank Sinatra in 1974. But I will say - I mean, I - you know, I grew up listening to pop music radio, too. I can still sing a bunch of '50s pop tunes from oldies radio - you know, in the 1970s, oldies was '50s.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Right. It was a thing - right, it was '50s - right, yeah.
MARK STRYKER: Right? So, I can still sing all those songs and I'd have an internal debate all the time with myself of whether I liked Revolver or Rubber Soul better.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Usually it's Revolver versus Sgt. Pepper. That's interesting.
MARK STRYKER: No. Rubber Soul is a heavy album. But it wasn't like I was completely out of step.
MARK STRYKER: Right.
MARK STRYKER: But very early on, I was put on a path toward jazz. I heard my brother's high school jazz band - my brother went to Bloomington High School North and played in the jazz band - played saxophone. And I heard that band play a concert when I was in the fourth grade - so I would have been nine years old. And I can still remember how the light reflected off the saxophones and the trumpets and the brass and how that looked, and how exciting the band felt. And, you know, Thelonious Monk used to talk about the idea of - let's lift the bandstand. And I could not have articulated this at that time, but I am convinced that is what I felt - that idea of the music kind of lifting off the stage, and that made a really big impact. And that's why I decided to play saxophone. And one of the arrangements that that high school band played was a Buddy Rich arrangement, and that became the very first jazz LP I ever owned - was the Buddy Rich record called Big Swing Face.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You were mentioning your brother. How many siblings do you have?
MARK STRYKER: There are five children in the family. I have an older sister, Robin, who is a distinguished professor of sociology at Purdue University. I have an older brother who's a chemist named Jeff who teaches at the University of Alberta at Edmonton. I have an older brother, David, who's a big time corporate attorney - vice president and general counsel of the Huntsman Corporation in Houston. And I have a twin brother who is the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He's a pianist - a fraternal twin. As I like to say, there are five children in my family. I have a master's degree - I am the least formally-educated child in the family. I am the black sheep in the family.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You're the ne'er do well, right?
MARK STRYKER: Exactly.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: The wild and crazy guy who went off into a career of journalism.
MARK STRYKER: Of journalism - I can...
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Journalism.
MARK STRYKER: ...Yeah. I can remember a funny time when I was in college and I had sort of thought about, at one point, being a journalist. And my mother asked me, “well, where would you do your graduate work?” And I said to her, “well, you know, Ma, I might actually just get a job.” And it was an amusing exchange. As it turns out, I did get a master's degree when - you know...
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: And you came back to IU to do it, right?
MARK STRYKER: ...I did. And, you know, in my family, when you want to learn how to do something, you go to school. And so that is what I did.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You're an academic kid. You're a faculty kid growing up in Bloomington. In the 1970s, I can only imagine that the echoing boom of the 1960s counterculture blast was still kind of resonating. I don't know, I wasn't here, I just wanted to ask you - what was it like growing up here as a kid in the 1970s?
MARK STRYKER: Well, you know, Bloomington, like many college towns, is a kind of oasis of culture and a focus of intellectualism. And yet, at the same time, Bloomington is a small town in southern Indiana. And so, I feel extraordinarily lucky to have grown up here because, you know, when I was 13 years old, I saw a landmark production of Porgy and Bess at the Musical Arts Center. You know, I mean the Beaux Arts Trio was the house trio in Bloomington, right?
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Yeah.
MARK STRYKER: And so, I had those kinds of cultural experiences, all these opportunities to get exposed to world-class music of all kinds - of jazz, classical music, opera, and the like. And yet, at the same time, it took 15 minutes to drive from my house to my high school. And in those days, there really was no traffic. And the remnants of the counterculture definitely were here. I only recognize those now, in retrospect, when I think back about - you know, there were people that I began to meet, as I got older and was learning how to play music - and people that were on the scene that seemed to have come here somewhere around 1965 or '66 and, like, never left. And they're still here. And I ended up going to school at the University of Illinois as an undergraduate, and the same kind of dynamic was at work - people that come here and then, like, never leave. And they become part of the permanent culture in kind of a rewarding way.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: What I've heard is that there was a strong jazz culture that was kind of emerging in Bloomington in the '70s as well - partly because of David Baker being here at IU and teaching jazz education. People like David Miller, who had come here - jazz trumpeter and jazz impresario who had come here in the mid-1960s and is still here today. That must have been something that you were able to feed into as well.
MARK STRYKER: Yeah. I was really lucky. I mean, in the 1970s, there were only a handful of universities in the country that had jazz programs. There would not have been jazz here in Bloomington but for the IU jazz department and all of these talented students. And then, that begat concerts and people coming through the town. And, of course, David Baker being sort of the ringleader of all of this. But I heard a tremendous number of great musicians when I was here growing up just playing around the community. So, you know, I think about a pianist like Michael Weiss, who was here in the late '70s and has gone on to an important career in New York playing with Johnny Griffin and Art Farmer and Charles McPherson and many other people like that. And Michael and I, all these many years later, have become good friends, and I first met Michael when I was in high school and I would go down weekly, every Thursday night, to Rap's Pizza Train and Deli, which was on 6th street. And David Miller's band, The Jazz Fables, would play there every week. And I heard Michael Weiss there, I heard Pookie Johnson, and some of the great Indianapolis musicians would come down and play. You know, succeeding generations of great musicians coming through Bloomington - including people like the pianist Jim Beard or the saxophonist Jerry Green, with whom I studied a little bit. And the first time I ever sat in with a professional band was at Rap's, playing with a band where Michael Weiss was playing piano, and we played Thelonious Monk's Well, You Needn't, and we played Charlie Parker's Confirmation. You know, those were, like, seminal experiences for me. And there are many, many small towns across the country - let's say there are - most of the small towns across the country, you cannot have that kind of experience. And yet, here it was, right here in front of me. I took it all for granted - because you do when you're a kid. You don't quite realize. But looking back, what a gift.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You were also playing saxophone at the Bloomington North High School Jazz Band. What did you get out of your time at Bloomington North in the jazz band program there?
MARK STRYKER: The jazz program at Bloomington North has a long, distinguished history - this goes back now almost half a century. And I was nearer to the beginning of that legacy than the end, but we had extraordinary teachers - Lissa Mae, who was my band director in middle school - she was the one who - when I auditioned from sixth grade going into seventh grade and said to her, “I really want to be in jazz band - I really want to be in jazz band,” she's the one that put me in jazz band and put me on this path. I mean, you can draw - it's not quite a straight line, but you can definitely draw a line from that moment to my book about jazz from Detroit and us sitting here having this conversation. I'm not sure that happens, really - certainly not in the same way - if I don't get put into jazz band in seventh grade like that. Well, Lissa's my high school band director for two years and then we had a director after that for two years named Mark Dorn, who had come over from IU and was also a very gifted director. And I was surrounded by peers who were intensely interested in the music, and that can be a trampoline effect for you. When I was a freshman in high school, I spent that year in a saxophone section with Matt Dario, who's another Bloomington-raised kid who was a saxophone player and has now had a really significant career in New York as a clarinetist, saxophonists - plays a lot of Eastern European music and Balkan music and Klezmer music. And, you know, when I was a freshman, Matt, as a senior, could already really play - he had a lot of language together. And I sat next to him and just listened and learned and talked with him all the time and, you know, that was a really profound experience for me. We played great repertoire in those bands - lots of music by Thad Jones, music from the Basie Library. We were playing music by Toshiko Akiyoshi. We were playing music that really was at the core of the jazz tradition. Lots of high schools were playing crappy music in that era. Lots of high schools today play crappy music. But we were playing the right stuff. And if you play the right stuff, you're going to learn the tradition. So I got very interested in this music very early.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDY RICH’S “BIG SWING FACE”)
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: If you're just joining us on Profiles, our guest is Mark Stryker, a longtime writer for The Detroit Free Press and author of the book Jazz from Detroit. How did you come to the decision or the eventual path to write about music as opposed to playing it?
MARK STRYKER: Writing about music came also to me very early. When I was 13 years old, my parents gave me a subscription to Downbeat Magazine - the sort of bible of jazz magazines - because I was already really interested in the music. At that point, Downbeat was published every other week, and they would come and I would just devour the magazine cover to cover. And then, on my 15th birthday, my parents gave me a book by Nat Hentoff called Jazz Is, and that book changed my life. It was a book of profiles of people like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington and Lewis Armstrong and John Coltrane. And the way Nat wrote about these musicians was tremendously moving and exciting to me. He captured their lives off the bandstand, he captured the sound of their music, how graceful - in some ways - they moved through life, how smart they were. And he was very connected to the political economy and social economy of jazz in America and culture in America and African American culture in America and the ties between African American culture and this music. And all of that really fired my imagination. And that, more than anything else, made me want to write about the music. So, when I was a sophomore at Bloomington High School North, I was in an honors English class. And as part of that class, they paired us up with mentors in the community for projects in whatever you were interested in. And what I was interested in, even at 15, was writing about jazz. And so I got paired up with Michael Bourne.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Michael Bourne - who was a longtime jazz DJ here at WFIU and went on to a large national stage. People still talk about him today here in Bloomington.
MARK STRYKER: Yeah. And at that time, Michael was on every afternoon playing jazz on WFIU, and I listened to every afternoon. I was introduced to so much music through Michael's programming. And Michael, at the time, was also stringing some for Downbeat, and I'd seen his name in the magazine. And so I would go over to Michael's apartment - this tiny little house. I can still remember - he had - the ceiling in his, like, one bedroom efficiency was all comic books - like, the covers of comic books.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Wow.
MARK STRYKER: And he had all these records lined up and he showed me how - well, “here's next week's show and here's the week after that.” And he showed me how he planned his programs. He showed me how he scripted things. He would script things and then he would sort of read but sort of not, but he liked to have a kind of script that he could improvise off of so he knew where he was going. And I sort of got the idea about the notion of how you might plan, but also leave room for dialogue and improvisation - which was sort of interesting. And the first jazz interview I ever did was with David Baker, and I lugged a tape recorder down to David Baker's office and talked to him, and then I wrote it up, and then I took it to Michael. And he took out his red pen and started crossing out the clichés. And, you know, what a great lesson at age 15. And Michael talked about criticism, and he talked about his approach. He said, “you know, a critic should always ask three questions. What is the artist trying to do? How well are they doing it? And was it worth doing in the first place?” I mean, I have gone through my entire career thinking about criticism with those questions in mind. So, it's a very seminal experience for me and put me on a path toward - where the idea of writing about the music was something that I might want to do, and eventually that's sort of what happens.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Something that intrigues me is we’re talking about about your career how you ended up writing about music - but when you went to the University of Illinois you got a bachelor's degree in American history. Were you not quite sure, at that point, what you were going to do? Or how did you end up staying on the writing path?
MARK STRYKER: I had had a lot of success in high school as a musician - won a bunch of awards and had been writing arrangements and was thinking about going to music school. And my father really believed in a liberal arts education - that whole idea of - well, you should really have something to fall back on. And my dad said that I could pursue music, if I wanted to, after I got a bachelor's degree, but he really encouraged me to get the liberal arts degree. And that made sense to me. I had always been a good student too, so I wanted to go to college where you could be a part of the music scene and the jazz scene but you didn't necessarily have to be a music major. And that's why I didn't come here to IU because, you know, IU is such a conservatory kind of factory that, if you're not involved in the music school, it's very difficult to sort of be involved. At the University of Illinois, there had been a great jazz tradition both at the school and in Champaign-Urbana, and I knew some people who had gone there and had a great experience. And so I thought, “well, let's go over there.” And so I did, and I was an American history major. And even while I was in school, I was thinking, well, maybe journalism. But I enjoyed American history so much that I just stayed as a major, but I was a musician. I was - my identity was completely wrapped up in being a jazz musician. As my father would say, the greatest salience of my identity came from being a musician. And I was playing in school bands, jazz bands, and leading my own groups around town and playing gigs. And I got to be friends with all the contemporary classical composers on the faculty at the University of Illinois, who all seemed to be avocational jazz musicians. And I began learning classical music from the most far-out contemporary music you can imagine written by people like Sal Martorano, who is a great post-Cagean kind of conceptual composer and did grand experiments with electronic music and the like, and sort of went backwards from there to Messiaen to Bartók to Debussy and sort of all the way back.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So you kind of went in reverse?
MARK STRYKER: In reverse - well, it's interesting because most people start with Mozart and Beethoven, and then work their way forward, and they never get past Bartók. And so, as it turned out, it's had a really profound impact on me when I started writing about classical music because it meant that, for me, composition - contemporary composition was the focus of what I was most interested in. You know, the history of classical music is really the history of composition. And it meant that, as a critic and as an arts reporter, I paid a lot of attention to contemporary music. It meant that, because of my jazz background and knowing all of these composers, I developed a way of thinking about interpretation in which - you know, the Brahms Fourth Symphony doesn't just go one way. There are many interpretive decisions and choices one might make, and it's all about context. And can you justify your decision? And what are you aiming for? And is there a musical reason for doing what you're doing? I play contemporary classical music, I watch composers work with ensembles - and if a flute player, you know, raised their hand and said, “this passage here is not working for me, I think it would work better if we did it this way,” the composer invariably said, "yeah, great, let's do that.” If it's better, fix it. When you see that, it gives you a certain kind of mindset that interpreting a score and textual fidelity does not necessarily mean a kind of slavish reproduction of notes on the page with no imagination coming from the performer. It's perspective, and a lot of that, for me, I think, started from the fact of how I learned classical music. So after I graduated from college, I stayed around Champaign-Urbana for a couple of years working as a musician and playing weddings and dances and jobbing gigs and the occasional jazz gig and I worked in a restaurant/jazz club behind the bar making sandwiches during the day and I worked in a bookstore and I worked in a classical record store - which is where I learned the standard repertoire. I'd come in every day and I would say to my boss, “well, what should I know?” And he would say, “well, do you know the Beethoven symphonies?” And I would say, “well, no.” And he said, “OK, well, let's start there.” And in two years, I basically went through the entire standard repertoire and learned it that way.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: And what a great way to do it - while you're working - you know, it's part of your daily paycheck job, right?
MARK STRYKER: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, when you're in your early 20s and you can live cheaply with no responsibility, basically - and I mean, I had help from my parents, too, right, of course - and, you know, you didn't have to worry about health insurance or whatever and - yeah, that's the time in your life where you can get a lot of stuff together, figure a lot of stuff out. And that's basically what I was doing in those couple of years. And at a certain point, I realized that, as much as I loved music, I hated the business of music. And that, for every gig I could play that I wanted to play, I'd have to play a dozen that I didn't want to play. And I was an OK musician, but I wasn't a great musician. And I learned, by watching people, that music is a calling. You have to give everything to that. And I didn't feel that way about music - about the saxophone. I loved music. I loved jazz. But I didn't love the saxophone in the way that you have to. So writing was the thing I'd always been good at. I'd always thought about journalism. And I thought, “well, here's a way that I could combine the things that I'm most passionate about - music - with a way that I could maybe make a living, and maybe I could be great at that.” You know, as I said earlier, when you're from my family and you want to do something, you go to school.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: I was about to say - so you went to grad school, right? You finally got to grad school.
MARK STRYKER: Right, I finally got to grad school.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Made your mother happy, right?
MARK STRYKER: Right. Exactly.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: And you came back home to do it. You came to IU to do your master's work in journalism, and that was what would eventually set you on a true professional path. But how did your time at IU as a grad student shape you as a journalist?
MARK STRYKER: Well, it was critical. I came to IU because, at that point, they had a concentration in arts journalism. Peter Jacobi had created this arts journalism program, and that was what I wanted to do. So I came here specifically for Peter's classes, and those classes were really determinative for me. First of all, Peter stressed that arts journalism doesn't mean just criticism. Arts journalism means arts reporting, and reporting the arts is about covering the arts as you would any other news beat. You cover culture the way we would cover politics or business or sports or anything like that. And that meant doing not just reviews, but you're doing, you know, enterprise stories and covering controversies and how the arts function within a democratic society and the role that arts play in building cities and in educating our children and in providing a way of life that has real meaning to people. And a cultural journalist and a reporter has to see all of that. So the preparation here was really learning to be an arts reporter as well as an arts critic, and that has served me tremendously well in my career. I made my career as an arts reporter and as an arts critic. And it meant that - among other things - that over the last 15 years, as the business of journalism has changed so much and lots of arts journalists were being laid off and many critics were let go from newspapers, I always kept a job - partly because I was a reporter - and the people at the newspaper who weren't necessarily arts aficionados - the top editors - always understood the value of a great reporter. And they understood the arts reporting I was doing in a way that they did not understand when I would write about, you know, the Detroit Symphony playing Mahler or opera when I was working as a critic. But they definitely understood that, when the Detroit Symphony went on strike in 2010 for six months, that that was a major cultural news story and they could understand the reporting that I was doing in terms of understanding why this was such an important story, both in Detroit and nationally, and what the stakes were. And so, you know, in my career, there were a great number of stories that I worked on in which the training that I got here at Indiana in terms of how I would conceptualize the beat - I could not have done those kinds of stories had I not come out of school with an understanding of: this is what my job is. So, Peter taught arts reporting and taught that you had to have a passion for it. And so those things became really foundational in the career that I've had.
While I was at IU, I also took David Baker's bebop history class. Half the class was reading and talking about bebop history - the history of jazz in the middle of the 20th century from an academic point of view, and then half the class was getting out our instruments and playing the repertoire. And so that was really fun for me because I had grown up knowing David and David had come to - you know - he would come out to our high school and do clinics and the like, and I'd seen him play many, many times, and all that. But it was an opportunity for me to get in the classroom with David and see him in that milieu, which was a great joy. So, I mean, when I think back to my graduate school days, I think about that arts reporting curriculum that I was able to do, and I think about David's class, and I think about a class that I had that a professor named Ed Gubar taught called Journalism in Fact, Fiction and Film. And that was a class in which we read nonfiction - mostly new journalism by people like John McPhee and Tom Wolfe - and we watched movies in which journalism is portrayed - things like Salvador and The Killing Fields and Medium Cool. And in that class, we did an awful lot of work in dissecting how these great writers work in terms of the craft. And as I began to do that, I began to see the tools and the fundamentals of really great writing in a way that I had not before. You know, once you understand how a great writer is using structure - the expressive use of structure and narrative and scene-setting and all of these kinds of techniques that good writers do, those then become tools that you can use in your own writing. That's a lifelong process, but that started, for me, in many ways, during my graduate school days here too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS’ “OLD DEVIL MOON”)
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Profiles. I'm David Brent Johnson, and I'm talking with Mark Stryker, who is a longtime writer for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of the book Jazz From Detroit.
And Mark, certainly the bulk of your professional reporting career was spent with the Detroit Free Press. Before you were there, you worked for a while for the South Bend Tribune and The Dayton Daily News. Were you doing arts reporting for the most part there? Were you doing other things as well?
MARK STRYKER: I've always been an arts reporter. I've never had a job at a newspaper where arts reporting was not, basically, the title.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Where you were also covering the city council, right?
MARK STRYKER: No, I never had to do that. But the jobs were very different in different places because the towns were of much different sizes, the papers were of different sizes, they had different size staffs. You know, in South Bend, Indiana, where I started at the very end of 1989, there was a South Bend Symphony, so I did write about that. But I covered a lot of community theater. I was the guide covering the bus and truck Broadway shows and reviewing those shows on deadline. But in South Bend, I also wrote about the Ice Capades. When I moved to Dayton in 1993 - a bigger paper, larger staff - and there I focused more on classical music; classical music and cultural reporting sort of broadly-defined. And there, I started doing more jazz writing and bringing that into my daily life as much as I could at the newspaper. And then, when I came to Detroit, I was hired as a classical music critic and arts reporter. I insisted, when I came up there, that jazz would be part of the...
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: …The beat?
MARK STRYKER: ...Of the beat, but it was not the main focus of what I was doing. I had to make sure I did what I was supposed to be doing, so then I could also do jazz. And the more I did that, and the more the editors understood how important jazz is within the culture of Detroit, and how much that jazz coverage resonated with significant numbers of people in Detroit - particularly in the African American community for whom this music remains such a strong cultural expression - at that point, then it was part of the job and everybody understood that there was great value. But at the beginning, that was a case I kind of had to make through the quality of the work that I was doing.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You arrive in Detroit. You start working for the Free Press in 1995. And, you know, Detroit, of course, has this incredible cultural musical legacy of Motown that everybody knows about - has a really strong jazz legacy that people didn't know as much about. Maybe they will more so now because of your book, Jazz from Detroit. Actually, you know, Detroit has some interesting techno things that happened there in the '70s and '80s. It had this incredible musical heritage, but it's also a city - at that time - my memory of it anyway - the mid-1990s - was Detroit was seen as a city very much in decline. A midwestern industrial city, like others, that was definitely past its glory days and was thought of, mostly, as a place with a lot of economic problems. What was your perception of it when you arrived there in 1995?
MARK STRYKER: Well, when you do what I do - which is to cover culture - whenever you move to a particular place, you are immediately put in touch with many of the best things about living in a place, which is the cultural legacy and the diverse range of art and culture in a place. And so my first impressions all had to do with the fact that - my God, this orchestra is, like, a top 10 orchestra in the country. There's a major opera company here. The Detroit Institute of Arts is one of the great museums in the country. There's a jazz legacy in Detroit that's been crucial to the history of jazz. All of these things were tremendously exciting and thrilling to me. And Detroit - yeah, 1995 was just the very beginning of trying to pull out of what had been a 40-year decline - you know, dramatic loss of population and the collapse of the auto industry in the 1980s had created a crisis. You know, the urban ills of crime - and Detroit is an endlessly complex city. Everything that happens in Detroit gets refracted through issues of race, issues of labor management, issues of city-suburb divide. It's a very complicated place. It took me years to begin to come to an understanding about how Detroit works and why certain things are the way they are, and all of that. So I'm trying to do all that and, you know, figure out the highways and figure - you know, just, like, get a sense of all that. And yet, at the same time, my daily job of interacting with culture and the people that made it was as exciting and thrilling as anything you could imagine. I fell in love with Detroit almost immediately because of that. And I felt, and still feel a great deal of responsibility to do this artistic legacy justice in this extraordinary American city. You know, you talk about music and - yeah, everybody does know Motown, of course. But, you know, this jazz legacy - as I argue in my book - you can't tell the history of jazz in America without also telling the history of jazz from Detroit. So there's that. There's Motown. There's - you mentioned techno - techno house music all comes from Detroit. Derrick May, Juan Atkins - these are popular music heroes. There's a whole Detroit rock scene - people like Bob Seger, the MC5 come out of Detroit, Iggy Pop comes from there.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Right, yeah.
MARK STRYKER: Patti Smith lived in Detroit for a lot of years in the 1980s and into the '90s. The avant-garde classical composer Robert Ashley and Roger Reynolds - they're from Detroit. Classical musicians Ida and Ani Kavafian and the violist Kim Kashkashian and others have come from Detroit. The great music directors of the Detroit Symphony include people like Ossip Gabrilowitsch and Paul Paray and Neeme Jarvi and Leonard Slatkin - major musicians.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Quite a roll call.
MARK STRYKER: Yeah, it is quite a roll call. There's an honor roll of people from Detroit that, when you think of the city, that's not the first thing that you think about.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Right.
MARK STRYKER: But if you are in tune with music and you hear the word Detroit, you can go in a zillion directions. You know, whether your thing is Eminem or Donald Byrd, Thad Jones, Ossip Gabrilowitsch...
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Aretha Franklin.
MARK STRYKER: ...Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder. I mean, it's an extraordinary legacy and I've been privileged to have lived and worked in an environment where that was part of the culture.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You just mentioned Patti Smith. And when you were a Detroit Free Press writer, you once got to spend a day with Patti Smith in a Detroit art museum - just walking around an art museum with her for a few hours while she looked at art and commented on it. What were some of the other really memorable experiences that you had as a writer at The Free Press? Things like that that probably wouldn't have happened to you if you were just doing some other job?
MARK STRYKER: Well, there have been a lot. You know, I spent a day with the composer Elliott Carter when he was turning 90 at his home in Connecticut. I spent an afternoon with Herbie Hancock in his home in California. I met so many of my heroes - Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter and all of the Detroiters. You know, watching Barry Harris in New York teach for a night and then spending time at Barry's home and getting to understand how he thinks. You know, every time I spend time with a Sonny Rollins or an Elliott Carter or a Barry Harris or I speak to a Stephen Sondheim, these are periods of growth for me. The actual interaction is enriching my life. I leave those interactions, I hope, a smarter, more self-aware person. And that's not me, that's - the job is giving me an opportunity to learn from masters. So, oftentimes I felt like I was sitting in a masterclass. To sit with a composer like William Bolcom, who's composed operas A View from The Bridge and McTeague, and to have him talk about his craft is a masterclass. To hear Lewis Hayes, the great Detroit-born drummer, talk about how he does what he does is a masterclass. So it's sort of an endless stream of opportunities, one of which that comes to mind immediately is - in 2004, I got a chance to spend a day with Ornette Coleman, the great alto-saxophonist pioneer of the jazz avant-garde.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Key figure in 20th century jazz, yeah.
MARK STRYKER: Key figure in 20th century - yeah, in 20th century music. And I went to Ornette's loft in the Garment District in New York, and I was with him for about six hours. And we're talking - and you know - Ornette talks in metaphor, and conversation can get abstract and spacey. And yet, at the same time, Ornette has a way of sort of bringing everything back home in these kind of country aphorisms.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: …Kind of talks like he plays, in a way.
MARK STRYKER: Absolutely. You know, “music is not a race, music is an idea.” Like, you see - he would put something out there like that and you would sort of sit there and the air would get quiet and you try and deal with what he was talking about and come back and you'd have this conversation. But at one point, you know, I had told Ornette that I had played alto as a kid. I was asking about his system of organization of music, which he calls harmolodics - which is a made-up word. But he has a way that he thinks about music, and I was asking him some questions. And he got out his alto and he gave it to me and gave me a lesson right there in his music. I mean, he handed me the horn. And so I'm playing the horn, and he's telling me things about – “OK, now play this chord. Now play that chord. Now work with these intervals.” And I'm sitting there - I'm having a lesson. And at a certain point, I realized, OK, what I really need to do is get him to play. Because I know what I sound like, and nobody wants to hear that. But I want to hear what Ornette plays, because then I can bring that into my story. And so finally, I just gave him the horn and I said, “show me.” And he played. And he played these - you know, everything he played came out as a song - a short, little, beautiful song. You could put a frame around every phrase and make that a composition. And to sit within two feet of Ornette and see his embouchure and watch the mouthpiece - and I began to understand some things about how Ornette plays that I never understood before. I mean, for one thing, as an example, Ornette doesn't keep his top teeth on the mouthpiece. He plays double lip, in the way that you would play a double reed instrument like an oboe or a bassoon. When you have a mouthpiece, you're taught to put your teeth on it, and he plays double lip. And that gives him a kind of flexibility of pitch. All of a sudden, I sort of understood how he did certain things because the technique is so homegrown, in a way. So - I mean, how many people get a saxophone lesson from Ornette Coleman? Not many.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: As part of their job, too.
MARK STRYKER: As part of their job. So, something like that would happen. You know, something that happened to me in Detroit that does not happen to you when you work in South Bend, Indiana, is - one day I'm sitting at my desk, not long after I'd been in Detroit. And just a couple of days before that, I had gone to the Detroit Symphony and reviewed a concert in which Kathleen Battle was singing. So that review came out. And a couple of days later, I'm sitting at my desk and the phone rings. And I pick up the phone and the woman says, “Mark Stryker, please.” And I say, “this is he.” And she says, “this is Aretha Franklin.” And then she says, “I just want to tell you that I read what you wrote about Kathleen Battle and I thought it was the most poetic thing I had ever read.” And I'm sitting there, and my jaw's on the floor. And I'm trying to figure out, is this a joke? Who is this? Who's my friend calling from Dayton or somewhere pretending to be Aretha Franklin? But no, in fact, it really was Aretha. And she had read the story and picked up the phone. And then she said to me, you know, “I was wondering if you would be interested in rewriting parts of my autobiography.” In my mind, I'm trying to figure out what rewriting parts of an autobiography actually means. So I'm thinking that and I said to her, “well, I'd love to do anything you'd like me to do.” I knew she was working with David Ritz on her autobiography, and David Ritz is the major "as-told-to" guy in the music business. He wrote the Ray Charles book, he wrote the Marvin Gaye book, et cetera, et cetera. And so I couldn't quite figure out what that meant. I - you know, well, if I were David, I wouldn't want somebody coming in to rewrite. She said, “well, that would be OK. We would work it out.” Blah, blah, blah. Anyway, it was - the conversation went on for a bit and finally she - you know, we hung up. And two days later, I got a telegram from her. Now, think about that. This is a telegram in early 1996. Who was sending telegrams into the '90s, right? But Aretha was old school. You know, get paid in cash before the gig and have the $40,000 on the stage with you during the gig. And when you communicate with journalists, you send telegrams. But the telegram said this is just to confirm that, you know, we talked and, you know, if you worked on my autobiography, there would be a fee paid for said paragraphs and blah, blah, blah. And I never heard from her again, but I framed the telegram.
(SOUNDBITE OF BARRY HARRIS’ “LOLITA”)
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: This is Profiles on WFIU. I'm David Brent Johnson, and I'm speaking with writer Mark Stryker.
In 2016, you took a voluntary buyout from the Detroit Free Press, which is one of the things that enabled you to finish the "Jazz From Detroit" book, which was something I know you had been working on for a while and wanted to finish. I wanted to ask you first about what was it like to leave the Free Press at the end of 2016. I mean, how - the media industry must have changed so much in your 21 years there. You start there in 1995 - 2016, that's about 1,000 years, in my opinion, in newspaper time, you know?
MARK STRYKER: Well, it was quite a different business and industry when I left than when I started there. I mean, when I got to the Detroit Free Press, we had a staff of arts and entertainment reporters - critics that was 10 or 11 people, you know? There's a book critic and a movie critic and several television writers and a pop music writer and a visual arts writer and a theater critic and a classical music critic and G.A. people - general assignment people. So there are 10 or 11 people devoted just to writing about arts and culture. And when I left, there were three of us. The newsroom, in 1995, numbered about 350 people. And when I left, it was about 150. Two out of every three journalists that had worked in the paper were no longer in the newsroom. So, we were much, much smaller in that place. And that meant that there were fewer of us doing more and more work because the Internet, when I started, was basically just getting started. It was not a 24-hour news cycle. You had a couple of deadlines in the evening, but it wasn't like today, where there's almost no such thing as a deadline anymore to the extent that - we need it right away, and then we need another version not long after that, and then another version, then another version. And, you know, you're sort of writing all day, continually updating. So, there's no off switch today in the way that there used to be. And so, for me, after all these years, I was starting to get a little tired of the grind and I had other things that I really wanted to do. I wanted to finish this book. I'd been working on it for years, and I couldn't get it to the finish line. And it finally dawned on me that, if I did not leave the paper, I would never finish the book. Because if I could have done so, I would have already. And it was really important to me. And so, you know, it was a bit of a leap of faith to leave. I had one of the great jobs in the industry for a lot of years. But for me, at that point, the right thing to do was to leave and to leave on my own terms while I still could. Near the end of my time at the paper, it was still exhilarating to be in the middle of a great story and to be doing important work. You know, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, and those two years were really monumental years for the paper and for the city. You may remember that the Detroit Institute of Arts got caught up in the bankruptcy, and there was a chance that - because the art collection of the city was owned by the city - that it could be sold to satisfy creditors. And so, because I was the guy covering arts and culture and the museum, and knew how the museum worked and knew how art worked, I was central to the bankruptcy coverage in the paper and paired up with our top business writers and metro reporters, and we could not have told that critically-important story in such a high-pressure environment without having somebody who could cover culture. And so the most rewarding story I ever worked on as a reporter was the bankruptcy. And - because the museum ended up being central to the resolution of the bankruptcy case. Thankfully, they did not have to sell art, but my work was critical in that. And I'm so proud of the work that my colleagues and I did telling this incredibly important story with the highest stakes imaginable for our city. It was a culmination of my entire career. All the skills that I had learned, from the time I was a student here at IU, all the way up through all of my experiences as a reporter, all came to fruition in that story. And I felt like that was the story of a career. This actually would be a pretty good time, now, to bow out and do these other things, including finishing this book.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You talked about - obviously, Detroit went through this bankruptcy period from 2013 to 2015. But in a lot of ways, the city is seen as having undergone a renaissance of sorts in the last couple of decades. What do you think - to the extent that it has truly kind of managed to rebound in some ways - what lessons do you think are there that other communities can take away from what's happening in Detroit?
MARK STRYKER: Well, the big lesson is that arts and culture is the driver of reinvention; is a critical driver of reinvention of a city like Detroit. The arts and culture institutions like the symphony and the opera company - through renovating buildings and creating campuses devoted to culture and figuring out a way to get their message and their art into the civic fabric in a much deeper, profound way - has helped revitalize the city. It's led to both real, actual economic reinvestment, as well as a kind of reinvestment in cultural capital, and those have been critical. And while that's happening on an institutional level, individual artists are moving to the city and setting up shop and creating an environment of activity that is making a real difference in the lives of people in the city. Now, the renaissance of a city like Detroit is a very complicated organism. And while we have had billions of dollars reinvested, financially, into the city - into the downtown core - we need to figure out a way to get that money out to the neighborhoods where people live. You know, city services are still an issue. Blight is still an issue. We have made great progress on a bunch of those fronts, but there's still an extraordinary amount of work to do. You know, there are still two Detroits. There's a Detroit that has undergone this renaissance that has benefited some people, but there is another Detroit that has yet to be touched by what's happening. And so Detroit's story, in that way, is no different from any other city that's trying to rebound itself. But I think, given Detroit's historic importance to America - both in terms of the auto industry and in terms of culture - I think Detroit is critically important. I had a conversation with Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, and he told me that Detroit, for him, is the most important city in America because of its history. And this idea of - if you can save Detroit, you can save America - I absolutely believe that's true. So it's been exciting to be in Detroit over these last 25 years because I have seen the city make extraordinary strides from where it was when I got here to where it is today. And it took 50 - 60 years for Detroit to bottom out, and it's going to take another 50 years to get us back to a place - it's unclear what the reinvention of Detroit is going to look like. There's been a debate about: what kind of city do we want to be? And we don't want to go back and be the kind of city we were, and we can't be that city, so what should the reinvented Detroit look like? And we are still trying to figure that out, but it is absolutely clear that arts and culture has played a critical role and will continue to play a critical role, even more so going forward.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: This doesn't have anything to do with Detroit, but I just have to ask you. You have quite a collection of vintage hats, and you're rarely seen without one adorning your head. And our listeners can't see you right now, but you are wearing a hat right now as I'm seeing you. How did this predilection of yours originate?
MARK STRYKER: You know, I remember, one day about 15 years ago, I went out to Saks Fifth Avenue at a mall north of Detroit. And I walked in and a guy came up to me and said to me, in the men's department, "can I help you?" And I said, "yeah, I want to look like Sinatra in '65." And the guy looked at me and said, "wouldn't we all?" I picked up hats because it was a marker of a style that I am really drawn to. I've always been drawn to nice clothes. I try and look “clean,” as they say in Detroit. And in Detroit, if you don't dress well, you get run over. And so I picked up hats. You know, people talk about hats going out of favor. But in Detroit and in the African American community in Detroit, hats never went out of favor. And I was looking around at people. I was seeing and thinking about Sinatra and all that, and I just got interested in hats. And, you know, I'm a record collector. I've got 6,000 LP is in my basement. When I got interested in hats, before long, I had 55 hats in my closet. And...
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Is that how many you have today?
MARK STRYKER: ...Yeah, more than 50. I've thinned the herd a little bit in recent years.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So you can wear a different hat every week for the whole year, if you've got 50 hats.
MARK STRYKER: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah. To give listeners an idea - I mean, I am wearing today - this is a vintage Borsalino. Borsalino is a great Italian hat maker. That's at the very high end. I mean, this - Borsalinos are like the Rolls Royce of hats. And this is a vintage Borsalino. They don't make them like this anymore. You know, if you were to buy this hat new today, if you could find a hat of this quality, it'd have to be custom made and this would be a $700 hat, probably. I mean, this is an expensive accoutrement that I am wearing today. I bought it for 50 bucks used, had it reconditioned a little bit by my guy in Detroit, and this hat is at least as old as I am.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You have a guy in Detroit - a hat guy?
MARK STRYKER: Oh, yeah, I have a guy. Everybody needs a guy. I mean, people have their car guy...
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: …Your saxophone guy. You have a hat guy.
MARK STRYKER: ...Their saxophone guy. Yeah, I have a hat guy. Yeah, without a doubt. Without a doubt. And this hat is as old as I am, and I was born in 1963. It's probably older, actually. Yeah, probably older.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So, my last question for you, Mark - in addition to the great hat advice you've given us - is to say, if I'm a 14 or 15-year-old kid today and I come up to you and I say, “Mr. Stryker, I want to be a musician and/or a writer,” what would you tell them? Go to grad school?
MARK STRYKER: Yeah. Yeah.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: First.
MARK STRYKER: Man…Well…let's talk about being a writer.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: OK.
MARK STRYKER: The two ways to become a good writer are to read voraciously and to write constantly. That's the way to do it. You have to read the masters and you have to read the people who are writing about the topics that you want to write about and see how they do it. And the only way to do that is to actually read it. It is not that different from being a musician. You want to learn how to play jazz? Well, you need to listen to Sonny Rollins and Lewis Armstrong and Charlie Parker in the tradition, and listen to the masters, because that will show you how to do the art form. And then you have to practice it and you have to do it in battle conditions - you have to learn on the bandstand. So if you want to be a writer about arts and culture, you have to read the masters. And when I say read the masters, I'm talking about reading literature, poetry - across all disciplines. I don't see how you can write about American culture in any facet without reading, say, Ralph Ellison and Mark Twain and Emerson and Melville and - the masters, because they will teach you how to write and they will teach you about what it means to be an American. And poetry - because poets are imagists. And if you want to learn to write with metaphor and simile and how to write in a concise form but with a great deal of meaning, the people that do that best are poets. So you have to read voraciously, and you have to write voraciously. You know, if you want to be a journalist these days, the field is very difficult. You have to really commit yourself. It is a calling. It is not a place for people that want to be dilettantes - that think, “oh, that sounds like it might be fun. I would like to maybe write.” You can't do that if you want to make a career in this. There are too many people that are too great at this already trying to make a living in a field that pays too little money to not come at this with everything you've got. Now, having said that, if you have a passion for this, then, by all means, do it. And the only way to find out if you really have the passion is to actually commit yourself to it and see what it's like and what it may bring to your life. That's sort of, in a general sense. In a more specific sense, if you want to be a newspaper or a media figure covering arts and culture, you need to have a specialty and you need to be a generalist. You need to go as deep as you can into whatever it is that drives the most passion in you. For me, that was jazz and classical music, and you need to go super deep. Going super deep means learning the traditions in those disciplines and studying the writers who have covered those traditions best. But you also have to have a general understanding of all kinds of culture. Because, these days, everything intersects with everything else in all kinds of ways through the media landscape. I don't think you can write about jazz or classical music today without having a working knowledge of what's happening in film, theatre, literature, dance, popular music. And you need to be in touch with contemporary political currents. And you have to be both a deep specialist and a generalist, and only a few people make a lot of money at that. There aren't that many jobs. The number of full-time jobs simply writing about classical music - very few people. But there are ways of writing about classical music if you're in the media, where you're doing other things and that's part of it. So, if you want to do that, it takes everything you've got. In that way, I don't think it's any different than being a musician. Unless you can live without being a musician, then you have no business trying to make a living as a musician. And I think that's true for writing about culture. It has to be a thing where you cannot live without it. Otherwise, do something else.
DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Our guest today has been Mark Stryker, writer and author of Jazz from Detroit. Mark, thank you so much for joining us on Profiles.
MARK STRYKER: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOE HENDERSON’S “ISOTOPE”)
MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website, wfiu.org. Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKSTONES' "BLU-BOP")