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David Janeway Stands On Detroit Piano’s Higher Ground

For more than a century Detroit’s factories have sent tens of millions of vehicles into the world. That’s remarkable, but so too is the city’s assembly line of great jazz pianists: Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Alice Coltrane and Geri Allen. Lesser-known, but equally polished are figures such as Terry Pollard, Johnny O’Neal, Bob Neloms and Kirk Lightsey. Add 69-year-old David Janeway, who will appear at BOP STOP on Friday with Robert Hurst and Billy Hart, to that distinguished list.

If Janeway’s name is the least familiar of those cited above, it might be due to fact that his career has been centered on New York where he has lived since 1978. “I was 23 [and] I felt prepared, even though I got my ass kicked quietly when I moved to New York, because it really was on another level. But I felt like at least I had a very strong foundation and it served me well.”

That foundation included 10 years of classical training and, starting at age 13, playing Farfisa organ through a Leslie speaker in a Detroit rock band. A few years later Janeway heard trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and pianist Harold McKinney. “They had a band called the Creative Profile,” he remembered. “I caught the jazz bug hard, [and] after that, that’s all I was interested in.”

Belgrave and McKinney were not only great players, they were also indispensable educators who mentored generations of Detroit musicians through their Detroit Metro Arts Workshop. Janeway was one of them and he later studied at the Oakland University program started by saxophonist Marvin “Doc” Holladay. “In those days, if you could play, and you knew some standards and you were competent, you got work,” Janeway said. “I learned on the bandstand, working in Detroit and Ann Arbor.”

It was solid preparation and the Detroit pianist quickly found work in New York. One of his first gigs was subbing for Fred Hersch in trumpeter Art Farmer’s band. A recommendation from pianist Bill O’Connell led Janeway to decisive stint in the salsa band of Angel Canales.

“That taught me about playing in a rhythm section,” he said. “Everybody has to be in the groove, in the pocket, at the same time. That tied into my experience growing up in Detroit, which is that the groove was paramount.”

Given that focus, it’s hardly surprising that Janeway’s trio partners are masters of the groove. Bassist Robert Hurst achieved fame with in the mid ’80s in the band of Wynton Marsalis, but Janeway started working with him when he was in high school in Detroit. “Even then he was a prodigy and destined for greatness,” Janeway said. “He can cover any kind of musical situation. So this is a very exciting opportunity for me.”

Hurst and drummer Billy Hart played in a memorable trio with another Detroit piano titan, the late Geri Allen. “For those two to be able to hook up again, I think is an exciting opportunity also,” Janeway said.

David Janeway, Cameron Brown, Billy Hart
David Janeway, Cameron Brown, Billy Hart

Janeway doesn’t go back quite as far with Hart as he does with bassist Hurst. They met in the early ‘90s through a mutual bandmate, the saxophonist Sonny Fortune and played quite a bit during the COVID lockdown. “Even at 83, he is an extremely humble individual and musician, and is always striving to grow,” Janeway said of Jabali. On something that we’ll do like a standard tune, he will put his stamp on it, and that means that he’s always improvising. He’s always innovating.”

There will be some of those standards on the trio’s Friday setlist and some material from Janeway’s last trio recording, 2021’s Distant Voices (SteepleChase LookOut), with Hart and bassist Cameron Brown (another Detroiter) new pieces from Forward Motion that trio’s recording slated for a September release.

One of them, Billy Strayhorn’s “Star Crossed Lovers,” holds particular resonance for the trio. “Billy inspired me to take on that composition because he loves the recording of Geri Allen doing it with Andy Bey,” Janeway said. “When I heard that, I said, ‘Oh, okay. I know what Billy is talking about,’ and I did a little arrangement of it.”

Whenever he plays, Janeway wants to honor the jazz tradition laid down by the greats of Detroit jazz.  He talked about, “a real responsibility to uphold that very high standard, very high standard, that is part of growing up in Detroit and being a musician, jazz musician in particular.”

He described it in almost spiritual terms. “It is the essence of what jazz is: It’s freedom of expression and searching for higher ground, community, love, universal spirit, bringing us together.”

David Janeway with Robert Hurst and Billy Hart, Fri., June 14, 7 p.m., BOP STOP at the Music Settlement. 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, tickets $25 available here

NOTE: This article was written by a real human being. No artificial intelligence or generative language models were used in its creation.

Red beans and ricely yours,