Marcus Belgrave, the beloved trumpet player and teacher whose prodigious performance career intersected with a who’s who of jazz, blues, and pop legends, died May 24 at age 78. A longtime resident of and advocate for his home city of Detroit, he was a member of the Oberlin Conservatory’s Jazz Studies faculty from 2001-10.
The son of a World War I bugle player, Belgrave was born near Philadelphia in 1936 and took to music from a young age, playing his first professional gigs by age 12. Diminutive in stature but abundant in musicianship, he joined the Ray Charles Band in the late 1950s and went on to perform alongside Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald, among countless other top musicians.
In 1962, Belgrave moved to Detroit and settled into life as a studio musician for Motown Records, playing on such legendary hits as “My Girl,” “Dancing in the Street,” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” When Motown moved to California in the 1970s, Belgrave co-founded Tribe Records, a Detroit collective through which he released albums and produced concerts.
Belgrave never strayed far from the stage, continually fortifying his reputation as a charming and soulful player who shined in the solo spotlight. In 1988, he became an original member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and toured with the ensemble for many years. In 2009, he was presented the Eminent Artist Award from the Kresge Foundation, one of numerous honors he received in his lifetime.
Belgrave also derived particular delight in sharing his gifts with future generations. Beginning in 1970, he taught at numerous colleges and universities, including schools in the Detroit area. He co-founded a jazz program for young people at the Detroit Metro Arts Complex, created the city’s Jazz Development Workshop, and launched the jazz program at Oakland University.
He joined the Oberlin faculty as a visiting professor in 2001 and served as a bridge from the program’s roots in historic Hales Gymnasium through its rise to glory in the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, which opened in 2010, the same year Belgrave retired. He appeared with his fellow jazz faculty members on the 2007 Oberlin Music recording Beauty Surrounds Us, which includes the Belgrave-penned piece “All My Love.”
A versatile musician with a latent love of cello, Belgrave sent forth numerous young trumpet players to prominent careers of their own—but he also guided pianists, violinists, saxophonists, and others. Among his former students are trumpet player Theo Croker ’07, pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst, and saxophonist Kenny Garrett.
Shortly after Belgrave’s passing, Croker paid tribute to his mentor on Facebook:
“You taught me more than anyone about life, music, and humanity, and I will miss your mentorship and guidance. You never left me hanging with any obstacle I faced. You treated me like a son when you saw me begin to lose my way. You taught me how to seriously deal with harmony and rhythm with your free-flowing, acrobatic-like approach to improvisation. It was a mere reflection of your high-flying, free-spirited approach to life itself. I love you dearly, Marcus, and will miss you eternally.”
In recent years, even as failing health required him to receive oxygen 24 hours a day, Belgrave remained faithful to his practice schedule—and he continued to play with friends even in his final weeks.
“Marcus was a world-class musician with a big heart,” says Bobby Ferrazza, chair of Oberlin’s Jazz Studies department and a longtime colleague of Belgrave’s. “He was also a world-class mentor. Many of our greatest jazz musicians today know him not only through his work as a great trumpet player, but also because he took so many musicians under his wing and contributed to making them great.”
Belgrave is survived by his wife Joan, two daughters, and two sons.