Primary Instrument: Sax, tenor
He’d gone to see saxophonists John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders the year before at a place on Dexter called the Drome Lounge, and their wail was like nothing he’d ever experienced before: magnificent, powerful, polyrhythmic, polytonal, polychromatic, emotional, form-shattering … the purest music he’d ever experienced before or since.
And when the word went out that Coltrane had died on a Monday in July - or gotten so heavy he’d fallen off the planet, as some wags would have it - it was only fitting to call for a memorial party. A dozen or so fans worshipfully played records and made music through Saturday night at the cramped apartment on Chicago Boulevard where he lived with his wife. Around daybreak came the sound of cars speeding away from Lord knew what, and being reckless guys, they went to check out the commotion and soon found themselves at the epicenter of the brewing Detroit rebellion of 1967. It was a revelation:
“The people who were rioting in the street, they moved like one mind. It was almost like a hive of insects moves. It was like a wave; it just moved, but that whole episode put me in a frame of mind of thinking about our position here as a - quote - subculture, and how to deal with that. And since music was always an interest of mine and seeing how our music defined itself and our relationship to the greater environment as well … ”
The issues all seemed intertwined.
A couple days later with the riot still raging he became the owner of his first saxophone, a Martin tenor, for the uncharacteristically low price of $80.
Asked whether, in the parlance of the time, the saxophone had been “liberated,” he laughs dryly. “I got it during the riot,” he repeats.
Asked whether this all seemed prophetic - Coltrane dying, the memorial, the riot, the saxophone - his eyes widen as if it’s obvious. He laughs again: “It was significant, I’ll put it that way.”
Life seemed to take on a new seriousness. “Before that I was just floating and having fun doing what was expected of me by the culture at large and the tradition and yadda yadda,” he says.
Within a few years, Jesse Davis would have new names. He would become Malik Z. Bey then Faruq Z. Bey. His marriage would dissolve, as would two more during the ’70s. He’d become part of an artistic, spiritualist, pan-African political milieu; he’d eventually become a sort of poster boy for that set. He’d read his poetry to rapt listeners, pontificate on the meaning of life and culture, play in more bands and jams than anyone can be expected to keep track of. He’d impress a lot of folks as brilliant and charismatic; he’d attract talent like a magnet. He’d garner a rep as a ladies’ man. He’d live wildly, nearly die, watch much of what he’d worked for unravel, and slowly recover.
And roughly two decades after its demise, one of his bands, arguably the best jazz band to never make it out of Detroit, just may be on the verge of getting its due...