Photography: Karen Fox
Music history for Detroit Northwestern High School alum Al McKenzie is deeply rooted in what he does. With four solo albums, and from his days as musical director for the Temptations, two gold records, one platinum ("Phoenix Rising) and a Grammy (“Ear-Resistible”), McKenzie’s love of piano radiates from his mother who continues to play the organ at church.“I’ve been fortunate to have support from educators and music legends like Teddy Harris, Ernie Rogers, the late Brazeal Dennard, Arthur Lebrew, Charles Coleman, the late Edward Gooch and the late Earl Van Dyke.” Surprising many, McKenzie was able to play cello, flute, violin, clarinet, trombone and piano proficiently in his Detroit Public School days. As a teenager, right out of high school, he toured with Martha Reeves and later, the Temptations. McKenzie recalls wondering “if his father was more impressed that Martha Reeves wanted him to travel to New York with her band or the fact that his father was a Martha Reeves fan and being able to talk to her about music when she stopped by our house.”
As an artist and AMAC record executive, his musical seasoning is expansive. He’s traveled throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia and has performed with many artists and legends including The Spinners, The Four Tops, Mary Wilson, Penny Wells, The Supremes, The Contours, Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Holiday, Kim Weston, Anita Baker, Martha Reeves, O. C. Smith, Esther Phillips, Marlena Shaw, Dave McMurray and Marion Meadows. The list goes on with names like Howard Hewitt, Dennis Coffee, Roz Ryan, Enchantment, The Miracles, Randy Scott, Oleta Barnes, Theo Peoples, The Temptations, Jean Carne, The Jones Girls, Norman Connors, Ali Woodson, The Shirelles, Marcus Belgrave and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.
After coming off the road, McKenzie released his debut album (Is it Love) as a solo artist in 2001. His 2006 CD (A Reason to Be), presented an opportunity to mix contemporary jazz and R&B with fellow Detroit musicians Mike Fowler (guitar), Penny Wells (vocals), Darrell ‘Peanut’ Smith (bass) and Ron Otis (drums). His latest CD project, Strawberry Noon, “reflects that time of day when people approach the mid-day break to do whatever they do.”
McKenzie arranges music, mentors and serves as music director for several artists including Penny Wells and Lansing based band, 496 West. Tucked away, playing in a mental list of favorite memories is “I Believe in You and Me”, performed as a music tribute for the Essence Awards show with Levi Stubbs. Also playing is a Tonight Show video clip with him on stage with the Temptations, which recently surfaced on YouTube, and that of McKenzie conducting his first symphony with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.
Answering a question about challenges in music, Mackenzie says “A challenge for today’s artists is how to share their music with new audiences.” For the jazz lover or educator, a key question is “how to get artists, especially young artists, interested in jazz.” “Budget cuts have forced schools to make tough choices about music programs and technology is changing the way we hear music, the way we get music and to some degree, what we hear. There are fewer jazz radio stations and venues for musicians to play.” But, McKenzie believes the thirst for music education is evident in how fast the instructor’s schedules fill up at The Michigan Music Conservatory, founded by McKenzie and Keisha Lanae’ in 2012.
In his way of giving back, McKenzie’s music journey might also offer a significant solution in providing a way for kids to play and learn about music at the same time. Having completed its 8th year, the annual scholarship awards and benefits concert, “If Only for One Moment” is hosted by IN-ACCORD, the non-profit organization which was founded by McKenzie in 2003. Middle and high school students get a chance to share their talents and compete for the Teddy Harris Scholarship Award which is given for a student to attend the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts. “A Legacy of Excellence Award” is also presented to an individual who has shown a commitment to nurturing and developing music in the community. The group is also continuing its newsletter (The Spinet), which highlights young musicians, events, and other information along with the “free weekly music workshop called Kids & Jazz which is held at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge during the school year for students to learn the fundamentals of improvisation, practice ear training and have an opportunity to get over the fear of performing on stage.”
Yes, Detroit is certainly rich in music history and its impact on McKenzie exemplifies the real soul and heart of the city. Helping to keep music vibrant and relevant is what McKenzie does, one chord at a time. “We could have a Thelonious Monk or a James Carter in our midst.” “When we don’t understand what jazz is, what the art is or what a great singer sounds like, we just might miss the artist who decides to do something else because we don’t appreciate their art form.”
You can witness more history in the making Labor Day weekend where Al McKenzie will direct the New Breed Be-Bop Society on the main stage at the 2013 Detroit Jazz Festival in honor of Dr. Teddy Harris Jr.