A recent review of a Detroit novel posits that other than Elmore Leonard, there is very little to say about a literary tradition in the Motor City.
“Obviously the reviewer is not aware of our city’s rich literary tradition with tributaries going back years,” said author and playwright Bill Harris, a native Detroiter. “If he or she had dug a little deeper into our history, the names of Robert Hayden, Naomi Madgett, Dudley Randall, Ron Milner, to mention just a few, would have provided at least a glimpse of the noted poets, publishers and writers we have produced.”
Harris, a distinguished literary critic, essayist, poet and professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, can add his own name to this illustrious list of local as well as nationally acclaimed artists. And his reputation is sure to be enhanced come Sunday, Oct. 7, in Harlem, where he will read from his latest book, “Blues and Jazz.”
The convergence of blues and jazz is something Harris has devoted more than a passing nod to, and one should read his play “Cool Jazz” and his bio-poem “Yardbird Suite” to gather a notion of how he blends these two essential elements of African-American culture.
Last year, Harris was the recipient of the prestigious Kresge Eminent Artist Award, a $50,000 prize given annually to an outstanding artist who has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to the arts in metropolitan Detroit. For more than 40 years, Harris has been toiling in the literary vineyards, and the award is emblematic of the significant harvest he has produced in several genres.
Beyond his plays and appearances in New York City, Harris has done stints at Jazzmobile and the New Federal Theatre, where he was a production coordinator. But it’s with his pen that Harris strikes the strongest pose. Here’s a taste from the beginning of his play “Coda,” where jazz and the blues of life converge in Spoon’s mind:
“This joint featured shake dancers when I started tending bar here. I changed it to an all-jazz policy soon as I owned it, even though there was already music everywhere you turned in Detroit–before, during and after hours. Little girls jumping rope to ‘Now’s the Time.’ Mamas doing their shopping and grannies fanning to ‘Groovin’ High.’ Barbecuing, shoe shining, hair frying and dying, making love and raising kids to ‘Hot House’ and ”Round About Midnight.’ Henry Ford was turning out automobiles in River Rouge and Dearborn, and we were turning out music on the North End. Good Times.”
If you want more, then this is the moment, as Kenny Dorham might sing, and on Sunday, Oct. 7, at 2 p.m. Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre and Voza Rivers’ New Heritage Theatre will present Harris at the Dwyer Cultural Center (258 St. Nicholas Ave., entrance on 123rd Street). The whole set is free, and you’ll get a complimentary copy of the Kresge Foundation monograph, where Harris is deftly profiled.
RSVP by Oct. 3 by calling 212-353-1176 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.