Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts recently renamed its jazz café as Aretha’s Jazz Café in honor of the late music legend Aretha Franklin, who often performed at Music Hall.

Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts recently renamed its jazz café as Aretha’s Jazz Café in honor of the late music legend Aretha Franklin, who often performed at Music Hall.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

In its 90th year, Music Hall honors its past and a Detroit music icon

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published December 4, 2018


DETROIT — Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts is marking its 90th anniversary by celebrating its storied early history while also acknowledging its more recent past.

The venue, which hosted many concerts by Detroit’s Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, renamed its Jazz Café in her honor this fall, after her death Aug. 16. Aretha’s Jazz Café acknowledges Franklin’s long, loyal relationship with the theater, which was the site of her final full concert, during Detroit Music Week, on June 9, 2017 — a free performance held outside next to the theater on Aretha Franklin Way, the street renamed for her.

In honor of the 90th anniversary of its opening — as the Wilson Theatre, on Dec. 9, 1928 — Music Hall will host a VIP reception and ribbon-cutting Dec. 9 to mark the opening of the Museum Archive in what had been the Balcony Lounge on the fifth floor. The new, permanent exhibition will include concert posters, photos and other memorabilia. In addition, Music Hall will open the new Maggie Allesee Artists Green Room, named for the local philanthropist and arts supporter.

Music Hall President and Artistic Director Vince Paul said the exhibit will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and during shows.

“We’re finally pulling out our archives,” he said.

Besides hosting artists ranging from Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman to Annie Lennox, Music Hall was formerly home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and it was the birthplace of Michigan Opera Theatre, Paul said. Tyler Perry “lived here for a while when he was a playwright,” Paul said.

Music Hall was founded by Matilda Dodge Wilson, widow of automotive pioneer John Dodge; her second husband was Alfred G. Wilson, a Wisconsin lumber broker. When the Dodge Brothers Co. was sold in 1925, after the death of sole surviving brother Horace Dodge, Dodge Wilson and her sister-in-law became two of the richest women in the United States.

Dodge Wilson had Music Hall designed and built as a “legitimate” theater for live concerts and plays, which, in an era of movies with sound, was almost unheard of. There were six such legitimate stages in Detroit at that time; today, Music Hall is the only one left.

The theater opened with a production of Flo Ziegfield’s “Follies.” The state-of-the-art venue was intended to be a theater for the people. Dodge Wilson sold it in 1944 to Henry Reichhold, who renamed the building Music Hall and turned it into the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

In 1953, steel company executive Mervyn Gaskin bought Music Hall and transformed it into only the world’s second Cinerama theater, featuring a gigantic curved screen, seven channels of stereophonic sound and three synchronized projectors.

Movies such as “Gone With the Wind” and “Fantasia” premiered at Music Hall, Paul said. It was also where Disney premiered surround sound, he said.

The theater was nearly torn down in 1974, but it was saved by the Kresge Foundation, Detroit Renaissance and the Music Hall Board, who gave Music Hall new life as a nonprofit performing arts venue. In 1995, the building underwent a massive, $6.5 million renovation. In 2016, corporate and private donors stepped up to save a struggling Music Hall from falling into loan default, which would have resulted in its closure. Within about a month, they raised the $1.7 million needed to pay creditors.

Music Hall’s challenges and triumphs mirror those of the city itself.

“They’ll literally see the history of Detroit when they tour the exhibit,” Paul said.

Today, Music Hall hosts national and local dance, theater, family shows and jazz concerts, among other events.

Because of its long and continuous history, “Music Hall has produced more artists than anyone else,” Paul said.

And Music Hall has a large roster of education programs for local school children to introduce them to music, dance and theater.

Franklin’s association with Music Hall goes back decades. It became the only theater in Detroit where she would perform.

“Her father, (the Rev.) C.L. (Franklin), used to do sermons here,” Paul said. “So she grew up in this building.”

Paul still remembers the first time he spoke to Franklin, by phone, after he was hired at Music Hall in 2006. She was introduced to him verbally as the “new guy,” and for the next decade, he said she affectionately called him “New Guy.” Paul said that when he picked up the phone that first time, Franklin said, “This is Ree-Ree” — a nickname some of those close to her used. All the same, most people didn’t address her by her first name.

“If she asked you a question, the proper answer was ‘yes,’” Paul said with a smile. “Because it was about respect.”

Kern Brantley, a bass player and the music director at Music Hall, worked on and off with Franklin for the last five to six years. He’s part of a new supergroup of top Detroit musicians called Kingdom that’s serving as the Aretha’s Jazz Café house band, and he’ll be performing with the group whenever he’s not on tour with other artists. Brantley said the artists at the café will represent Franklin’s musical diversity, including jazz, gospel, classical and R&B.

“That name (on the café) keeps her legacy alive … for future generations of kids who might not know who she was,” Brantley said.

He said Franklin’s talent extended to producing and songwriting as well, and she performed for three presidents.

Brantley recalls working with Franklin once and asking, “‘Excuse me, Aretha — what chord is that?’ She said, ‘It’s Mrs. Franklin,’” he said with a grin. “She demanded her respect — that’s for sure.”

Paul said Franklin wasn’t one for contracts — “She didn’t sign anything” — so her dedication to Music Hall was one of loyalty and love for the venue.

“She didn’t want it to be (her final concert),” Paul said of last year’s show. “She was really enjoying herself in those final years. She was really having fun.”

Franklin dreamed of having her own jazz café, so naming the one at Music Hall in her honor seemed like a fitting tribute.

“She’d think it was cool,” Paul said.

For more information about Music Hall, visit or call (313) 887-8500.