Detroit was downright ecstatic during a five-day love-fest of the city’s most beloved daughter. Love was everywhere—loving appreciation of Aretha’s living, breathing music and loving pride that this very community cultivated her remarkable gift.
The holy praise was bluesy and the sweet jazz sanctified as Detroit rejoiced in the sounds of the woman who rocked this troubled nation for more than a half-century.
In venues both massive and intimate, the sacred sounded secular and the secular sounded sacred. What better way to honor an artist whose brilliant career had married the earthly and divine?
The elongated homage began in hallowed quietude. On Tuesday and Wednesday thousands walked by her open casket at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. On Thursday the viewing moved to the New Bethel Baptist on C.L. Franklin Boulevard, the street named in honor of Aretha’s father who preached some of the most progressive sermons of the civil rights era.
Approaching the final bodily form of the singer considered the finest America has ever produced, an elderly woman softy said, “She’s home. She’s always belonged to us. Now she belongs to God.”
The setting was stunning: a sea of pink and purple roses, a bronze gold-plated casket, the queen in regal repose, adorned in a pinkish beige St. John’s suit, matching stilettos, her legs crossed, a soft smile gracing her face. The drama was magnetic, her vestments radiant symbols of her final material presence. The fact that those vestments were changed four times—the first day she was awash in ruby red, the second day baby blue and on burial day glittering gold—added appropriate glamour to her wildly glamorous career.
Like her life, Aretha’s passing was the stuff of high drama. As hundreds of fans lined the street to snap photos, her casket was transported across the city in a fabulous 1940 LaSalle hearse, the same vehicle that carried Rosa Parks and Aretha’s famous father.
“When you listen to the great women of song of the 20th Century,” jazz singer Carmen McRae once said, “you hear their histories. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith came out of minstrel shows. Billie Holiday grew up in brothels. Aretha was bred in church. All four possessed genius, but I do believe Aretha’s genius was born of faith.”
Providentially, the great genres of African American music merged during these extraordinary days, culminating with the Detroit Jazz Festival. Though the tradition of mourning followed by celebration is associated with New Orleans, Detroit gave that phenomenon new vitality. Grief transformed to joy.
Makeshift memorials were omnipresent, hand-painted posters proclaiming, “Natural Woman Lives Forever,” “We Never Loved A Woman Like We Love You,” “Respect In Peace.”
Thursday night before Aretha’s Friday funeral, Detroit was awash in pink neon, her music blasting from open windows, convertibles, motorbikes, and skateboards, the citizenry spontaneously singing her songs with unfettered brashness.
The waterfront Chene Park, renamed Aretha Franklin Park the very next day, hosted a four-hour concert where Detroit’s musical masters interpreted the Queen’s most potent material. Dee Dee Bridgewater offered a soaring “Skylark.” Tasha Page-Lockhart did double duty: first a stunning “Amazing Grace” followed by the evening’s crowning achievement, the transformation of Aretha’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” into a gospel hymn.
The funeral itself stretched over seven hours. The initial image — a hundred pink Cadillacs provided by Mary Kay Cosmetics parked in front of Greater Grace Temple — hinted at a service that inspired even as it challenged Aretha’s most passionate devotees. The high point: Stevie Wonder’s unaccompanied harmonica rendering of the Lord’s Prayer. The low point: Rev. Jasper Williams, Jr.’s bitterly reactionary eulogy. Among his many dogmas, his insistence that “a black woman cannot raise a black boy to be a man” ignited furious indignation from one end of the World Wide Web to the other.
By nightfall the city’s mood had turned to jazz. The setting for the festival’s premiere performance was downtown’s Hart Plaza. The skyscrapers—some pre-War, some postmodern–were aglow in yellow, orange and green. A cool breeze blew off the Detroit River. Pianist Chick Corea took the stage. He dedicated Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” to Aretha, calling her a “freedom fighter.” He rendered the song sublimely.
My mind went back 56 years to 1962 when, as an 18-year-old student, I went to New York’s Village Gate to see Thelonious Monk. Aretha, at age 19, was the opening act. Accompanying herself on piano, she sang that very song, “In A Sentimental Mood,” with prodigious sophistication. The audience was spellbound.
She’s the kind of artist, I thought to myself, who’s never going to die.