Cranbrook Students Kick Out the Jams

How many high schools can lay claim to hosting a performance of the legendary Detroit band, the MC5? In 1967, Cranbrook School joined a handful of Metro Detroit high schools as a venue for arguably one of the most influential rock bands of all time.

Cover of the MC5’s debut album, recorded live at Grande Ballroom in Detroit, 1969. Courtesy of private collection.

Known the world over today for their groundbreaking music, and as progenitors of the subsequent 1970s punk rock movement, the MC5 (Motor City Five) were relatively unknown outside the Detroit area when they played the Cranbrook School Little Gym on April 28, 1967.

Rob Tyner, lead singer of the MC5, performing for the Cranbrook audience. The Brook, 1968. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Billed as a Jazz Psychedelic, the concert featured fellow Detroit musicians, the Charles Moore Octet and the Joseph Jarman Quartet, both avant-garde jazz groups. Trumpeter Charles Moore’s band had already played earlier that year at Cranbrook (their musical repertoire including poetry by John Sinclair) and had developed a following among students and faculty. Accompanying the music at the April concert was a light show by the Magic Veil, which consisted of several sheets placed around the gym, a large number of lenses, watercolors, and an overhead projector. Open to Cranbrook and Kingswood students, faculty, and the area’s interested general public, tickets cost $3.25.

Charles Moore Octet at Cranbrook. The Crane, January 20, 1967. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The event was sponsored by the revamped Jazz Society, a student club formed in 1966 with a goal of exposing students to different forms of jazz (including a trip to the Masonic Temple in Detroit to see Count Basie). Under their new name, REAL (Revolutionary Enjoyment Authenticity and Love), they continued to arrange musical experiences both on and off campus, providing tickets and transportation to venues such as the Fisher Theater, Meadowbrook, and the Grande Ballroom. A trip to this last venue, “home base,” if you will, of the MC5, included a concert by the Eric Clapton band, Cream.

For two years in the 1960s (1967-1968), Cranbrook School hosted several events that prove just how cool a school they are. The subject matter and genres of these events are not surprising, considering the social, political, and cultural landscape of an era defined by the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and generational social tensions. In this historical context, that Cranbrook, too, felt the effects of a changing nation, underscores how deep an impression the weighty issues and current events made on that generation’s youth.

John Sinclair, captured during one of several appearances on Cranbrook campus. The Brook, 1968. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

While perhaps not embraced by all, the programs and events offered to students during those years was clearly a reflection of the times. Student-sponsored panel discussions featured labor leader August Scholl (Michigan AFL-CIO), CBS news correspondent Mike Wallace, Black Nationalist lawyer Milton R. Henry, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, and MC5 manager, activist, poet, and writer, John Sinclair, among others. Art films, such as Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s, Wild Strawberries, were sponsored as alternatives to readily available, and easily digestible, Hollywood films. As for music appreciation, even the 1967 Senior Dance included the “mellow jams” of psychedelic Ann Arbor band, Six Pence.

Members of Six Pence perform at the Cranbrook Kingswood Senior Dance, April 8, 1967. Courtesy of Cranbook Archives.

Fast forward fifty-one years. Although not a musical performance, the 2018 Cranbrook Art Museum exhibition Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976-1986, saw a continuation of Cranbrook’s examination of Detroit counterculture in the second half of the 20th century, through a film screening and Q&A with 1970s punk rock band, Death. Fittingly, the exhibition preview party included music by, you guessed it, the MC5!  

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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