A few Saturdays ago, bassist Marion Hayden's 12-year-old son Michael sat at a desktop computer in the combination rehearsal space and living room of the family's arts and crafts-style home in Highland Park. Hayden's upright acoustic bass was propped against a wall next to a framed drawing of Harriet Tubman. While his mom made coffee, Michael talked about how much he likes to play the drums, and his dream of becoming a chef.
As Michael started to recite the caloric stats of various chain restaurant appetizers, his mom walked into the living room and sat down with a coffee mug and a glass of orange juice. She told Michael that she wants him to get a culinary degree and a business degree so he'll understand both sides of the restaurant business. Michael slid his desk chair closer to his mom, and she reached over and affectionately rubbed the back of his head.
Hayden was the same age as her precocious son when she decided she wanted to be a jazz musician. Her music-loving parents, Marion and Herbert Hayden, encouraged her, particularly her dad who was an avid jazz fan and a pianist as well.
"My dad had a huge jazz collection. That's where I started. I used to take my bass and his albums to the basement and play the albums over and over, learning all the bass lines," Hayden recalled as she sipped.
Hayden is an attractive woman with a charming presence. She's humble, perhaps to a fault. Rather than brag about her own accomplishments, she boasted about the musicians who inspired her, such as pianist Charles Boles, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, the late pianist Kenn Cox and the late saxophonist Donald Walden. To get a sense of Hayden as a person and a musician, you have to consult her peers, who won't hesitate to praise her.
MacArthur award-winning violinist Regina Carter was an original member of the ladies-only jazz quintet Straight Ahead, which Hayden co-founded with vocalist Miche Braden. In a recent telephone interview about her former bandmate, Carter said, "She is an incredible musician. People know her. It's just amazing that she decided to make her life and career in Detroit. Bassist Ron Carter always speaks about Marion. When I first moved to New York, he used to ask me when Marion was coming to New York."
Regina Carter also noted Hayden is a taskmaster: "When she's is doing something, she takes it apart and really works on it. She's always about growth, and I admire her work ethic."
On the bandstand, Hayden's no showoff. But when the time comes for her solo, she can hypnotize you with her hands zooming up and down the heavy strings. Hayden also has an aggressive streak. She can be a take-no-prisoners bassist when necessary, which she's showed on Look Straight Ahead, Body & Soul and Dance of the Rain Forest, the albums she made in the '90s when Straight Ahead was signed to Atlantic.
Hayden's instrumental prowess is even clearer on her long-awaited debut as a leader, Visions, which she released last year. Surrounded by such seasoned pros as pianist Kirk Lightsey, trombonist Steve Turre and trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, she sounds completely in her element. Her philosophy about the function of a bass player is cut-and-dry.
"A good bass player could make a mediocre band sound great. A bad bass player can make a great band sound lousy. The bass player is like the mother of the band. We are in the background doing a lot of stirring. So we don't have a lot of time to be flag-waving and taking lengthy solos," Hayden said.
Asked if you she'd ever felt discrimination as a female bassist Hayden jokingly said there's only one female jazz bass player per state. Then she got serious: "The Detroit jazz community has to be the best place to learn and be mentored. This community was highly welcoming to me. If you are genuine about playing jazz music, if you're talented and if you show a little fire you will be given the keys to the kingdom."
Marion grew up on Detroit's west side. She started playing the piano at 9 and the bass at 12. She met Belgrave and saxophonist Wendell Harrison at Metro Arts, a summer program for kids interested in playing jazz.
Harrison, who co-produced Visions with her, recalls, "She was only 15, and we hired her. She was great. She was studious, and everybody wanted to hire her. She worked with all the old masters like Charles Boles. She was a utility player. You call her and she'd get the job done." Belgrave was the first bandleader to hire her — for a gig at the University of Detroit that Harrison produced.
Hayden graduated from Henry Ford High School and the University of Michigan where she earned a liberal arts degree and a minor in entomology. A self-professed nature nerd, she enjoyed figuring out how ecological systems work. And later, she'd spend a decade inspecting plants for insects and diseases by day for the Michigan Department of Agriculture while playing music at night.
During her college days, Hayden played with friends around campus, and participated in jam sessions around Ann Arbor. After graduation, she found work quickly. Teddy Harris led the house band at the jazz club Dummy George's, and the pianist hired Hayden. Then saxophonist Walden hired her. In Walden's band, the bassist met pianist Kenn Cox. Never one to mince words, he was hard on aspiring jazz musicians he felt had star potential.
"I went through a brief period in 1981 or 1982 when I just wasn't feeling like I was making any progress. I decided I wasn't going to play anymore. It was just a personal thing, and Kenn made a few frustrating comments at a tender point in my life," she recalled. "After I made the decision to stop playing, I couldn't even listen to music."
Nearly a year passed: "At some point I gave myself a talk. I asked myself why I was playing. Was I playing for somebody else or was I playing for myself? If it was for me then I shouldn't care what someone thought about my playing."
When she returned to active duty, Hayden's reputation grew. She was so in demand she quit her day job to play music full-time. Ultimately, she and Cox became good friends. Earning Cox's respect meant a lot to the bassist. When she played in Cox's various bands over the years, he'd tell audiences she was in the same league with other accomplished Detroit-bred bassists, such as Paul Chambers and Ron Carter.
Hayden became teary-eyed and her voice softened when she talked about Cox, who lost his long battle with cancer in January. She reflected on Cox as both a musical father figure and a formidable bebop pianist a la such greats as Barry Harris, Walter Bishop Jr. and Bud Powell. And she'll show her admiration for Cox's phenomenal compositions in a tribute program she's heading up this Sunday. A veteran of Free Radicals, Donald Walden's last band, she's likewise dedicated to keeping his musical flame burning.
These days, Hayden is busy working with bands such as drummer Sean Dobbins and the New Jazz Messengers, and saxophonist Allen Barnes' quartet. Hayden also tours with Straight Ahead, teaches at the University of Michigan, and gives private lessons at home. Lately, Hayden has also been composing like crazy, recently completing two suites, one based on the work of the celebrated African-American poet Phyllis Wheatley.
At her Highland Park home, by the time Hayden ended the conversation about her career, her son Michael was still there — with an expression on his face that said he was very proud of his mom.
Marion Hayden joins DJ Nick Speed for a lecture-musical presentation on the Motown sound at noon on Friday, Feb. 20, at noon on the Wayne State University campus (in the Student Center Building in Hilberry Rooms B and C; the Student Center Building is at 5221 Gullen Mall). The event is free. Call 313-577-2321 for more information. On Sunday, Feb. 22, Hayden heads up a tribute to pianist-composer Kenn Cox at 4 p.m., at Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, 8625 E. Jefferson, Detroit. The event is free and open to the public. Call 313-822-3456 for information.