FLINT, Michigan—Nestled a block off South Saginaw Street, the rhythms roll inside and spread out, bouncing through the twilight roar from I-69. The Golden Leaf’s exterior is unassuming, a bit like an old, familiar home. Stepping inside the anteroom, the band takes up residence along the back wall dishing out the heartbeat of the storied club that was founded 97 years ago as The Maple Leaf before taking on its gilded name in 1923. It is said to be one of the oldest black-owned bars in Flint, maybe even Michigan, but we’ll get back to the early days in a minute.
The owner and maitre’d, Lottie Reid, is sitting along the the bar at 1522 Harrison St. The thing about Reid is her laugh. Her laugh is heard long before you see her big smile.
“I’ve been working here 25 years, but The Leaf is a lot older than me,” she grins and winks, explaining why the little club on Flint’s southside has kept going through the years. “People love music, and people love live entertainment. It’s what gets them moving.”
Lottie Reid serves as both the owner and maitre’d at The Golden Leaf, a storied club where jazz nights keep Flint's musical traditions alive.
“Music makes your soul raise something else out of you,” her laugh rises over the rhythm of voices and basslines.
Sweep from the bar to the stage and Famadou Collins, who, like his father before him, hosts jazz night every Wednesday surrounded by his drums and the rest of the Eclipse band.
“The thing about percussion is it allows you to play any style of music,” Collins says. “Hip hop, R&B, jazz, fusion, funk, Afro-Cuban, disco, country western. Dude, you know, you’re not limited because the drum provides that heartbeat-rhythm-push.”
Collins describes collaborating with other Flint musicians who come to jam at The Leaf. He talks about the freedom of playing and the depth of the music pumping in his skin and through his blood.
“Born in my soul, you know. So the path was already chosen," says Collins.
Collins remembers his father, Kevin "Baba" Collins, carrying three drums on his back everyday “to provide for us—me, my brothers and my sisters,” he said. “He was a mechanic, too, but playing drums like the quinto, conga, and tumba ... in multiple bands," he says. "He did that every day to provide for us, but also showing us his commitment to us—through the music. … That’s what he gave me.”
His father served as the master of ceremonies during his days at the Golden Leaf. Collins’ role today is as a djembefola—player of a djembe, a goblet shaped drum that originated in West Africa. It is his role, his responsibility and his identity.
“My sound is created by my heritage," Collins says. “A skilled drummer can make a djembe speak.”
"It’s a language," says Collins, who plays with the Flint favorite and eponymous Mama Sol and Tha N.U.T.S. "I play drums and percussion, but it’s really about putting aspects of the tradition together with hip-hop and other types of music. It keeps everything connected."
Antwain Kirkland also plays bass and keys with Mama Sol and is the pianist for Eclipse. He and Collins are longtime friends, sometimes reminiscing about their elementary school days at Holmes on Flint’s northside and with a shared passion for the spiritual aspect of playing.
“I grew up in the church, and in our church, we were surrounded by music,” Kirkland says. “It didn’t really register with me until I started playing seriously that the music has been with me the whole time.”
Kirkland joined Eclipse two years ago, rounding out the trio that also includes Kill Bill Sumler on bass. “I bounced in a couple few times,” Kirkland recalls. “With their former keyboard player having to travel a lot, I would come in and fill-in from time-to-time and eventually I just started playing every week.
“That’s the thing about The Leaf: At first I just found myself coming now-and-again to jam. Then I found myself here every week,” he says.
Variety is the signature aspect of jazz nights at The Leaf. The feel is that of a Speakeasy and a casual home for seasoned musicians and beginners alike. Sometimes the lineup includes planned sets. Sometimes it’s an open jam session.
Just like in its founding days, The Leaf is—as Kirkland perfectly describes—“a musical experience.” The night ebbs and flows with the crowd and music picking up around 11 p.m. “You never know what you’re going to get when you come down because we don’t even know where we’re going to take the music.”
“Part of the experience I really love is when people come up to us after a set or a show-up and say, ‘Man, I never heard that before,’ or, ‘Man, I never heard jazz played like that before,’” Kirkland says, his low chuckle rolling with the beat. “For me, that means we’re really getting it. We’re doing the thing.”
They bring a mix of jazz, blues, R&B, and soul—all of which Kirkland classifies as uplifting music. “There’s not much music out there that can carry such a positive vibe and that is why I listen. That is why I play—because jazz can put you in a place away from all the negative things that might be going on.”
The house band on jazz nights at The Golden Leaf is Eclipse. The trio features Antwain Kirkland on keyboard and Famadou Collins on drums.
At the Golden Leaf, jazz is alive. It dances over the floor and across the top of the bar. Collins calls it “heart-rhythm-communication.” It’s a sound and a feeling.
“It comes from that place inside,” he says. “With that style of music, people will get the feeling and pass it on.”
Collins’ inspiration comes in part from his grandfather, Pastor Eddie W. Collins, now retired from New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church. From an early age, Collins learned the value “of playing with those elements of gospel and soul” and incorporating his faith with his sound.
"In this way, the music becomes more purposeful," says Collins, who graduated from Flint Northern in 2005. "It touches the ear. It touches the heart. It touches the soul. It is a healing drum.”
The club opened as The Maple Leaf lounge and club in 1921. “Then in the following year was listed as a barber shop and pool hall owned by Magnus Clark,” says Michael Madden, archivist and librarian for the Flint Public Library. By 1923, Clark opened the Golden Leaf and this living gateway to Flint’s musical roots, according to records at the Flint Public Library.
“The Golden Leaf is so old if the walls could talk they’d be telling maybe too many stories,” says Reid, with her typical laugh as The Leaf’s leading lady.
The Leaf gave prominence to local legends such as Dottie Patton, Sherm Mitchell, Willie George, Georgia Herlich, Benny Poole and Sherwood Pea. And, it has played host to music royalty including Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and even be-bop high priest, Dizzy Gillespie.
Greg Fiedler recalls fondly how Patton, who passed in November, played on a large Hammond Organ from the 1940s to the 1980s. That organ would “take a moving truck and a whole day of work just to play one gig,” laughs Fiedler, president and CEO of Greater Flint Arts Council and longtime local jazz supporter. “But she played so much here and in Canada back in that time, she was granted, and maintained, dual citizenship in both the US and Canada.”
Bands like The Velvelettes—a Flint and Kalamazoo-based trio of two sisters and a cousin, who were styled very much like The Supremes—gained a regional prominence before they went big time. The Velvelettes signed on to Motown Records in 1962 and produced their top hit, “Needle in a Haystack,” which peaked in 1964 at No. 45 on the Billboard Top 100.
To put it simply: The Golden Leaf was a cornerstone of, in, and for Flint’s African-American community. Back in the early days, ballots were cast here. Called the mayoral elections of Brownsville, the black community would vote and honor one of their own with a parade from Detroit Street (now Martin Luther King Avenue) through Flint to the Golden Leaf where a ceremony and party would ensue. The first documented election was in 1937 and honored Clark, the original owner.
Clark passed the Golden Leaf to Lois Perrin, who turned it over to Ola Smith, who gave the reins to Warren Hill, who 25 years ago entrusted the legendary establishment to Lottie Reid.
“You got to remember that Flint has always been segregated,” Reid explains. “The caucasian could go from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. but the Negro could only go from 1 to 4 a.m., so it was separate,” Reid says. “The entertainers went everywhere and this was one of the main spots they came to,” making the Golden Leaf a stop off for big regional names and even national acts.
In a Flint Journal article dated Dec. 4, 1966, Sherm Mitchell describes the frustration and racial tensions black musicians faced even when Flint was known for its vibrant music scene and top-tier performances at the IMA and other now-defunct locations.
He said one obstacle of him playing more was racial prejudice or having to play rock’n’roll or nothing at all.
“If they (club owners) don’t hire a band that will draw negroes, then they figure they won’t have a Negro problem,” Mitchell said. “That very few can play outside the black and tan (mixed race) clubs in the city.”
At the Golden Leaf, though, Journal reporter James Randall Jr. describes the rings and echoes of that bygone era that is beautifully similar to what one finds inside The Leaf on Wednesday nights to this day.
A burst of sound comes from a rambling house. This is it, you tell yourself, this is where the lean ones go, Randall writes. Seated on a hard bench, you look around—faces emerge from the smoke, vanish, reappear.
In the article—which appeared under the headline “Flint’s Jazz Musicians: Muted Voices in Limbo”—Randall describes the music at this after hours club as “hard driving” and “honest.”
The trombonists, who only hours earlier had played smooth renditions for the supper club crowd, roars through modal changes of a Miles Davis tune. The article by Randall reads like a window and mirror, The bassist, already in his element, builds complex patterns around the other instruments. This is a jam session, the place where musicians profess to be “more free.”
Sherwood Pea, a champion alto saxophonist who played in Motown’s house band and toured with jazz greats Sonny Stitt and the Count Basie Orchestra, recalls an always packed house at The Leaf on Friday and Saturday nights.
“We would play rock, jazz, soul. We tried to mix it up every night,” says Pea, now 80. “The Leaf would fill right up. We were able to get quite a few people moving in there, even though it was a small place.”
The club’s location near the expressway was important, Pea explains, “because you could play between the shift changes at the shops, with folks coming in from Chevy in the Hole and Buick City on their way home.”
Pea and the others provided the foundation that continues to flourish with star jazz performers such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Pat Cronley, Nick Calandro, Bruno Valdez, Stephanie Monear, Sterline Richie-Lacy, “and many, many others still keeping the music alive,” Fiedler says.
Herb McGowan, a jazz guitarist, plays now and again at The Leaf. “The popularity of the music always ebbs and flows. I’m just happy to be a part of the wave of live music making a comeback here—especially jazz,” he says.
“To see these young guys you’ve seen come up over the years, not only become proficient with their instruments and become professional musicians,” McGowan says, taking a pause, “you know that is so cool. So, so good to see young guys working with the music in a live setting. … It’s exciting and I love it.”
As the hour approaches midnight, more and more people are taking their seats as various musicians set up their gear. Lottie Reid makes her way around the room, greeting old familiar friends and newcomers alike with a handshake-hug. The Golden Leaf used to be one of many Flint venues for performers and fans. Back in the day, there was the Motor City Club, the Chez Paree, and 50 Grand.
“You had so many other places around that time,” Reid laughs, “but were still here.” Surviving and thriving. “We have so many local artists who are fabulous and coming to The Leaf, making their mark.”