By Zuri Cheathem, CBS 62/CW50 Intern

Do you love the sound of swingin’ blues and space-age jazz? Introducing RJ Spangler, lead drummer of Planet D Nonet. As 2016 Detroit Music Award winners for outstanding traditional jazz group, this upcoming performance at Concert of Colors (CoC) is one that you don’t want to miss. Here’s a little more about RJ Spangler and his music.

Tell me about the music you play.

I play music inspired mostly by the African American diaspora; America jazz & blues.  The group that I will have at CoC plays the jazz music of South Africa.  As far as I know, we are the only band outside of SA doing this.  We recorded a CD at the Scarab Club a few years ago for the CoC and we will celebrate that recording at our concert on July 15. To go deeper into your question, I grew up playing blues & jazz here in Detroit starting in the mid 1970’s. Lessons with the great Roy Brooks & performing with his Aboriginal Percussion Choir. Starting a band called Kuumba with Rick Steiger led to the Sun Messengers, where we performed a world-jazz mix.

After the Messengers, I spent close to 20 years with Detroit’s great black blues singers like Alberta Adams, Joe Weaver (also a pianist), Stanley Mitchell, Kenny Martin, Odessa Harris & Johnnie Bassett (also a great guitarist) and some work with Harmonica Shah, Eddie Burns also Eddie Kirkland. These were the best of the living black greats from the 1950’s and sadly, all are now gone, with the passing of Sir Mack Rice yesterday.  I was his bandleader/drummer for decades as I was most of the above artists. The end of a golden age of Black Music in Detroit.

Now I concentrate on the Planet D Nonet, Detroit’s award winning swing band, and my various side projects: RJ’s KC6 (swingin’ blues), RJ’s Blues Gang (blues/soul), the RJ Spangler Trio (either an organ group or we add Tbone Paxton and play Harlem jive, Louis Jordan classic, New Orleans favorites. And I have a version of the Planet D that cover the space-age jazz of Sun Ra.

I can write a chapter about my years backing up artists from New Orleans when on tour up north.

So what do I play? A very wide variety filed under “Jazz & Blues.”

Planet D Nonet

Photo by Chuck Andersen

What is it like performing at the Concert of Colors?

Performing at the CoC is always exciting because it attracts the folks into a wide variety of world music and it is important that I connect with those people. It is the one time of the year where diversity in music is celebrated.

Who are your musical influences in Detroit?

My late uncle Bud Spangler was a drummer & broadcaster (WDET then on the west coast at KJAZ & KCSM) and my chief inspiration. He introduced me to his bandleader (at the time) Marcus Belgrave, who always inspired me. The aforementioned Roy Brooks inspired me as did saxophonists Louis Barnett & Faruq Z. Bey. Beyond Detroit, Johnny Otis, Sun Ra & Duke Ellington!

Who has been your biggest supporter(s) over the years?

My biggest supporters are the Detroit music community.  I make my living in bars, I don’t teach privately, I just entertain folks in joints. Occasionally I’ll play a concert of a festival. I’ve traveled widely throughout the US, Canada & Europe, playing drums, but the lions share of my work is right here in Detroit, at bars, libraries, performing arts centers, etc. People interested in culture support me.  Also the Scarab Club & my family offer great support.

Who inspires your creativity?

I love Detroit, everything from JC Heard, Todd Rhoades, Louis Barnett, to Marcus Belgrave and also the Griot Galaxy.  Beyond Detroit always Duke Ellington, then Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane & Elvin Jones, Sun Ra, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Jordan, Earl King, Fess Longhair, Dr. John, Fats Waller, Ray Charles, Count Basie, The Brotherhood of Breath, Abdullah Ibrahim….

What type of message do you want your music to send?

Beauty, soul, art, earthiness, human emotion. Love.

How has music changed your life?

How has music changed my life, like I said, I’ve seen much of the world from inside a van full of musicians. I could have worked a day gig but I did something that I was passionate about.

5 years from now, where do you see yourself musically?

Five years from now, I’ll be fine doing what I do now: I play a lot of libraries where folks are culturally interested. Teaching them about our music. American music. African American Music. I’ll be hiring young musicians as I’ve done for decades, showing them the ropes in this biz and about the artists that inspire me. I’d like to produce an annual event celebrating this music in a community setting

What advice would you give to beginner artist?

As to advice for the younger players: we stand on the shoulders of those that came before us. Never forget them. Learn their tunes and carry that torch, but also find your own way. Make your journey personal.

When did you start playing music and why?

I started playing as a boy, drum lessons at a corner music store, digging the Beatles, the usual stuff of my generation. By HS it was blues & jazz & leaving my suburb to learn from black masters.  Spending time with my friends (white & black) listening and practicing. I made it into a career. John Sinclair taught me the art of DIY back in the ’70’s.  I see that it has come around again.

Check out RJ Spangler of the band “Planet D Nonet” performing at the Concert of Colors, Friday, July 15th at 9:30pm at the Scarab Club. For more information, visit Concert of Colors official site

Zuri Cheathem is a recent graduate of North Farmington High School and will be attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia in the fall. He is an Emma Bowen Foundation intern and majoring in Business Administration-Marketing.


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