Detroit jazz and avant scenes lose icon in passing of Faruq Z. Bey

June 2, 2012

Faruq Z. Bey in 2009 at the Virgil A. Carr Center (Photo by W. Kim Heron)

Faruq Z. Bey, local legend and icon of avant garde music in Detroit, has died after years of emphysema and other ailments. A friend who spoke to Bey regularly last heard from him Thursday and was unable to reach him on Friday. Her concerns lead to other friends entering his residence with police on Saturday and finding that he had died.  The cause of death has not been determined. He was around 70 years old.

(Update on funeral arrangements below.)

Bey was the leader of the group Griot Galaxy, a sprawling group into which dozens of musicians fell in and out between 1972 and the time it stabilized mid-decade and slowly distilled to a classic quintet around 1980. With saxophonists Bey, Tony Holland and David McMurray, drummer Tani Tabbal and bassist Jaribu Shahid, the group donned silver face paint and African garb, dubbing themselves a science fiction band. The name harkened to the African traditional bearers of tradition and history, on one hand, and … the reaches of space and the future, on the other.

While they were clearly rooted in the jazz avant garde – in artists like John Coltrane, Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago – the members of Griot Galaxy were extending that tradition in their own voices and in their collective sound. In fact, with their theatric edge and their penchant for hypnotic, layered rhythm, they were an avant garde group for people who didn’t particularly like the avant garde, or maybe even jazz. They were one of a kind. Sorry if that’s a cliché. But they really were.

The group made only a few recordings and was little known beyond Detroit when Bey was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. The group dissolved rancorously in the aftermath, but in the ensuing years, Bey slowly returned to playing.

By the early 2000s, his music career entered a new phase, leading his own groups and collaborating with others, particularly the Northwoods Improvisers, with whom he did at least  nine records. Griot Galaxy had released only two vinyl records back in its hey day, although the release of live Griot tapes from the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2003 made the group’s music available on CD for the first time.

Bey had been in ill health for years, his oxygen and breathing apparatus a constant companion. The news of his passing still came as a shock, a blow. Several generations of Detroiters spoke of hm in terms that had an element of reverence for what he had achieved and represented. The “end of an era,” lamented one friend and admirer who had followed his career back to the early 1970s at Cobb’s Corner.

There’ll be more later. And for those who have memories or thoughts, please add them below.

In the meantime, here’s a 2003 profile of Bey and a blog that riffed from the earlier piece.

Update: Jim Gallert forwarded this link to an hour-long Detroit JazzStage podcast from 2006 featuring an interview with Faruq along with his music and poetry. More links: Griot Galaxy discography. Discs with Northwoods Improvisers.

Update: Sesheta Hanible, a longtime friend of Faruq’s, and Jim Gallert both confirm Faruq’s date of birth as Feb. 4, 1942. Hanible wrote in an e-mail: “As the news swirl around the community, there are people working on services. … Faruq was very private. I hope that everyone take a moment or more and listen to his music, read a poem of his and remember the gifts that he has shared with all of us. ” We’ll share details as they become available.

Update: Faruq performed publicly as recently as April 5 with the Box Deserter group at Popp’s Packing Lo and Behold in Hamtramack. Thollem McDonas, who played piano that night, uploaded this video to Vimeo. (Below, Maurice Greenia writes of playing with Faruq as recently as May 18.)

Below is a McDonas upload of the Soar Trio (McDonas, Joel Peterson and Skeeter Shelton) with Faruq as a guest from 2009.



Here’s Faruq, Skeeter Shelton and Dennis Gonzalez performing with the Northwoods Improvisers.



And here’s a track, audio only, sadly, of Griot Galaxy.


Update:  The funeral services for Faruq Z. Bey will be held on Tuesday, June 5, at 1 p.m. at the Muslim Center, 1605 W. Davison, corner of Woodrow Wilson. That evening, from 6-10 p.m., Pat Frisco will dedicate his Spirits Rejoice program to Faruq. The Henry Ford Community College station’s signal at 89.3 FM hardly blankets the metro area, but you can listen to the stream at whfr,fm. … Also this July’s Concert of Colors was to have included Faruq in the Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue as well as in the poetry readings at the Scarab Club. Festival organizers announced Monday that a special Faruq tribute will be part of the July 14-17 event. Here’s a link to Faruq’s 2008 appearance as part of the revue.



  • JamesJazz

    Believe his Sunrise date is February 4, 1942.  We had the honor of Faruq on a “Coltrane Influence” panel in the talk tent a few years ago; as always, Faruq’s comments were insightful and fresh…a conversation with Faruq always raised my intellectual level.  I know he scuffled the last few years, probably longer, but his spiritual strength and musical resolve never wavered. 

  • Philjones9591

    A great loss! So many memories going back to the 80s and probably the first avant music that I heard live!

  • RJ Spangler

    I rarely missed a Monday at Cobb’s back in 1978!  I followed the band from that incarnation (Faruq w/ Ali Mora, Jaribu, Kafi, Elrita, Hakim & of course his Bey “brother” Sadiq), to the later group mentioned above.  Both groups thrilled me to the core, but that last quintet was just incredible. Jaribu & Tani went on to be key players in the avant scene worldwide & for good reason.  At the center of all of this was indeed, Faruq Z Bey.  

    I was blessed to play a number of gigs with him over the years, including one memorable large ensemble performance at Alvin’s with both Faruq & James Carter!  Funny, years later Tani & Jaribu went on to be James’ rhythm section when he 1st started to record.  

    No real discussion of avant jazz in Detroit is complete without mention of Faruq Z Bey.  He influenced guys my age on down to Joel Peterson today.  Joel told me that his parents took him to the DJF where he saw him with the Griot Galaxy and he was hooked from then on.  

    I can dig it. 

  • james cornish

    One only had to listen to him for a few notes to realize that he was coming from a very, very deep place. He had this unique tone on his sax that was both warm and agitated. You could feel his pain, but you were also mesmerized by the depth of his heart. His sound was bigger than life. It had me in a trance everytime he played.
    I recall playing with him, and he would play the same notes that I did, but with much more grace and substance. He would show you how to do it the right way, while still supporting you. He was a gentle soul.
    He played with his oxygen tank right up to the end. That says it all.
    We are absent a great man. He was transcendant.

  • Dennis Ggonzalez

    The album that he and I did together with Northwoods Improvisers, “Hymn for Tomasz Stanko” went Out of print today, as I sold my (or anyone’s) final copy and shipped it off just before I heard from Mike Johnston, who was responsible for much of his recorded material the past few years, that Faruq has passed.  I wish him safe travels. 

  • Roberto

    Another giant passes on…

  • Gilda Snowden

    Faruq was the one who told me how to start my first batch of Dreadlocks.

    I saw him all the time in Alvins, sitting at the bar holding court….a magnificent presence with his full head of magnificent locks. At that time I knew no one else personally who had locks, this was  in the early 80′s.

    At first he wouldn’t share the secret with me, saying “why do you want to go through all this?” When I pleaded with him to share “the way”, he then told me to just “be natural, don’t force it, let it flow.”

    It occurred to me much later that what he was telling me about the rediscovery of my hair also was a template for the creation of art. Thank you, Faruq…..  

  • vince carducci

    Faruq was a true artist. And he did it with little if any significant institutional support. I’ve been keeping my fingers crossed that he would be in the next group of Kresge Fellows to be announced later this month as much as I was chagrined that he wasn’t in the first performing arts cohort. The music lives on.

  • Ron

    OK. I  Knew Faruaq as as a BROTHER. When I spent two years in the hospital he sat beside my door. When he was jazzed with a head injury I did the same. We recorded together from the late 70″s. We spoke mid week, and it was decided that another recording was in order. Now I only have two words to say -Peace Brother-. 

  • Tkoggenhop

    This is very sad news. Faruq was one of those players that made me feel so joyful about jazz. His interpretations fit right in with what I have always loved about the music. As far out as he could get it. Rest in peace dear Faruq.

  • Gerard Smith

    I learned more about music in the year or so that I played with him than I probably learned in the rest of my life. I’ll miss him.

  • joan w.g.

    Faruq was and is a great soul. He  played in the Art and Literature Dept
    and the Downtown Library, mingling his music with poetry by such greats as Dudley Randall, Gloria House, and  M.L.Liebler. Listening
    and talking to him was a spiritual experience .He was modest, kind and
    brilliant and takes with him a little bit of everyone who had the honor
    of listening to him.

      Joan W. Gartland , Detroit

  • Rebecca Mazzei

    Faruq was not only a musician, composer and poet. He was an incredible theorist and philosopher. 

  • Thollem

    Rebecca, I’m planning to read from ‘Toward A “Ratio”nal Aesthetic’ during my duo concert with Alex Cline in L.A. tonight. I’m also now uploading a segment from April’s Box Deserter concert with Faruq.  In the meantime, here is a concert I uploaded with Faruq and Soar Trio (Skeeter Shelton, Joel Peterson, and myself) from 3 years ago.
    Much love to all, Tholl  

  • Thollem

    Rebecca, I’m planning to read from ‘Toward A “Ratio”nal Aesthetic’ during my duo concert with Alex Cline in L.A. tonight. I’m also now uploading a segment from April’s Box Deserter concert with Faruq.  In the meantime, here is a concert I uploaded with Faruq and Soar Trio (Skeeter Shelton, Joel Peterson, and myself) from 3 years ago.
    Much love to all, Tholl  

  • Thollem

    This is a segment of Faruq playing with Box Deserter Ensemble (Skeeter Shelton, Michael Carey, Abigail Alwin, James Cornish, Joel Peterson, Kurt Prisbe and myself) at Lo and Behold April 5th, 2012.

  • Koraj.

    RIP Uncle Faruq the family and the music world will miss u dearly! love Kora.

  • Jvallender

    Although I am deeply saddened by the loss of a wonderful artist and compassionate man, I will be forever grateful and blessed to have had him in my life.
    After one time seeing him in concert, I waited and timidly approached the stage to thank him. He signed my program with the words “pax wal ishq (peace and love) Faruq. I will never forget—

  • Ralph Koziarski

    Rest in Peace Faruq, a truly inspiritional artist.  I was honored to see the development of Griot Galaxy come out of the larger jam group at the concerts I produced at The 1st Unitarian Universalist Church on Cass in the mid 70′s. Then be able to see them regularly on Mondays at Cobbs Corner. His spirit is soaring on.

  • Akil Fahd

    Uncle Faruq will be missed indeen

  • Akil Fahd

    Funeral services for Uncle Faruq also affectionately known as Shakyh Faruq among Muslims, be 1:00pm tomorrow tuesday June 5, at the Muslim Center of Detroit +1605 West Davison, Detroit, MI 48238 

  • williamt

    He was a generous man, a giant talent as humble and as wickedly funny as any musician I’ve known.

    Tyrone Williams

  • Melba Joyce Boyd

    Faruq is incremental to the progressive Detroit sound and scene.  He impacted our consciousness and our creativity.  We are who we are because he was who he was.

  • Kim Hunter

    Back in 75 or 76, a few years out of high school, a friend of mine and I   called ourselves putting together a poetry and music gig on the Kern Block.  Michael told me he had connections to a jazz group.  I didn’t know what to expect because of the, at the time, nascent “smooth” jazz.  

    When Faruq showed up, I was flattened.  I had no idea anybody in Detroit was playing with that much ferocity and poetry.  From there, I followed him to Cobb’s and numerous gigs and had the honor of conversing with him and hearing him read his stunning written work. We will all miss you, but are so glad you came. 

  • Michael Colone

    with great humility,and gratitude–Faruq–Griot Galaxy changed my world opened up my imagination—All Blessings in all Dimensions
    Michael Colone (Prismatic)

  • Skeeter C.R.Shelton

    I just cant beleave it my big brother is gone.I cant stop crying .First my dad Ajaramu then Fred Anderson then Halim Turner and now my captain my big brother .RIP BIG JESSIE

  • Ron

    Uncle was my best friend. Call me four-one-nine-four-nine-one- 72-72

  • Sylvie

    Faruq was my neighbor on 4th Street back in the early ’80′s. I remember him sitting on the porch, sometimes playing his axe. Many years later (post-accident) at a small birthday party for mutual friend Suni, he got me vocally improvising with him while he played, something I rarely feel confident to do. It was liberating! RIP

  • W_Kim_Heron

    Received this note via e-mail from M.L. Liebler:
    “Faurq Z. Bey was my hero first who become my close friend in the mid
    1980′s.  I knew and loved him before as a poet and master musician, but our
    work together to form The Magic Poetry Band and to “Break the Voodoo” in 1985
    cemented a friendship that was as close as family. We traveled together, we
    wrote together, we yelled at each other, we talked for hours about everything
    from Rush Limbaugh’s idiocy (he loved talk radio) to gossiping about
    our  friends, about our shared deep faith in God,  and in many
    ways we saved each other.  I often kidded him when we first started that we
    were the Simon and Garfunkel of the 80′s. FZ didn’t know or care who they were.
    When I would crack-wise on stage or in the car-he often said “they you go
    doing your Jay Lano shit.” That was our inside joke for years and years.


    We must have done hundreds of shows and reading together over the past 25
    plus years. To me and my wife, he was more than a great musician, poet or
    even a friend. He was an important member of our family.  He
    was my brother-simply put.


    I always brought him beads and kufis from the Holy Land and Middle East. I
    just dropped off early last week large amber prayer beads (as he always asked me
    to look for big ones) and a new hat I picked up for him in
    Afghanistan.   I kissed him, and then yelled from the car, on the way
    out of the driveway, “Salaam Alaikum” and he yelled back from the porch “Wa
    alaikum assalaam” (And upon you be peace.). These were our last

  • Jim Pallas

    I was fortunate to have asked Judy Adams to recommend a small group to play at the unveiling of a sculpture I made downtown in 1980 that responded to music.  She said, “Call Tony Holland.”  I was knocked out by Faruq Z Bey, Tani Tabal, Jaribu Shaheed and Tony.  And so was the sculpture!  We have lost a creative spirit.

  • pjharmonic

    Faruq Z Bey & Griot Galaxy were the first Detroit avant-gard band that I was exposed to.  This was in the early 1980s.  I was already into Ornette Coleman, Trane and the Art Ensemble of Chicago after being initiated into that music during a musical awakening in 1979 while I was still in the Navy and living in California.  Griot Galaxy was our Detroit version of that music.  They would play at the Delta Lady in Ferndale, but I mostly saw them at the jazz festival.  They were painted up, and I was all into their stage show.  

    It was a treat for me, years later, to actually do some music sessions then live shows with Faruq.  I remember at one of the rehearsals he showed me the easiest way I’ve ever had explained to that point about how to play in 7.  It wasn’t so much a count as a feeling, a groove.  He liked my playing, and I thought I was “In Like Flint” being able to do shows with him.  Once we even played at the Unitarian Church in Cass Corridor, all of us with our faces painted and playing some music that was mostly improvised on the spot!  The late poet, Ron Allen, had set the show up.  

    Faruq Z Bey was the avant-god of Detroit.  He always brought that spiritually conscious, other-worldly aspect of playing to any gig he was on, and certainly any sessions I did with him (including a pretty wild night at the Gold Door before they closed).  I hadn’t seen him much in the past few years.  Perhaps the last time may have been at an Ornette Coleman concert in Ann Arbor, oxygen-tank in tow.  Soft-spoken verbally, he was a titan in terms of his influence here.  Faruq Z will be greatly missed, but never forgotten.  

    Cheers to a wonderfully musical life, Faruq Z Bey! 

    phillip j hale

  • W_Kim_Heron

     This comes from the poet Semaj Brown:

    The Call of the Purified Ganges River Man               
    for Faruq
    (First Published in The Dancing Shoes on Fire book of Poetry, 1998)

    You Call Back

    from 7 decades of comas
from the trance of frozen grapes
from sketches of Spain, a Moorish model

    Purified Ganges River Man
     You call back from Mahogany Cafes to a net

    Where it is safe to remember temple Luxor
Where Metu-netr monuments are organically mined

    Where we are treading into ourselves
    through pools of hemorrhaging vision…

    You Call us out of this phantom millennium
To time when sound shouldered quantities of salt and became sea

    To time when multiplied syntax was hair of black forest

    each strand a disciple of its own

    To time of limestone and quartz of talking igneous
in the souls of metamorphic Cats

    Voyeur of Wavelength Frequency Theory Man
You call us back

    from the yellow light in Bomac’s parking lot

    We listen with our whole body

    livers, kidneys, spleens grow eardrums that beat beat beat a
syncopated Oh Yeah! 

    You call us back back front to the truth of Aylers Bells vibrating from
the throats of caged birds. 

    This is ancient sampling with be bop tongue…This is Dogon cell theories marching militias in the carcass of truth…This is razor walking on the rings of Saturn… 

    This is Watershed of Justice Man

    evoking the sting of onion with an undeniable salute to peace!

    This is Ascending Humanity in Linear Spine Man!

    Thank you for searching the diaspora for our lost names!

    You call us back to shoe-less wave dancing

    to the medicine of horehound candy
to the punctuation of water
to Aretha albums
to recipes of piccolo

    and spirit…..
    –Semaj Brown

  • W_Kim_Heron

    This comes from poet Aurora Harris:

    For Faruq Z. Bey : jazz composer, saxophone
    (From  One Note; and The MacGuffin; 1999)

    The street light’s last breath
    throws darkness onto space.

    Inside the moon’s glow
    he sits balanced o a
    window sill
    with thoughts and change in pockets
    as deep as coma.
    Its translation.

    Notes bounce off curbs
    and jump through the hole
    between crossed ankles and knees
    while snow moves in circles
    that reminds him of winters
    when flesh began to freeze.

    No color
    tone of entry
    no gas fired chords.
    There’s city
    and a sax that waits for

    This is reality:
    a warm plastered box
    a pen
    new moon
    double diminished
    crumpled scribbles on the floor

    Jazz theory in the shadows
    holding its head in its hands

    No bread
    Some bread
    That life
    And its question

    No bread
    Some bread
    This life
    So he plays that.
    –Aurora Harris, 1995

  • Cromulent

    What a bunch of self-indulgent crap. Another jazz “legend” that wasn’t.

  • Maurice

    Faruq Z. Bey was a “jazz legend” in his way.   I knew him a bit back in the Griot Galaxy days. I saw them play quite often. I’ve also seen him perform a lot since then.  He was a good friend to my friend the late Jacques Karamanoukian.  Jacques would have him perform at his space and they’d go out to concerts together.  I just performed on the same bill with him  Friday May 18 at the Circa 1890 on Cass.  It was a “Quill Puddle” magazine release event.  I read my poetry (as did others).  Faruq played sax and did his poetry (with Will Alexander on keyboards and James Hart on drums).  This was probably his last public performance.  I went over and said hello to him, spoke a bit shortly before I left.  He’ll be missed, believe me.  I liked his writing and poetry a lot too.

  • Leslie Reese

    Rest in Peace Faruq-Z!: Generous Intergalactic Alabamese Soul of Poetry and Music.  You will be missed but you leave a wondrous artistic legacy. Thank You!

  • Jaune Defils

     I met Faruq in 1974, at a time not unlike now, in Detroit.  The economy was crappy, crime was rampant and we were just about to elect our first Black mayor.  Faruq became a family friend, a mentor and, officially, my Wali.  He introduced me to my first husband and guided me through many troublesome days and nights trying to understand Islam, men and life.  Long after that part of my life was over, he remained a dear family friend who I could call whenever I embarked on a new school of thought, consciousness or philosophy.  When he critiqued my art, he admonished me to control my brush and practice everyday, not when I ‘felt’ like it. 

    The last time I spoke to him was in 2010 when I began studying quantum physics and needed someone, anyone with some sense, to ‘kick’ it with.  Faruq was there, full of insight – but never wavering from the tenets of Islam and what it meant in his experience here.  Losing him is the end of an era for me and it will take some ‘regrouping’ to start afresh.  R.I.P. my friend.

  • Gtecamo

    The connection was deep seeded on a plane that was personal. The admiration and respect I hold for this gentleman is eternal. The void I feel is large. I will reflect on the wisdom of his spirit filled,  intelligent, creative soul and I will find peace. Faruq, may the angels of paradise forever watch over your soul.

  • Gerard Smith

    During the short time, perhaps a year and a half, that The Pluto Gang Conspiracy, an offshoot of the Magic Poetry Band, was together, I learned more about music from Faruq than I did at any time in my life. His brilliance as a musician, poet and thinker was amazing. He was also one of the funniest people I have ever known in my life. I will greatly miss this man, a mentor and friend.

  • Frank Callis

    Seeing Faruq and Griot Galaxy at Cobb’s one night back in 1977 was the thing that convinced me that the Cass Corridor was where I wanted to live. I also remember him jamming with Dave Rice, the guitar player from the Detroit punk band L-7, when he turned to Dave and gently expressed his surprise that Dave could play “out”.

  • ty

    African World Festival pays homage one of Detroits Avavt Grade Jazz. Icons Farqu Z Bey Sunday Aug 19th @ The Wright Museum call Ty Ludy for more info. 800-538-2340