Art X Artist Profile: A. Spencer Barefield

The Art X events in Midtown start tomorrow. Art X is a showcase for local writers, performers and visual artists who are Kresge Foundation fellows to share their talents with the community. Today, WDET’s Rob St. Mary introduces us to a Kresge performing arts fellow who has been pushing the limits of jazz and offering opportunities to fellow musicians for close to forty years. WDET’s Rob St. Mary reports.

(Click the audio link above to hear the story)

For Detroiter A. Spencer Barefield, the fields of science and art are very closely linked.

“I’m going to make an argument that everything that we see and hear is music. Matter, energy, thought – it all follows the rules of frequencies and harmonies and this is what the string theorists are talking about…”

Relaxing in a chair in the sitting room of his Palmer Woods home, with his St. Bernard “Devo” nearby, Barefield, a 57-year-old jazz guitarist and composer seems as at ease discussing theoretical physics as he does his four decades as a professional musician.

“I can’t remember at a point in my life when I wasn’t fascinated with music and just wasn’t exploding with curiosity and questions about the world.”

As a child, Barefield learned piano and violin at home and in the Detroit Public Schools. As a teenager, he gravitated towards guitar and played in bands which covered many of the popular songs for the day from rock to Motown.

By the time he entered college in the early 1970s, Barefield began to find his music leading audiences to ask more questions than answers. The main one being, what to call it?

“If you want to combine different elements of all kinds of music… people don’t know what kind of box to put it in… and… it’s like we want to sell this but we don’t know what to call it. What is it? It is R&B? It is jazz? Is it avant garde? It is country and western? It is hip-hop? So, when you start doing things that mess up those boundary lines from being put in this box or that box the system has a little bit of difficulty with it.”

From 1979 to 1992, Barefield curated a series of concerts at the Detroit Institute of Arts under his non-profit musical group known as “the Creative Arts Collective”. The group pursued avant garde jazz and offered opportunities to musicians to expand their horizons.


“To me they are the people who are on the cutting edge of exploration who are trying to find new ways to use the language of music and in some cases… invent new language… they are the theoretical mathematicians out there who are exploring the most complex questions of the cosmos.”

A few weeks ago… one of those fellow theorists came to Detroit and played a duet with Barefield. He’s Henry Grimes. Grimes’s career as a bassist goes back to the 1950s when he recorded with such names as Sonny Rollins, Pharaoh Sanders and Thelonious Monk, just to name a few. Grimes says playing such experimental work takes a broad musical education.


“You have to have yourself indoctrinated in all kinds of music…”

Grimes says his experience with Barefield was a very positive one.

“It didn’t make any difference that we didn’t play together… everything was brilliant, relaxed and in its own turn of everything… it was just very well conceived.”

Barefield’s range as a musician and a composer got the attention of Kresge Foundation’s fellowship selection committee in 2010. A member of the board, Ben Hernandez, says many of the fellowship entries were very well done but the majority clung to traditional ideas of jazz. Hernandez says when the committee members heard Barefield’s work it grabbed their attention.

“It excites you because perhaps when things become difficult to differentiate you become dulled and you wonder if you are being objective and then something jumps out and its exciting and you can clearly say there’s something to this… I can’t necessarily identify it… there’s new ideas… there’s somebody who’s clearly trying to have an adventure with you.”

To help continue the adventure, Barefield was awarded a 2010 Kresge performing arts fellowship. This isn’t the first time that he’s been awarded a fellowship. Barefield says before arts funding was cut at the state and federal levels over the past 20 years, he received several fellowships to continue his work as a musician and composer.

“A composer in a lot of ways is like a scientist looking for a research grant so they can continue their research… and that’s what getting a music fellowship is like… so you can continue to explore composition and come up with new and cool things that you’ll never be able to do in the world of pop music.”


With his interest in jazz and world music – Barefield has worked with his wife, Barbara, and musicians from around the country to create a Detroit concert series over the past several years. Palmer Woods Music in Homes showcases diverse music in some of the stunning homes of that Detroit neighborhood. The profits from the series are used for neighborhood improvements.

During Art X this week, Barefield will perform with two different groups. A nine piece chamber jazz ensemble he’s calling “the Super String Symphonica” will perform Barefield’s original compositions. Another concert he’s calling “Music and the Cosmos” will feature a jazz trio with narration and a photographic journey through space – inner and outer – at the Detroit Science Center.

Barefield says gaining knowledge and challenging himself is part of a larger idea.

“It’s likely that what we accumulate in terms of knowledge and understanding and what we do to advance our spirits in this life… that’s what you can take with you… that’s the true wealth of existence.”

Blending science, philosophy and art… and after four decades of playing… Barefield says he sees no end to his explorations in music.

I’m Rob St. Mary – WDET News.