Why do so few women play the upright bass? Perhaps because at six feet high, it’s so big and heavy.

But that’s one of the characteristics that attracted 9-year-old Marion Hayden to the bass violin, as well as to her first instrument, the cello. “I loved the way it looked,” she says. “[It] was beautiful and brown and very round. It looked like a lovely piece of furniture.”

Jazz fans are glad she felt that way. Decades later, Hayden is a member of Detroit’s Grammy-nominated, all-female, jazz combo Straight Ahead. She’s also an in-demand sidewoman for other masterful musicians like trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, pianists Hank Jones and Kirk Lightsey, drummer Cindy Blackman, iconic singer Nancy Wilson, guitarist George Benson and the saxophonist of the same name. And she’s a solo artist, having release her debut album “Visions” in 2008.

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No matter the situation, the Detroit native anchors the rhythm section with a rich, earthy tone and a confident, righteous swing. She provides a firm foundation that spurs band mates to greater creative heights.

Hayden’s jazz chops received a major boost around age 13 or 14 when she enrolled in a summer arts program. “It was a wonderful program because young people like us had an opportunity to take lessons and play in ensembles with seasoned musicians,” she remembers.

During that summer she met, studied under and performed with some of Detroit’s finest including Belgrave, saxophonist Wendell Harrison, pianist Harold McKinney and his bass playing brother Ray, among others. A couple of those first teachers became lifelong mentors and collaborators.

Hayden’s formal education culminated with a liberal arts degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She cut her teeth in the Detroit jazz scene with legendary musicians like pianist Teddy Harris, sax player Donald Walden, the late drummer Roy Brooks and the late composer and pianist Kenn Cox. Says Hayden, “I was really fortunate to have all those great minds who were willing to share with me as a young musician, giving us great opportunities to learn from some masterful people.”

She also names some powerful women as mentors and role models, including her mother, Dr. Gloria Aneb House, Wayne State University Professor Dr. Melba Boyd and vocalists Ursula Walker and Naima Shombourgeur.

According to Hayden, the celebrated Straight Ahead band was formed on a whim when vocalist Miche Braden pulled together drummer Gayelynn McKinney, pianist Alina Morr and Hayden, for a weekly ladies night. Their popularity grew and they caught the ear of Motown legend Sylvia Moy, the writer of Stevie Wonder classics like “Uptight,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “My Cherie Amour.” Moy helped the band land a contract with the Atlantic Jazz label for which they recorded three albums before going independent.

Now a trio consisting of Hayden, McKinney and Morr, Straight Ahead has played with renowned artists like violinists Regina Carter and Karen Briggs, flautists Cynthia Dewberry and Althea Rene and vocalists Kymberli Wright and Fatimah York. Any notion that this all-female group is a gimmick quickly gets dispelled once they start playing.

“We’ve always been really well received because the band sounds good,” Hayden says. “When people see your approach, your demeanor to the music and see the level of commitment that you bring, then all those doubts have to go away.”

In addition to recording and touring, Hayden is an adjunct professor of music in the department of jazz studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and is a King Chavez Parks visiting professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn. She is also the mother of two sons, 21-year-old Asukile and 14-year-old Michael. She acknowledges that balancing these roles can be a challenge. But her husband, visual artist Saffell Gardner, is very supportive of her career.

What’s next? This summer, she will record tracks for her second solo album. According to Hayden, “I think at some point, you decide that you play music because you must.” She remains as enamored by and passionate about music as that young girl who loved the look and sound of that big bass violin.

Live Performance:
Marion Hayden & Legacy Ensemble
Jazz Fest in the Woods Grand Finale
Palmer Woods Music in Homes Series
June 26, 2011
2 p.m.

J. NADIR OMOWALE (DistortedSoul.com) IS A MUSICIAN AND FREELANCE WRITER BASED IN DETROIT.