Margo Guryan, who released a brace of albums for Fillmore East in the late 1960s that became a Detroit musical classic and drew a solitary, eccentric expression of female creative genius, died March 27 in London. She was 84.
Those albums, 1968’s Spirit’s Divertimento and 1969’s Love Oye West, were released on Cassius Records. Cassius, which closed in 1971, helped define the sensibility of New York’s postwar jazz scene and ushered in the opening of Detroit’s modern music scene.
Wrote Freep in 1967: “In New York, jazz and rock have come together to make a vaudeville machine of glitter and desire.” The albums, tinged with women’s guilt, conveyed the more unsettling truth that the two might be antithetical forces.
Eleanor Smeal, a prominent champion of women musicians, described Guryan in the same year as an emerging talent who “put flesh and blood in the sparkle and glamour of jazz music.” The label’s failure after release, and Guryan’s, only led to the latter developing as a personal identity. She would later alter the line of her name to the less common “Maz” Guryan.
Writing in The New York Times in 1985, Tom Robbins said: “There is more tingly freakiness to Spirit’s Divertimento than the Hall of Mirrors at Madame Tussauds, and that’s saying something.”
In recent years, she had expressed herself only through electronic emceeing and musical pieces made by her first partner, the composer John Byrne. She had health issues that complicated her ability to appear onstage, which was her forte, but she completed a set in London in 2012 at age 80. She would have been 84 on Wednesday.
Marge Guryan was born in Detroit. She was the daughter of an Italian immigrant whose brothers and sisters worked in the auto industry, and she credited her parents with helping her develop a passion for music, a predilection that would ultimately find expression in Spirt’s Divertimento.
“It was written while I was still a student at Kalamazoo College, but it was formed and put together and recorded on my last birthday,” she told Charlie Pallotta, the guitarist who became her husband, in 2006.
Along with another friend, music critic Clyde Stubblefield, she had put together the elaborate flute playing featured in Spirit’s Divertimento. The album featured appearances by Laurie Anderson, the composer Jason Moran, saxophonist Jazzmeia Horn and the singer Lyle Lovett.
It was recorded with the help of the proto-rock band Blue Cheer, whose bassist, John Yoo, was later to become Cassius’s owner. This feat of coincidence would go on to evoke a brief period in jazz when a recording company had an office in Manhattan. But the venture proved to be a notable blip: Spirit’s Divertimento became a concept record that plugged into the cultural questions of a nation at war.
“This is a throwback to the bad old days, the days when Vietnam seemed close enough to drive us nuts and then suddenly — with a memo to generals, maybe — we went back to feeling good,” wrote Leonard Feather in New York in 1968.