Michael Marcus: Truth, Love and Soul

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AAJ: What books were you using to study bebop while you did the blues circuit? Did you have a chance to hit with any of the cats in other cities while on tour?

MM: I really did not study out of books while on the road, well...I take that back. I had a copy of Eddie Harris' book, which had wonderful syncopated rhythmic exercises. He was a brilliant and original improviser/saxophonist/composer.


I really learned the language of bebop by studying the recordings. Lots of Blue Notes and Prestiges. Bird phrasing. Also learned by being around heavy musicians who were seasoned in the modern jazz idiom. The osmosis in practicing together! Jerry Wilson, Mel Brown, Joe Hardin, Pudgy Attyberry, Oliver Johnson and Morris Atchinson are the names of some the great artists I hung out with that the world should know about.

Morris was so inspiring to be around! He was (and still is) a giant on the tenor saxophone...tone-blues, feel-soul and a gigantic knowledge in the cycles and modernistic harmonic passages that Coltrane left us with. He could play "Giant Steps" inverted with a tone like King Curtis or Jug. Yes, he's a legend.

Oliver, Joe and Pudgy—all great trumpet players. We practiced lots of bop classics together, always in the dressing rooms and hotel rooms. Then there was the late genius Jerry Wilson. I met him on the South Side of Chicago when we performed at the Burning Sphere. He lived right near the Roberts Hotel at 63rd & King Drive. Jerry took a liking to me and let me live with him for a month during that period. He could play like Johnny Griffin and had also had an incredible tone, but was original like Morris. During that time when we were hanging out, Jerry cut a 45 rpm single called "Sax Freak," which has become a cult recording. We got up every morning, early, and went to the park and practiced all day. He took me once a week to Von Freeman's jam session, which was near his house. I was sitting in with the big boys!

AAJ: Why do you avoid labeling yourself a composer?

MM: I am a composer! 98% of my recordings consist of my original compositions. I have composed for strings and written a string quartet suite. I also have done numerous arrangements for my ensembles and others. I feel that my compositions are important statements in my discography. I hope that some listeners and musicians as well, will find some beauty within their structures. I would love to hear someone else's interpretation of one of my tunes. I continue to compose regularly and work at the evolutionary process that is so addicting.

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Jazz and Joining the Avant-Garde

AAJ: Why did you stop performing on the blues circuit and slowly immerse yourself in the jazz avant-garde?

MM: Music is a wondrous experience. The highest thing I know is the art of improvisation. It is a natural progression in any artist's growth to emerge into a musical reality where he or she can feel like they have found a place to completely express themselves. Though performing in the blues circuit was a steady income, it was time to move on. All jazz music is really part of the avant-garde. I am interested in creating, composing and performing music that's beautiful or good music—not necessarily to be put in categories of music. Though, playing free jazz is a joy because all your roots and all of your knowledge of music is available for the sound palette that you can dance with in soul.

So, I keep practicing everyday, try to improve, capture the masters' messages and incorporate the information in my "worldscape." After all, jazz is a language in art that thrives from originality and being undeniable. I remember Charles Moffett wrote a tune that has a title I really love and relate to on his 1969 Savoy Recording The Gift—"The Avant-Garde Got Soul, Too."

AAJ: Where and when did your jazz career begin?

MM: That's a hard question to answer, however, I guess everyone's career begins when satisfaction with one's self is cool, getting recognition from peers, and actual professional compensation occurs.


Having said that, my real first major event in my jazz career probably started when I was hired to help arrange and play on Sonny Simmons' recording Backwoods Suite. (WestWind, 1982). It was produced by Craig Morton (who thirteen years later produced the Saxemble recording on Qwest that I'm part of). Billy Higgins was the drummer on that date. Sonny, at that time and now as well, was such an inspiration to be around. We learned so much about the jazz life along with music from him.

Pianist Cecil Wells hired me for some hip gigs at that time, too. He sounds a lot like Wynton Kelly, but has his own sound and writes beautiful, memorable tunes.

Several months later, in late '82, I moved to the Big Apple to continue this journey.

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Sonny Simmons

AAJ: Let's backtrack and deal with a central figure in your musical life, Sonny Simmons. How did you meet?

MM: Around '79-'80, when I was back in the Bay Area from the road, I got a call from Hi Tide Harris. He hired me to play baritone sax on this recording he was doing for Japanese RCA. He mentioned on the phone that at the session there will be an alto player that sounds like Bird. I immediately thought of the Bishop Norman Williams, but Hi Tide said, "No, it's Sonny Simmons!" I said, Wow. I had already loved Sonny's recordings from the ESP label and The Cry (1962) on Contemporary Records. I knew and heard his connection with Bird and Ornette so I was excited and honored to meet him.

When I arrived at the session, Sonny was already there warming up and I heard that true-tone. He was wearing a bright, pin-striped sport coat. So, we did two tracks together and blended well. We both soloed on a blues with Bird-type changes. Also on that date was Eddie Henderson, Cecil Wells, David Berger and Emil Ram. Berger was a great harmonica player who could play chromatically on a blues harp.

Sonny became aware of my enthusiasm to learn and practice, so we developed a musical relationship. We hung out from the streets of San Francisco. He really helped me in the art of phrasing. He also found out about my arranging abilities and thus the alto-baritone sound became part of many of his performances at that time. Sonny liked the way I could hear and notate his difficult heads. We practiced for hours on many grey San Francisco days. The sessions were always invigorating, productive and spiritual experiences. Incidentally, during that period as well, I was practicing with another Bay Area legend, bebop master tenor saxophonist Vince Wallace.

I moved to the east coast in late August of '82. Sonny and I only performed a couple of times together in the '80's when Sonny came east. We reunited when I was back home in San Francisco in '94 for some gigs. Now I was playing straight alto and Saxello, Bb clarinet and bass clarinet in his ensembles, as well as in my own.

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