A Fireside Chat with Michael Marcus
AAJ: And Jaki Byard?
MM: Oh, well, Jaki was a spirit and a light to all. I was very honored to do those two records with him for Justin Time. Did you hear them, Fred?
AAJ: I have.
MM: And how that came about was after I did the first Justin Time record, Reachin', I was think about what I could do now and I wanted to find a guy, a pianist who I felt knew the history of the music, like somebody who could play James P. Johnson and also could play like Cecil Taylor because I felt like I was touched in all bases of the music. I feel like they are all sort of interconnected spiritually. Jaki, I thought, was the person and so I called him up and said, "Jaki, my name is Michael Marcus and I'm with Justin Time Records and would you be interested in doing a recording project with me?" He said, "Look, I'm very selective. Why don't you send me some of your music?" He just wasn't going to say yes. Actually, I had been introduced to him before through a personal friend, Steve Swell, a trombone player, who had worked in his big band. So I actually had met him before and so I sent him the stuff in the mail and the next day, Fred, he called me up. He said, "I love your stuff man. You don't try to sound like anybody else. I will do the date." From then, I would go to his house once a week, all the way out in Queens. We would go and rehearse tunes. We did that for about a month and then we did the record date, the duo ( This Happening ). And then after that, it was so incredible that we actually got a really nice tour of all the Canadian festivals and Los Angeles and Chicago and traveling with Jaki as a duo was definitely one of the highlights of my musical career because I learned so much about his life and just talking with him and developing a real friendship. Later, we did the second record (Involution), which we played the Montreal Jazz Festival with that quartet. After that, we got a tour in Europe and I had to talk to him the night before he died and I actually called him, Fred. And I said, "Jaki, I just wanted to let you know that some of the greatest musical experiences were traveling with you and working with you and playing this music with you," and he kind of laughed and he said, "Oh, good therapy." That was the last thing I told him and the next morning, he passed away. I really felt like Sonny, I was really developing a friendship. It wasn't just another musician hiring a musician to work with him. It was real friendship. He really liked me because he used to tell his son, because a lot of people would call Jaki's house and say, "Is Jaki there?" And he wouldn't even answer the phone, but he used to tell him that if Michael Marcus calls, you pick up the phone. So he liked me and he liked my approach and how I came into the music and that I was trying to be myself. I made him feel comfortable and I really think that was important and I gave him reverence and respect, the genius that he is, was.
AAJ: Reverence. Does my generation lack reverence?
MM: I think it's like in anything in music and in any of the arts, first of all, all great art stands the test of time. So if somebody is able to recognize a great artist and really realize that they're a master and somebody who has contributed to the music and is somebody that is important to study, like as we said, Bird. We're still studying him because he was a genius and master of modern music. Jaki was the same. If you can recognize that then you natural sense would be to go on and pay reverence and hopefully, a lot of the younger people will be able to fit into that mold.
AAJ: Why didn't Frank Lowe do another Saxemble record?
MM: That's an interesting question, Fred. At that time, when we did the record for Qwest, I think James, his career was really taking off and due to everybody's commitments, we were unable to continue with that group. We actually did do a record prior to that under Frank Lowe's name when James was nineteen years old. That group's configuration was a bit different. It was Frank, myself, James, and Carlos Ward and the late, great drummer who also passed away too young, Phillip Wilson, who was also a lovely person. Have you ever heard that one, Fred?
AAJ: Damn, another record to scour the used bins for.
MM: Yeah, so the birth of the Saxemble was due to Frank Lowe. And Frank, who I just actually got off the phone with, Frank, who I talk to everyday, he developed and originated that group and James was about nineteen at that time and he was playing with Lester Bowie's band. So Frank developed that record and we got it. We did that record under his name and then a few years later, when we got signed to Qwest, of course, it was agreed that it would have to be under just the name Saxemble. We all were kind of equals. We did the record and we did a couple of gigs and it was a wonderful group, but like I said, everybody's schedules got pretty busy and so we were unable to continue. But we've all stayed in touch and we're all still collaborating musically.