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Interviews

Marvin Sewell: Stepping Up to the Plate

By Published: August 15, 2013
At first, I didn't understand it, I thought it was crap, I was like "man, what is this stuff," you know. And then it kept growing on me, I was like "this is killing!" I had never heard anything like that. Then from that I heard a Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
record on the radio that flipped me out. I think it was Duke Ellington and Walter Blanton. The bass line tripped me out. I said "what is he doing? Is he playing chords on every note?" and that's how I really started getting interested in jazz.

I used to hang out with this guy, his name was Mike Smith. His name is Adonis now, he's a house music pioneer. We used to hang out, and he hipped me to a lot of the European fusion cats like Allan Holdsworth
Allan Holdsworth
Allan Holdsworth
b.1948
guitar
, Bill Bruford
Bill Bruford
Bill Bruford
b.1949
drums
. But in addition to that, his grandmother used to own a record shop in the '60s. So when she had all these records, she had Giant Steps, Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
1931 - 1971
piano
records—she had everything. Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers
1935 - 1969
bass, acoustic
records... Bass on Top, another record with the headlights on it, I forget the name of it. She had all of these records, all the classic stuff.

And that's how I got exposed to jazz, I was like "wow man, who are these people? I've never heard of them!" When I first heard Giant Steps, I didn't know who I was listening to, I just heard all these colors! What is this, and who are these people? I never heard of Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, or Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
. When I started playing with the Malcom X Community College big band, with the summer job and all, I started learning how to apply some of the stuff that I was doing and "oh, and this is how you hook this up, this is what's going on."

From there, I heard about Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
. I used to see Dizzy on TV with his cheeks puffed out, but I didn't know the music, so I started learning about that and it just kind of bloomed. Plus Chicago has a deep history of the blues, so in the background that was going on. There was an old man in my neighborhood that we used to tease "ah man, that cat's playing that loud blues" and stuff like that. He'd kind of comment and say "one of these days, it's gonna catch you!" And it did! That sound. I would imagine he was probably listening to people like Lightnin' Hopkins
Lightnin' Hopkins
Lightnin' Hopkins
1912 - 1982
guitar
, Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters
1915 - 1983
guitar
, my uncle was heavily into Howlin' Wolf
Howlin' Wolf
Howlin' Wolf
1910 - 1976
vocalist
and B.B. King
B.B. King
B.B. King
b.1925
guitar, electric
, all of that.

So that's how it all starting coming in, and also I just happened to be walking down Michigan Avenue—Chicago has a rich history of music—and I passed by a Symphony Hall, that's what it used to be called, I think it's called Symphony Center. And I saw the names Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and I think Wagner and I didn't know any better, I said Wagner! [pronouncing the W]. So I start looking these guys up in the encyclopedia at home, and I checked out Wagner, thinking "what is this ring cycle thing?" and I started getting interested in that. So it just started blooming after a while, and it kind of started coming together.

GC: So you got into classical music totally on your own?

MS: Yeah. Yeah, just out of curiosity. I was just wondering who these people where. I knew Beethoven because there was a commercial band that did a disco version of Beethoven's 5th...Walter Murphy or whatever?

GC: [sings brief interpretation of Beethoven's 5th with a disco beat]

MS: [Laughs] I wanted to know who these people were, and I really wanted to know that music, out of curiosity.

GC: Now what about your parents? Were your parents into music at all?

MS: Not really. My mother liked a lot of gospel music, very much that's it. Just gospel music. When I started getting records I used to play jazz records and stuff. My mother liked jazz as long as it was played softly. My father was into country music. I remember one time I was heavily into this UFO show. I forget the name of the show, some show in the '70s. And there was this Elvis Presley special that was on TV and I said "oh I'm going to get my father to watch this." I walk into the room; my father is lying down, his feet twitching to the beat of Elvis Presley with a big smile on his face.

My father sort of liked the Country/Western that he liked, there was a particular record he used to play, I don't even know who performed it, but it was kind of a silly song. I never really heard my father into people like Howlin' Wolf or James Brown
James Brown
James Brown
1933 - 2006
vocalist
. All of that stuff came through my brother. James Brown, War, Traffic, all sorts of psychedelic-type stuff, and later The Crusaders, instrumental music. I used to think Shaft was this long, instrumental thing because you didn't hear any words for a long time. He was into stuff like that. Earth Wind & Fire, things like that. I got exposed to that style of music through him.

GC: So this is mid-'70s now?

MS: Yeah. My father did play early on, but—

GC: He played?


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