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20 Seattle Jazz Musicians You Should Know: Thomas Marriott

Photo credit: Lisa Hagen Glynn

Paul Rauch By

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It’s that connection. It’s a holy thing. When we bring past, present and future together, that’s a sanctified thing that we do. —Thomas Marriott
The city of Seattle has a jazz history that dates back to the very beginnings of the form. It was home to the first integrated club scene in America on Jackson St in the 1920's and 1930's. It saw a young Ray Charles arrive as a teenager to escape the nightmare of Jim Crow in the south. It has produced such historical jazz icons as Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson. In many instances it has acted as a temporary repose for greats such as Jelly Roll Morton, Joe Venuti, the aforementioned Charles, Larry Coryell, Julian Priester and Randy Brecker, to mention but a few.

With this series of features, I will introduce you to twenty jazz musicians currently living and working in Seattle. It is not to be seen as any sort of ranking, it has no positional value in that regard. It is simply an effort to introduce the jazz world at large to the vibrance and innovative nature of the jazz scene in and around the jewel city of Seattle, Washington.

3. Thomas Marriott

A jazz fan born and raised in New York City sat in the Village Vanguard one evening, taking in a set from pianist Gerald Clayton and his quintet. He had moved to Seattle half a lifetime ago, and loved to return to his hometown to take in the jazz scene across the city. An old friend approaches, asking why he had not seen him much, for years. "I moved to Seattle, almost 40 years ago," the gentleman replied. The old friend nodded and remarked, "Seattle, Thomas Marriott, bad dude." True story.

Seattle is a city with a creative soul. Many great players have left Seattle, on to New York or points abroad, seeking to play with the best, to fully engage in their calling as musicians. For the purpose of this series, those players are not included, as we focus on resident Seattle players. Aaron Parks and Kassa Overall are two examples of world class Seattle musicians who have taken up residence in Gotham.

The early jazz life of Thomas Marriott included winning the Carmine Caruso International Trumpet Competition, and a nearly decade long pilgrimage to New York. He didn't land in New York to attend jazz school at a university. He chose the method of learning on the bandstand, at jam sessions, playing with more experienced musicians on the scene. He spent time on the road with artists like Maynard Ferguson, and formed connections that would create opportunities over time. But unlike many, Marriott made the choice to come home to the Emerald City, returning as a world class trumpet player on the rise.

Since his return in 2004, he is a constant barometer of the vibrancy of the Seattle jazz scene. His live performances became an institution at Tula's Jazz Club. He has released 11 albums as a leader on the Origin Records label, including the transcendent Constraints and Liberations in 2010. Through it all, he has been the consummate professional, both onstage, and off. He is well integrated into the scene, attending jam sessions, playing with younger players, and using his national status to bring talent to Seattle that otherwise would pass it by. Over time, he has produced shows with Hadley Caliman, Orrin Evans, Ray Vega, Brian Lynch, the Curtis Brothers, Roy McCurdy, Steve Wilson, and many more. All of these actions are motivated by providing Seattle jazz fans and musicians the opportunity to hear, and in many cases, perform with, world class talent in the confines of small rooms like Tula's and the Royal Room.

Marriott's awareness of jazz culture began at an early age, as he and his brother, trombonist David Marriott, Jr., were raised by a father who is a huge fan of jazz music. The brothers had access to a large jazz record collection, and a father who was raised by professional musicians. The support of his parents would be foundational, continuing into his time as a professional.

"I feel really lucky that my calling to be a musician was not questioned by my parents. My father grew up in a household of musicians, it didn't seem out of the ordinary to him. I'm very grateful for that, that can't be overstated. That is an incredible advantage and a privilege from the very beginning. I really hit the jackpot, there's no question about that," says Marriott.

He attended the weekly jam session at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant at a young age, benefiting from the tutelage of veteran trumpeter Floyd Standifer, and sought out the guidance of veteran players like Jay Thomas. In 1997, he joined the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, and sat between his two mentors, somewhat of a revelation for the young trumpeter.

"In '97, when I started playing in SRJO, I had Jay on one side, and Floyd on the other. I thought I had arrived, this is where I wanted to be," he recalls.

Marriott's last two recordings are diametric opposites, revealing the best of his recorded playing to date. Romance Language (Origin, 2018) focuses on melody and beauty, skillfully arranged and orchestrated by producer/pianist Ryan Cohan. Marriott collaborated as equal partners with Cohan and vibraphonist Joe Locke, to produce a work that features his well noted tone, and melodic sensibilities. He was able to go into the session with ideas that were not necessarily well formed, and add them to the creative pool with his partners.

"I give all the credit to Joe Locke and Ryan Cohan on that score, they took what I wanted to do and ran with it. I could never have done it without them. You have to allow yourself to go where they take it," says Marriott.

The most recent release, Trumpet Ship (Origin, 2020) was recorded in one three hour session at Studio X, a live session of all first takes. Orrin Evans was in town with bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. to team with Marriott on a brief Northwest tour. Evans and Marriott had become good friends, having originally met at a jazz festival in Idaho. The trumpeter began playing with Evans' Captain Black Big Band, while he had Evans and bassist Essiet Essiet out for a live recording at Tula's that produced the album, Dialogue (Origin, 2012) under the band name, Human Spirit. The two friends hit the studio the following year, joined by bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Donald Edwards to record Marriott's quartet outing, Urban Folklore (Origin, 2014).

Trumpet Ship hits hard from the outset, and features Marriott's finest recorded playing to date. It was recorded just as Evans was to take over the piano chair in The Bad Plus. Curtis and Whitfield had spent considerable time with Evans, creating a natural cohesiveness. There are a lot of reasons to enter the studio and record. There are reviews to seek, tours to support. In this case, it was completely about the fellowship of these four musicians playing together.

"Trumpet Ship was about me wanting to play music with those people in that space—there was no agenda behind it. I came into the studio with my sketchy little tunes, and those guys took those tunes to places unexpected. I think that's part of making jazz music, that's what we want," he says.

Marriott's fifteen year history of recording as a leader has produced consistently excellent results. That stretch in time has as well seen exponential growth in his playing. There is more strength in his playing, more dynamics within a stunning range. His melodic improvisation is probing and well articulated. He draws from a deep and open minded conception of what the music is, and what it means to him and his community. The beautifully conceived Romance Language, and the post bop modernism of Trumpet Ship, speaks to his arrival as one of the finest trumpet players in jazz.

"In thinking about the two of them together, as they came about together, I think it represents the best of my playing. They're a culmination of a certain kind of understanding that I've come to over the past couple of years," he reflects.

Marriott has always been comfortable playing anywhere within the jazz idiom, whether performing his own music, or in such diverse climes as the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. He has been playing inside and outside of the music throughout his career, understanding the true freedom of playing within form, or outside of harmonic convention. While jazz has in recent years witnessed younger players playing a style often tagged by journalists as "not straight ahead, not avant-garde," the current scope of those players has been explored extensively over the last 60 years. The renewal of that mindset is noteworthy, but not historic. Marriott's playing carries the ethos of the jazz tradition, with notable and original additions.

"Free music is now part of the common parlance of jazz. Because it's not part of the academic tradition, it seems like a new thing to a lot of people. Free music has been part and parcel of the jazz musician's skill set since the late 1950's," says Marriott. More likely, the terminology is the result of the industry just figuring out how people actually play. Players who came from the bebop tradition and first began the free jazz movement, played with no fear. They had paid dues the right way, on the bandstand with a diverse group of musical personalities. In a culture that seems to increasingly feature artistic self-engagement, Marriott's connection with jazz is as a social music, a form that offers community and fellowship. As a jazz musician, he can venture onto common ground, or traverse a terrain previously unknown without an ounce of fear.

"We're supposed to be masters of melody, harmony and rhythm. If we're doing that out of fear, we're communicating fear to the audience. If we're doing it out of artistic choice, that's something totally different," he says. When queried about what his stylistic approach is, he answers simply, "Play jazz. No part of it is off limits. I'm not afraid of jazz music, any part of it—at all."

Marriott's music has as well benefited from his musical and social interactions in other jazz communities. It gives him perspective on what we're doing here in Seattle, just as his experience in Seattle gives him a different view into other jazz communities. His now 10 year history of collaborating with Evans has given him the experience of the very insular Philadelphia scene, so different from the transient jazz culture he experienced in New York. In the process, he has gained a larger and more diverse vocabulary to spin his musical prose.

"I'm grateful to have a very deep well of music to engage, as a listener and a performer. I feel very privileged to be able to play in other local communities of jazz musicians. I do feel like the community of jazz musicians is one big family. I feel like I have family all over the U.S., even globally. It's not that big of a community. I gratefully feel a part of, and a kinship and fellowship with, other jazz musicians. It's a really good feeling. It's a feeling I appreciate, and a lot of people seek. I feel really grateful that it is something I have found," he remarks.

The release of Trumpet Ship in March, was to be followed by a tour with the quartet, plans unfortunately derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The record speaks to the fact that Marriott was in the middle of a perfect storm with this group of musicians, bringing out the best of his artistry. Covid-19 presented a different challenge to musicians worldwide. While Marriott's album barely preceded the worldwide pandemic, the recording medium began to wield dozens of new recordings concerning justice in America, after the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. In jazz, as an instrumentalist or vocalist, raising a voice became part of what it means to be a jazz musician. Protest is, and has been, integral in the lexicon of jazz music. For Marriott, it falls under the heading of social responsibility.

"That's our job, we're reporters in the field. We report on the human condition in all of its places. It's our responsibility to bring awareness to social issues. Not only are we responsible to speak out as human beings, if we fail to use our music to do the same, then the music really is a 'classical' music, and no longer a living, breathing, evolving art form," he states strongly. To a trumpet player, that voice is not articulated with the lyricism of words, but with the lyricism of sound and emotion. "We communicate emotion through sound. What we do by definition is a little on the abstract side."

Jazz culture is club culture. Most of the great music that has been performed by even the most celebrated of jazz musicians, has been performed in very small rooms. In Seattle, the resident artists lost Tula's in the past year. Mac Waldron's club had presented nothing but jazz on its stage for twenty six years, six or seven nights a week. Marriott grew up as a jazz musician at Tula's. He played his first gig there in 1996. It was the true jazz nightclub vibe, with the audience right on top of the musicians. It was an all in scene, where the music was the thing.

Marriott, in a piece he composed on his website concerning the closing of the club in September of 2019, communicated to his fans what the club had meant to him and his career. "I learned almost every aspect of being a professional jazz musician from working gigs at Tula's. Not only was I able to develop my skill as a musician, sideman and bandleader, I also learned how to communicate with the audience, negotiate pay with other musicians and with management, effectively promote shows, and present other artists. Tula's was a big part of my jazz education, and the skills I developed there have allowed me to have something of a career beyond Seattle."

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic poses a huge challenge to club culture moving forward. In its wake, there will be a huge impact on jazz culture as a whole. In cities like Seattle, the overhead of combining jazz performance with a restaurant operation has become burdensome. The trend would seem to be to go back to basement bars with low overhead, perhaps employing a non-profit status to the venture. With the recording industry effectively de-monetized, musicians are more gig oriented than ever, as they will be after the pandemic subsides." I think we're going to see more venues run by musicians, more musician driven performance spaces," says Marriott.

Jazz is the height of artistry in American culture. Much is at stake for the musicians, and most importantly, for the music itself. It is our responsibility as a jazz community to take care of the music, to assure its growth and viability generation to generation. It's never been easy, nor is it now. The grind is not for the unmotivated.

"My commitment has been tested, over and over again. I'm still here, still trying to do it, and I intend to keep trying to do it as long as there's things to do. I have two gigs on the calendar right now, it's something to practice for, something to write music for," says Marriott with resolve.

Time will tell when we can gather again in the light of music, when the clubs will again be alit with the energy of the music and the presence of an intimate audience. Streaming performances have helped, but can never replace the experience of the clubs. Jazz is a social music, that includes communicating with an engaged audience. It was a short year ago that Marriott took the stage at Tula's for the last time. There was an abundance of energy in the room, moving between celebration, and mourning for the end of Tula's long run. Hitting with pianist Tim Kennedy, bassistJeff Johnson, drummer John Bishop and saxophonist Rick Mandyck, the quintet added one more chapter to the legacy of jazz history in the city. The vibe of the music was thick, even after the gig, through a later than usual hang at the storied jazz spot. There was that beautiful wash of energy so vital to our well being as humans, for the spirit of fellowship connected to the evening as well. There is a renewal of spirit one takes forward from the experience, both audience and musicians.

Says Marriott thoughtfully, "It's that connection. It's a holy thing. When we bring past, present and future together, that's a sanctified thing that we do. The 'thing' is bringing people together and relieve them from whatever they're going through. We take them outside of themselves and uplift them."

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