Life, On the Fence
Marvin "Doc" Holladay
George Ronald Publishing
Generally regarded as an outsized and unwieldy instrument, the baritone saxophone has not always been accorded the status of its more manageable sister instruments (soprano, alto and tenor) in the saxophone family.
The huge horn has, however, been championed by outstanding musicians whose contribution to jazz is nothing short of exemplary.
Numbered among the most notable of the ‘baritone’ players (such as Cecil Payne, Gerry Mulligan, Harry Carney, Nick Brignola, Serge Chaloff, Jack Nimitz, and Hamiett Bluiett) is Marvin ‘Doc’ Holladay, whose recent autobiography documents half a century of ‘the jazz life’, encounters with prejudice and bigotry, and a deep well of musical wisdom and spirituality springing from his adoption of the Baha’i Faith in 1963.
With a charming, uniquely homespun prose style, Holladay’s book is an intimate dinner-table chat about the intersecting spheres of art, life and spirituality. A talented raconteur in the tradition of the best jazz musicians, Holladay’s story is also an aficionado’s guide to the hippest jazz groups of the 1950s through to the 1980s.
Holladay begins his book by recounting his boyhood days as a dance fanatic and jazz loving clarinetist in the segregated mid-western American town of Chanute (known to peripatetic jazzmen of the day as Shabootie) Kansas, and the artistic refuge he quickly found in the warm bosom of the area’s African-American community.
As a sensitive musician of Euro-American descent, Holladay describes his existence as Life, on the Fence: the now tall silver-haired Holladay, has attempted to live his life in a principled, committed fashion which has not always led to happy consequences.
Holladay spent the bulk of his career performing and recording with the likes of Quincy Jones, Stan Kenton, Mercer Ellington, J.C Heard, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, before pursuing post-graduate ethno-musicological studies (his undergraduate music studies took place at Philips University in Oklahoma) at Yale and Wesleyan Universities.
Life On the Fence is liberally spiced with anecdotes: a heated discussion on classical music while driving John Coltrane, Pepper Adams and Paul Quinchette back to New York from a Rudy Van Gelder recording session in New Jersey; Holladay crossing swords with employer Stan Kenton on the nature of jazz. These and countless other encounters form a rich seam of information which are sure to be mined by dedicated collectors of jazz lore.
One of the many virtues of this autobiography is that it presents jazz music as a sensible, yet noble artform, born of the union of Africa and Europe, so to speak, on the North American continent , even though this union was tainted by the twin scourges of slavery and racism.
This is one of the reasons why Holladay is strongly attracted to the Baha’i Faith - the most recent of the world religions with its central principles of racial and religious unity - and its prophet-founder Baha’u’llah.
Through stories of his precarious existence in New York during the early years of his career, the breakdown and failure of his first marriage, the prejudice of his parents towards his African-American friends, the hostility of his own White American jazz musicians in Oklahoma while he was studying there, and the generally lukewarm reception his efforts meet with in academia, one is introduced to the bitter-sweet reality of Marvin ‘Doc’ Holladay’s life as a working jazzman.
For those who know precious little about jazz, autobiography reads as didactic tool: the book comes with a glossary of jazz terminology. The ‘Doc’ also distils his doctoral thesis on the ‘Evolution of American Indigenous Classical Music’. This can also be interpreted as a mini-disquisition on African music and its impact on African-American music and jazz.
Life, On the Fence is a highly recommended and illuminating instalment in the literature of that unique American 20th century music form known as jazz.