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Meet Marla Kleman

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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All of a sudden Roy stopped me and said, 'Gigi Gryce, Gigi Gryce—you CANNOT mention Gigi Gryce in the same sentence as Charlie Parker!'
A life-long jazz fan, Marla Kleman cut her teeth on the likes of Buddy Rich and Benny Goodman, was adopted as an adult by her favorite singer, Rebecca Parris, and now has a dream job that allows her to enjoy live jazz as often as she likes. But listening to music and rubbing elbows with the musicians she so appreciates isn't enough for our March Super Fan: she's also an avid reader of jazz history, and believes deeply in supporting the music she loves. We think she's pretty super.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Newark, NJ, and lived in Union and Jersey City prior to moving up to the Boston area. Currently, I live in Duxbury, MA. My burning passion is jazz and jazz history. Right now I'm digging deep for more information about places such as Minton's Playhouse—back to the days when it served as the incubator for bebop—and the original Birdland at 1678 Broadway. I also love driving around Duxbury and other New England towns, enjoying the architecture of the beautiful old buildings and homes and occasionally bringing my camera along to capture the beauty of the New England area. I also enjoy reading jazz biographies; I'm currently reading Maxine Gordon's book, Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon . My most recent acquisition is a three-volume book set by Milan Simich that covers the jazz scene in New York city between 1949 and 1959, A Night at Birdland and Other Places. This set is pricey, but well worth it for anyone interested in rare photographs and narratives by musicians, employees of Birdland, and fans.

What's your earliest memory of music?
Growing up in my Dad's apartment (my birth mother passed when I was two) and hearing jazz just about every single moment of every weekend. I was exposed to Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young and the rest of the Jazz at the Philharmonic touring bands at around six years old via his LP collection. I believe my father had just about every Jazz at the Philharmonic LP. I have my own set now.

How old were you when you got your first record?
OK, truth: I had a huge crush on singer Bobby Sherman, and my Grandmother promised to buy his album for me if I'd go to the dentist. I did and she generously purchased the album for me. I was an only grandchild and a wee bit spoiled! I truthfully cannot remember my very first jazz album, but, again, I was listening to JATP albums and Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert at a very young age.

What was the first concert you ever attended?
My very first concert was perhaps the most important concert I ever attended as, in addition to the records played at home, it set the stage for my love of jazz: My dad was taking me to a concert featuring Petula Clark, and the opening act was the Buddy Rich Big Band. Well, it was cool getting to hear Petula, but I was blown away by Buddy and his band—the great charts and the great musicians. That was some time in 1969, if I'm not mistaken. I was about twelve years old. After that, every time Buddy was anywhere in New Jersey, New York, or our favorite place (Brandi's Wharf in Philadelphia), we'd be there. We even traveled to Miami Beach for a long weekend to hear Buddy and his big band.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
Buddy Rich's Swingin' New Big Band was my jumping off point. Another important moment was when I went to hear Buddy's Band at My Father's Place (the club) on Long Island, I was talking with alto saxophonist Andy Fusco, who told me, and I quote, "Marla, big bands are great, but you've got to start listening to Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, Jackie McLean." Since I loved Andy (I played alto at that time) and trusted his taste in music, that was also a HUGE jumping off point for me.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
About 48 years.

How often do you go out to hear live music?
I am fortunate in that I am the box office supervisor at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston (going on six-and-a-half years) and I can stay for any/all shows, so I get to hear live music quite often, just by walking downstairs to the club. Since we've had everyone from Benny Golson to Lisa Fischer, my ears get to take in a wide variety of music.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
The spontaneous nature of a live concert. When it comes to our beloved jazz giants, I enjoy getting to hear them in an intimate space, and sometimes getting the opportunity to meet them. I recently met Lee Konitz (although I did sit next to him in the Village Vanguard once many years ago) and Chick Corea—both incredibly nice. We had Chick and his Vigilette Trio for five nights and that was just heaven. Unlike a recording session, there are no multiple takes, so that tends to make the live experience more exciting.

What is the most trouble you've gone to, or the farthest you've traveled, to get to a jazz performance?
The late bassist Andy Simpkins was a dear friend of mine. Andy and his wife, Kay, invited me to the Playboy Jazz Festival in Hollywood—a last minute invite. Since Andy traveled so much (mostly with Sarah Vaughan at that time), and had a lot of airline miles, they also sent me a plane ticket. The tricky part for me, since I didn't travel much at the time, was to take a plane out to L.A right after work on a Friday and then take a red eye home to be back at work on Monday! Andy picked me up at the airport and we immediately went to his gig at Linda's on Melrose (sadly, no more) where I got to listen to Andy with his musical soulmate, pianist Gerry Wiggins. Then, the rest of the weekend was the Playboy Jazz Festival, where I heard Sarah, Joe Williams, Count Basie, Miles Davis.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?
One was back in 1995—I was working in New York at the time and my manager at work would not let me have the time off to see my adoptive Mom, Rebecca Parris, perform at Tanglewood with the Boston Pops. She actually adopted me in 1997 and I was still living in Jersey City back in 1995. Still hurts to think about that, though I do have the audio, as it was broadcast via radio. The other significant one was missing Dexter Gordon at the Vanguard for what was later called his "homecoming."

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
One is too hard: Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, Fats Navarro, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, Lucky Thompson, Kenny Clarke, Kenny Dorham, Bobby Timmons, Bud Powell, and on and on. Although I did get to hear Hank Mobley shortly before he passed at the Angry Squire, I would have loved to hear him back in the '50s and '60s. Sorry for the multiple names, but if I had to pick one, I probably would have left this one blank.

What makes a great jazz club?
A great sound system and room with good acoustics is probably one of the most important elements. Intimacy of the room is important. The bookings at the club (of course, everyone has different taste), so perhaps a well-balanced mix of artists—and hearing through the grapevine that a club treats musicians well!

Which club(s) are you most regularly to be found at?
In Boston, of course, Scullers! There's a great Thai restaurant in Central Square, The Mad Monkfish and they feature a lot of Boston's best jazz musicians, as well as occasional out-of-towners such as the legendary vocalist, Sheila Jordan.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?
Bradley's, Sweet Basil and Mikell's—spent many glorious nights there.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote or memory, something that involves you or that you witnessed?
Yup—Roy Haynes was at Scullers about five years ago and I did the typical fan thing and went up to him before sound check and said, "Mr. Haynes, I'm a huge fan of yours, of jazz, and I'm so happy you are here." He smiled and said, "Oh yeah, you're a jazz fan? Gimme a few names." So, I believe the first musician I mentioned was Charlie Parker, and then I mentioned a few more. I mentioned Gigi Gryce, and all of a sudden Roy stopped me and said, "Gigi Gryce, Gigi Gryce—you CANNOT mention Gigi Gryce in the same sentence as Charlie Parker!" He burst out laughing, said, "You're cute!" and walked away. I cherish that moment. I have more, but I'll save them for my book—kidding!!!

How do you discover new artists?
Shows at Scullers, JazzTimes magazine, DownBeat magazine, jazz radio stations (shout out to WICN in Worcester and WGBH in Boston), word of mouth. Sometimes I'll use a streaming service to hear someone and then if I like what I hear, I always purchase the recording via download or CD as I like to support the musicians.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s?, streaming?
All of the above, but streaming less so.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?
Probably piano, though I did play alto saxophone, clarinet, even some oboe years ago. Oh, and baritone saxophone for a short time in my high school jazz band.

What's your desert island disc?
Way too tough, but since I just lost my adoptive mom, Rebecca Parris, who passed about six months ago, I'd say my desert island disc would probably be one of her recordings, perhaps You Don't Know Me or her recording with the Kenny Hadley Big Band, A Beautiful Friendship. Then, once again, it becomes hard to just choose one. I'd probably need to have a Buddy Rich Big Band recording, a Duke Ellington recording, a Basie recording, an Art Blakey Jazz Messengers recording.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
I'm not sure it is thriving, sadly, compared to the 70s, when I started to regularly attend jazz concerts and frequent jazz clubs. That being said, I think the enthusiasm of jazz lovers always shines through, whether there are 30 or 300 people in attendance. Obviously the ultra-talented musicians play the biggest part in keeping jazz alive and thriving, so we need to support them!

Tell us about your radio show.
I was asked by someone if I'd like to do a jazz show on KRML radio out of Carmel, CA. I remotely prepped my shows from home and had a ball doing so. My show was called "Jazz Straight Ahead," and that's basically the type of music I played. Everything from Basie to Bird to bebop and post-bop. I think I did the show for about two years. KRML eventually changed the format to talk radio. It sure was fun and I had a ball playing stuff from my own collection.

Is there anything else we should know about you?
First, thank you for inviting me to do this. I'm very passionate about supporting the music and I hope other folks consider doing the same: buy a jazz CD/download/vinyl and of course, support live jazz. I am what I wrote above: a jazz fan who spends most of her spare time listening to music or reading books and magazines and combing the internet for historical information related to jazz. While I'm thrilled to work at Scullers and enjoy work every day, if I could roll back time, I think I'd delve into doing something similar to what Dan Morgenstern did and still does—dig down into the history of the music for the love of jazz.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
Unbearable.

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