Philadelphia performance artist "Skip" Homer Jackson recently asked my opinion about a number of jazz artists who have been overlooked because they were great stylists who played in the shadows of great players. I immediately thought of Booker Ervin in relationship to John Coltrane; and Booker Little, who ironically was little (no pun intended) appreciated during the 1960's era of stellar jazz hornmen. In the back of my mind too, was the multi-instrumentalist/band leader and composer Michael Marcus.
The following interview should, in a colorful and informative fashion, fill in the blanks for those who may casually know of him. It is no accident that Marcus is much like many of the cats with whom he has had long associations (the late saxophonist Frank Lowe, trumpeter Ted Daniel and Sonny Simmons).
A natural storyteller both on and off his horn, and a genuinely warm human being, Marcus just so happens to have recorded two of the seminal recordings of modern American music: 1997's This Happening (Justin Time, 1997), a beyond category duet with the late Jaki Byard and Involution (Justin Time, 1998), an essential disc with a quartet also featuring Byard. Marcus has all the qualities of great artistry that combine mastering one's craft with restless and probing imagination.
- Jazz and Joining the Avant-Garde
- Sonny Simmons
- Under the Wire
- Focusing on Bb Clarinet
- Surviving Day-To-Day
- Frank Lowe
- Neglected Recordings
- Jaki Byard
- The Future
All About Jazz: You are a Baby Boomer. Where and when were you born?
Michael Marcus: I was born in San Francisco, California on August 25th, 1952. At that time, in San Francisco, when I was an infant and not aware of these realities, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker were playing in North Beach and Bop City was thriving with Pony Poindexter, Teddy Edwards, Dexter Gordon and John Handy jamming and performing...where Bird and Miles played regularly in a city that had so much music going on. I grew up being part of the "Summer of Love" experience. I was so lucky to witness and hear Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Thelonious Monk and the Paul Butterfield Blues band (with Mike Bloomfield), The Fourth Way, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Janis [Joplin], the Soft Machine, and many, many other incredible groups all being presented by Bill Graham.
AAJ: What is the origin of your own musical beginnings?
MM: I got into jazz music originally by first being immersed in blues. When we were in high school, during the peak of the San Francisco rock era, we were also exposed to many great blues artists as well. There were so many influences that started to absorb my time, particularly the Chess artists, i.e. Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Memphis Slim and the great Sonny Boy Williamson, who influenced me to pick up the harmonica. The harp was my first musical instrument of expression that would eventually lead the way to the woodwind family. I loved Charles Musselwhite. He did a beautiful rendition of "Christo Redento."
My friend, Doug Herald who was a true genius, was the hip boogie woogie pianist (and guitarist as well) in our neighborhood. Doug was a true natural who lived the life of a jazz/blues musician at an early age. He was really into Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Guitar Slim and Fats Domino. He played that style brilliantly in his own way and invited everyone to jam with him at his house. He had a lot of soul in his playing and so he really was an inspiration for me to pursue this music. Doug influenced all the upcoming artists in the Daly City hood. Johnnie Bamont was the hip saxophonist that jammed with us at that time.
There were incredible black record stores in the Fillmore district of San Francisco that carried a lot of the rare titles that most other record shops did not have. We frequented those shops regularly during those years, which helped me develop a broad knowledge of the labels and recordings that were special to my ear. After awhile, I discovered with friends, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, King Curtis, Eddie Harris, Sonny "Red" Kyner, Red Garland, Count Basie, Dexter Gordon, Jug, and then Bird [Charlie Parker], Art Pepper, tuba giant-Ray Draper, Yusef Lateef, K.D., Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Sonny Clark, Gil Melle, Teddy Edwards, Monk, Sonny Criss, Wynton Kelly, Newk, Miles, Eric Kloss and some avant-garde artists at the same timeas well as Eric Dolphy, Bill Dixon, Ken McIntyre, Cecil Taylor, Henry Grimes Trio (with Perry Robinson), and my friend Sonny Simmons (The Cry with Prince Lasha). These recordings were my "school," if you will, that started me to understand the art of jazz improvisation and the relationship jazz has with the blues as its foundation.
This experience also led me to drop the harmonica and move on to the alto saxophone. Trane and Lacy came later.
AAJ: Please track the evolution of your playing the alto saxophone, then baritone, ultimately leading to being on the blues circuit.
MM: After hearing and thus inspired by the singing and crying tone of Bird, Sonny Stitt and Art Pepper, I had to try and capture their essence by having an alto saxophone. I got a Conn with a "Lady on the Bell," like the one Bird used. When I heard Art Pepper play a ballad like "You Go To My Head," tears arrived.
After developing a good tone, learning blues changes, I knew becoming a woodwind player was something I needed to pursue.
At that same time, I was exposed to Leo Parker, Serge Chaloff and Pepper Adams. In Serge I heard how beautifully he incorporated harmonic passages in the Bird tradition in his phrasing, and so I immediately became attracted to the baritone.
I also started to realize how many great alto players existed in the Bay Area (Bishop Norman Williams, John Handy, Dave Smith, Dave Sherwood, Noel Jewkes, and so many more) and so knowing I needed to make a living being a musician, I realized that by becoming known as a baritone saxophonist, I might get more opportunities to get some gigs. There are never enough baritone players. I knew how to play blues well, so I naturally started getting gigs in Oakland with a lot of brilliant musicians who were always looking for a good baritone player to have in their horn section.
I started getting hired and recording with: Hi Tide Harris, JJ Malone, Troyce Keys, Charles Brown, Big Joe Turner, Luther Tucker and my friend Sonny Rhodes. Sonny Rhodes was the first person to take me on the road. I cut a classic recording with Sonny Rhodes in his living room in East Oakland, called "Won't Rain in California" (there was a drought at that time in California '75-76.) One of the trumpet players on the date was John Hunt, from the Ray Charles band. Oakland was such (and still is) an important center for this music.
One night I was working with Sonny Rhodes  in San Francisco. We were opening the show for Albert King. Mr. King was based out of St. Louis, MO. The trumpet player in his band, Harold "Pudgy" Attyberry, came up to me and during the break said, "Albert likes your playing...he's looking for a baritone player for the horn section...you should go talk with him." Well, I did. I was nervous. Albert had an incredible presence.
The next night I was leaving San Francisco, going on the road with the greatest electric blues guitarist in the world, Albert King. My first national tour on a Greyhound bus. I was so honored. Very few, if any, white baritone sax players were accepted in those circles that I was blessed to become part of. I learned and matured so much. The experiences with that two year tour were incredible, but if I get into them now, this interview would be a book. A year later, I was part of a tour in Japan billed as Battle of the Blues GuitarsB.B. King vs. Albert King.
Subsequently, by being in Albert's band, I got the gig with Bobby "Blue" Bland in 1979. In his band I got to play with Mel Brown, Wayne Bennett, Morris Atchinson, and Joe Hardin. Bobby was based out of Memphis, Tennessee. The horn arrangements in Bobby's band were advanced, sophisticated and beautiful. Many were by Joe Scott, who was from Texas. We also toured in a Greyhound bus like the Albert King band, but the difference was, Bobby had a bus driver and Albert drove the bus himself. That gig lasted about two years as well. I was continuing my studies in bebop and improvisation on the road in the daytime in many hotel rooms.
AAJ: I imagine while you were on the blues circuit the money must have been pretty cool?
MM: Yeah, the money was cool and regular, but not great. The band leader made the good bread. But the good thing was, by the end of the week, you knew you would be secure and you were performing and playing your horn five to six nights a week. During my four-to-five year stint on the Chitlin' circuit, the bands probably worked forty weeks out of the year. Once we played on the Kool Jazz Festival in several cities. Albert King had us wear jean coveralls during that tour, like the way Art Blakey had his band members dress. There was always a band uniform in those bands.
We also played at Elvis Presley's memorial service in Memphis with four gospel singers from Gary, Indiana as an addition to the horn section. They were called The Roses. They were incredible.
AAJ: What books were you using to study bebop while you did the blues circuit? Did you have a chance to hit with any of the cats in other cities while on tour?
MM: I really did not study out of books while on the road, well...I take that back. I had a copy of Eddie Harris' book, which had wonderful syncopated rhythmic exercises. He was a brilliant and original improviser/saxophonist/composer.
I really learned the language of bebop by studying the recordings. Lots of Blue Notes and Prestiges. Bird phrasing. Also learned by being around heavy musicians who were seasoned in the modern jazz idiom. The osmosis in practicing together! Jerry Wilson, Mel Brown, Joe Hardin, Pudgy Attyberry, Oliver Johnson and Morris Atchinson are the names of some the great artists I hung out with that the world should know about.
Morris was so inspiring to be around! He was (and still is) a giant on the tenor saxophone...tone-blues, feel-soul and a gigantic knowledge in the cycles and modernistic harmonic passages that Coltrane left us with. He could play "Giant Steps" inverted with a tone like King Curtis or Jug. Yes, he's a legend.
Oliver, Joe and Pudgyall great trumpet players. We practiced lots of bop classics together, always in the dressing rooms and hotel rooms. Then there was the late genius Jerry Wilson. I met him on the South Side of Chicago when we performed at the Burning Sphere. He lived right near the Roberts Hotel at 63rd & King Drive. Jerry took a liking to me and let me live with him for a month during that period. He could play like Johnny Griffin and had also had an incredible tone, but was original like Morris. During that time when we were hanging out, Jerry cut a 45 rpm single called "Sax Freak," which has become a cult recording. We got up every morning, early, and went to the park and practiced all day. He took me once a week to Von Freeman's jam session, which was near his house. I was sitting in with the big boys!
AAJ: Why do you avoid labeling yourself a composer?
MM: I am a composer! 98% of my recordings consist of my original compositions. I have composed for strings and written a string quartet suite. I also have done numerous arrangements for my ensembles and others. I feel that my compositions are important statements in my discography. I hope that some listeners and musicians as well, will find some beauty within their structures. I would love to hear someone else's interpretation of one of my tunes. I continue to compose regularly and work at the evolutionary process that is so addicting.