AAJ: Looking at your career since you left the blues circuitnone of your recordings or gigs have been particularly high profile (although you have had lavish critical acclaim). Thus I wondered how have you been able to survive in artistic and day-to-day terms?
MM: Well, that's an interesting question. Thank you. I like taking chances and love the challenge of being an artist in modern times. When you are an artist like myself that does not compromise in his music or art, you are always struggling to get some recognition and a little dignity, plus of course, making a living. You sacrifice a lot to be part of, in my mind, the highest art form on the planet. Remember that jazz is about originality and respecting the tradition while one moves forward. All a man can do is try and keep practicing (which I do every day). Having respect and camaraderie from your peers is also extremely important. The other day I ran into Rahn Burton, who made the two organ recordings with me almost ten years ago for Justin Time Records. He commented about how he thought that they were important recordings and that he was grateful to be part of them. I appreciated that.
Many people listen to music with their eyes. There are, of course, many critics and promoters that can decide one's movement in their career, especially if an artist is involved in playing politics, which I never have been. Having said all of that, the survival process of being a Jazz musician in modern times has not been easy. In fact, I almost live month-to-month. Some great months and some not so good, but it has definitely been worth it. Look who I got to perform and record with over the years, with many more to go. How many people or even musicians can say that? I'm very grateful. Fortunately, I have very cheap rent in NYC. There were many grey days where Frank Lowe and I had to walk to the Jazz Record Center to sell our CDs to get dinner money or for the phone bill. Blue Reality! I miss Lowe!
The booking agents that I am involved with that book my tours in Europe, where incidentally most of my work is, currently are having difficulties because of the tumultuous economic situation in Europe, so this puts a daily strain on us as well. I am not the only musician, as you know, who experiences these similar problems. I'm sure I could list several brilliant recording artists, who like myself, have had esteemed recording discographies and a lot of prestigious gigs, but never a magnified profile in the scene. But, one always finds a way to survivegigs, ASCAP, record dates, teaching, workshops, and then maybe some love.
I think, though, I have had some pretty high profile gigs and recordings. To name a few, (go to my new website to see the rest: www.michaelmarcusjazz.com) I have performed at the Blue Note club in NYC with my group six times. I have performed at The Modern Museum of Art in NYC twice, toured all the major festivals in Canada (Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, etc.) with Jaki Byard. Performed at the London Jazz Festival, which was aired live on BBC, performed on several festivals with The Cosmosamatics all over the world (Tampere Festival, Banlieues Bleues Festival) and many festivals with my trio. The Cosmosamatics are regularly played on national TV on BETjazz and, as you stated, all my recordings have been on recognized labels with reviews in all the major publications.
As a matter of fact, yesterday I looked at some radio station websites. In the Chicago area I noticed that my new recording The Magic Door is number one on their airplay list and number two on the airplay list on Montreal's main jazz radio station. Duology also has been riding high on some of the college stations as well. From more of this type of recognition from DJs around the country playing my music, ASCAP can continue to do its job by issuing their checks to me in a more regular way. The artists in jazz need this addition to their income since, as everyone knows, record sales royalties from their prospective record company have diminished for jazz musicians because of slow record sales.
Rememberonly artists that are on major labels, that get tour support, are selling large numbers of CDs, respectfully. The larger record companies are advertising their product internationally in multiple publications, which the small independent labels cannot do. My recordings have never sold in large numbers (who really has in my world of peers?) except Reachin' (Justin Time, 1996), which has chordal acquisitionist Bruce Edwards on guitar. But respectfully, I keep getting interest from producers to have my discography stay alive by being recorded on what I think are some of the more important independent labels out there. I have been fortunate because I have always got paid as a leader or sideman for my record dates and never had to produce a recording with my own monies. This is not a negative or positive, it's just economics for me.
Maybe some promoters or critics will investigate some of my new projects, and thus from that, we can get some more gigs...hey, that would be nice. So one does the best he can and hopes his music will spread a little joy and seep through the cracks where beauty rests.
AAJ: Frank Lowe figures in your important collaborations chiefly because of the arranging you did for his saxophone group. Please tell us about meeting and working with Frank.
MM: Frank Lowe was a beautiful musician and person. He who had a tone to die for on tenor saxophone. When you heard just one note from Lowe, you knew it was Lowe...an original voice and composer in the modern avant-garde scene of the late twentieth century. Frank knew how to breathe correctly when he played saxophone, which enabled him to get that soulful, unique and undeniable tone. Lowe grew up in Memphis and heard all the soul (Stax Records) one could digest while in his formative years. Whenever anyone met Frank, they knew that they were in the presence of a hip, sweet cat.
I met Lowe in NYC a couple of months before I started playing in Ted Daniel's band Energy in early '83. Lowe and I quickly developed a friendship that lasted until his passing. We had a lot in common, particularly our mutual understanding and awareness of the essence of jazz along with being woodwindists, and also our extreme knowledge of modern jazz recordings. We talked nearly everyday during our twenty years of camaraderie in Midtown Manhattan, and spent hours practicing, listening to music, exchanging ideas and living jazz. Frank was so encouraging to so many musicians that he met during his life, old or young, and always showed them respect when deserved.
Lowe loved that I could understand, hear, and read his completely original way of notating and playing music. Lowe was one-of-a-kind. I remember one time he took me down to the Lower East Side in the early '80s and introduced me to Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell and "Jazz" (Denis Charles) while they were all conversing on a corner. The next night I heard C Sharpe at the University of the Streets and was blown away (C Sharpe was part of the 1956 Lee Morgan recording on Blue Note Indeed). C Sharpe had the phraseology of Bird, but in his own way and he was very inspirational. Spiritual cata man of the times, like Lowe. During that era I also met and became friends with the late, great and under-appreciated Jimmy Vass. Lowe and I walked the streets many-a-day. There was always a story and real life drama with Frank.
. Frank always gave me positive encouragement to pursue my dream on becoming exclusively a clarinetist. We both agreed and became enthusiastic when we would listen to Alvin Batiste's tone, which we would say "draws you in like the way Tina Brooks or Coltrane did." This agreement happened innumerable times with hundreds of great jazz artists. Lowe was a walking book. Incidentally, at 5:00 AM this morning, my friend in Mississippi, drummer Alvin Fielder called me to tell me the sad news about Mr. Batiste's passing.
AAJ: How did you become involved with Frank Lowe and The Saxemple? There are at least two recordings Inappropriate Choices (ITM, 1991) and Saxemble (on Quincy Jones' label Qwest/Warner, from 1996) that feature both your playing and arranging.
MM: Around '90, Lowe decided to put together a saxophone group with drums. This was Lowe's idea as an answer to the WSQ [World Saxophone Quartet], since their saxophone group did not have drums at the time. He told me about a young phenomenon on the tenor sax that had just came to town, who was playing with Lester Bowie's organ group downtownJames Carter. He asked James if he would participate in a recording session and James agreed. I believe JC was around nineteen or twenty at the time. Since I had arranging abilities and Frank knew that I had an important voice that was essential to making the Saxemble different from the WSQ, playing the bass saxophone, he asked me to join the band as well.
Now all he needed was a fourth voice and a drummer. Lowe and I came up with Carlos Ward for the fourth horn and for the drum chair, well, Phillip Wilson was in Lester Bowie's group at that same time as JC, so Lowe asked him to do the recording, too. Frank had performed in Phillip's band a few years back in the '70s and so they already had a hip friendship. Phillip was a brilliant, sensitive drummer. He played the new music, having heavy roots in jazz and rhythm & blues and really had an advanced ear. I remember seeing him in San Francisco when he was touring with the Paul Butterfield Blues band, which had little David Sanborn in the horn section1968.
The chemistry was great with this band and we rehearsed at my apartment several times. Frank Lowe and The Saxemple was born. After a few years going by and a few gigs, a friend of Frank and mine, Craig Morton, who at the time was producing recordings for Quincy Jones' label Qwest, got us signed to Warner Bros. It was decided though, amongst the group and mutually, that it would not be a group under Lowe's name anymore and now it would be a co-op group where we were all equals in regard to the music, like the WSQ or ROVA. The Saxemble. We got Cindy Blackman for the recording since Phillip was tragically killed a few years before the date for Qwest. I made more money on that Warner recording than any other recording in my career to this date.
I remember Lowe and I wanted to do a show with the WSQ and bill it as THE WSQ vs. The Saxemble. We wanted the gig to be a classic Battle of the Bands concert, maybe at Town Hall, NYC. We asked Blueitt, and he liked the idea, but it never materialized into a reality. Frank Lowe will always get credit for coming up with that original name for the Saxemble (the spelling changed for the second recording). I believe the Saxemble was one of the best saxophone bands ever, though it was short lived. Listen.
AAJ: Saxophonist Fred Hess once told me that after playing with the young James Carter in Ron Miles band, he had to go back to extensive wood-shedding. It seems the young Carter's playing made Hess re-evaluate certain aspects of his playing.
MM: Yeah, James is a magnificent multi-instrumentalist and a lovely person as well. I have had the pleasure to practice over the years, multiple times with James in my apartment. James is an extremely generous artist and humanitarian, too. He has huge ears and his dexterity is amazing on all the woodwinds. Once, I was playing piano at a jam at my house, and James picked up an old Haynes wood piccolo that I had and started playing "Giant Steps" at a fast tempo, completely moving through the changes like butter. After that he picked up a bass saxophone and played a slow blues before we all went berserk.
James knows the blues and plays the art form well. This is an ingredient of the music that a lot of the younger jazz musicians never master. I have a classic tape of four tenor improvisations that's historicalJames, Frank Lowe, Sonny Simmons and meall playing tenor saxophones. It's beautiful. Some years back, James turned me onto a brilliant musician that I befriended from Detroit, Larry Smith. He is another voice on the saxophone that the world needs to hear.