Michael Marcus: Truth, Love and Soul

Ludwig vanTrikt By

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Jazz and Joining the Avant-Garde

AAJ: Why did you stop performing on the blues circuit and slowly immerse yourself in the jazz avant-garde?

MM: Music is a wondrous experience. The highest thing I know is the art of improvisation. It is a natural progression in any artist's growth to emerge into a musical reality where he or she can feel like they have found a place to completely express themselves. Though performing in the blues circuit was a steady income, it was time to move on. All jazz music is really part of the avant-garde. I am interested in creating, composing and performing music that's beautiful or good music—not necessarily to be put in categories of music. Though, playing free jazz is a joy because all your roots and all of your knowledge of music is available for the sound palette that you can dance with in soul.

So, I keep practicing everyday, try to improve, capture the masters' messages and incorporate the information in my "worldscape." After all, jazz is a language in art that thrives from originality and being undeniable. I remember Charles Moffett wrote a tune that has a title I really love and relate to on his 1969 Savoy Recording The Gift—"The Avant-Garde Got Soul, Too."

AAJ: Where and when did your jazz career begin?

MM: That's a hard question to answer, however, I guess everyone's career begins when satisfaction with one's self is cool, getting recognition from peers, and actual professional compensation occurs.


Having said that, my real first major event in my jazz career probably started when I was hired to help arrange and play on Sonny Simmons' recording Backwoods Suite. (WestWind, 1982). It was produced by Craig Morton (who thirteen years later produced the Saxemble recording on Qwest that I'm part of). Billy Higgins was the drummer on that date. Sonny, at that time and now as well, was such an inspiration to be around. We learned so much about the jazz life along with music from him.

Pianist Cecil Wells hired me for some hip gigs at that time, too. He sounds a lot like Wynton Kelly, but has his own sound and writes beautiful, memorable tunes.

Several months later, in late '82, I moved to the Big Apple to continue this journey.


Sonny Simmons

AAJ: Let's backtrack and deal with a central figure in your musical life, Sonny Simmons. How did you meet?

MM: Around '79-'80, when I was back in the Bay Area from the road, I got a call from Hi Tide Harris. He hired me to play baritone sax on this recording he was doing for Japanese RCA. He mentioned on the phone that at the session there will be an alto player that sounds like Bird. I immediately thought of the Bishop Norman Williams, but Hi Tide said, "No, it's Sonny Simmons!" I said, Wow. I had already loved Sonny's recordings from the ESP label and The Cry (1962) on Contemporary Records. I knew and heard his connection with Bird and Ornette so I was excited and honored to meet him.

When I arrived at the session, Sonny was already there warming up and I heard that true-tone. He was wearing a bright, pin-striped sport coat. So, we did two tracks together and blended well. We both soloed on a blues with Bird-type changes. Also on that date was Eddie Henderson, Cecil Wells, David Berger and Emil Ram. Berger was a great harmonica player who could play chromatically on a blues harp.

Sonny became aware of my enthusiasm to learn and practice, so we developed a musical relationship. We hung out from the streets of San Francisco. He really helped me in the art of phrasing. He also found out about my arranging abilities and thus the alto-baritone sound became part of many of his performances at that time. Sonny liked the way I could hear and notate his difficult heads. We practiced for hours on many grey San Francisco days. The sessions were always invigorating, productive and spiritual experiences. Incidentally, during that period as well, I was practicing with another Bay Area legend, bebop master tenor saxophonist Vince Wallace.

I moved to the east coast in late August of '82. Sonny and I only performed a couple of times together in the '80's when Sonny came east. We reunited when I was back home in San Francisco in '94 for some gigs. Now I was playing straight alto and Saxello, Bb clarinet and bass clarinet in his ensembles, as well as in my own.


Under the Wire

AAJ: Your debut recording Under The Wire (Enja, 1992) reflects so many elements of the blues from the cry in your tonality to the tunes on the disc. Was that a deliberate homage on your part?

MM: I decided that for my first recording, I would hire musicians that I already had a personal/musical relationship with or at least that I had performed with previous to the recording. This is the case for all the musicians on Under The Wire. All of them have a great understanding and experience in avant-garde jazz or free jazz, if you will, rooted in the tradition. These are the elements I believe you are hearing within the recording with all the participants interpreting my original compositions. As a soloist and composer, I am always trying to convey the message of the blues feel within my sound story.

I met Joe Bowie in '77 in Oakland, California at a gig. He was in a horn section with Luther Thomas, working with Tyrone Davis, the Rhythm & Blues vocal great from Chicago. At that time, I was touring with Albert King. We became good friends and still are in contact with each other. Ted Daniel had hired me in the '80s to be in his band, Energy. He's a great trumpet player and so there was my front line when it was time. William Parker and Reggie Nicholson were my first choices for the rhythm section. They made a swinging, soulful rhythm team.

AAJ: Give us a sense of what New York City was like musically in '82 when you moved here?

MM: Fortunately, when I arrived, my friend tenor saxophonist Bob Feldman had an extra room in his large midtown apartment that was vacant and available to me. It was across the street from the Manhattan Plaza where many great musicians live. Ironically, my buddy trombonist Joe Bowie lived there. Joe is such a beautiful human being. He introduced me to Frank Lowe who then introduced me to Ted Daniel. I quickly developed a friendship with both of these great artists. Frank Lowe. I miss him deeply. I also met and talked with legendary saxophonist Harold Ashby. Ashby appreciated and could relate to my connection with the bands I toured with.


The very first time when I first set foot in NYC, I walked out of the Port Authority and there was George Braith playing on the streets with Tommy Turrentine and Cindy Blackman. Braith was a major influence on me during that period to seek out the special sounds of the horns he and Rahsaan played on. George made three classic Blue Note recordings that still sound fresh today. Playing on the street really helps in developing a strong tone. I started going to Barry Harris' workshops and started meeting lots of musicians there, as well. Barry is a national treasure and everyone can learn from the maestro.

I was lucky because during the early '80s, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, Mal Waldron, Pepper Adams, Woody Shaw, Steve Lacy, Ray Draper, Harold Vick, C Sharpe, John Jenkins, J. R. Montrose, Al Haig, Chet Baker, Don Cherry, Johnny Coles, Hank Mobley, James Clay, Walter Bishop, and Art Taylor were some of the legends that I got to hear and meet. All of these giants are no longer with us. John Jenkins came to my apartment and practiced with me. He wrote out hip bop cycles on tunes that I still have. He was a sweetheart and really knew Bird's message better than most.

Life is so incredible. It's like a beautiful painting or movie soundtrack that you can become part of. I always say, "It's not where you are at, the city or country, it's what's happening in your life at that time." In '85 I started rehearsing with Ken McIntyre's band...Makanda.

AAJ: Ken McIntyre is such an unappreciated figure in the music. Did you both share a kinship by virtue of being multi-instrumentalists? What kinds of things did you learn from him?

MM: Makanda was quite an interesting and intelligent human being. I know Makanda Ken McIntyre touched a lot of people in a positive way during his life. He was extremely articulate when he spoke about music and life. I personally related to many of his profound opinions when it came to the music, though a lot of it was through an "academia" point of view. This is not negative or positive, just the truth. He said when he came up learning the music, he used to whistle all of Bird's solos by memory to learn the structures and formulas in the language of bebop.

I agree that he was underappreciated in the jazz world. He was a fine composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist who produced some beautiful recordings in his life. He had a great tone on flute and the double reeds. Remember Looking Ahead with Dolphy on Prestige Records (1960) and also his brilliant recording on United Artists Way Way Out (1963)? I remember how influential this recording was because it had a full string section along with Makanda, bass (Bob Cunningham) and drums (Edgar Bateman). This concept had never really been done before this recording, where the strings are playing more rhythmic phrases in a more avant-garde setting. Bird with strings, of course, set the standard in modern jazz recordings with strings and I am sure Makanda was influenced by that seminal recording.

Way Way Out still stands the test of time and sounds fresh today. It definitely had an influence on my approach to string writing. Ironically, I also had the good fortune to perform with both Bob and Edgar, though in separate groups.

He was very insistent with musicians that they should strive for individuality. His music had an undeniable dance to it and this is something that I try to convey within my music. He really taught me how to understand complex and unorthodox rhythms. This helped me when I started to write for strings and also when I wrote sophisticated bass lines for my ensembles.

I worked with Makanda's ten-piece ensemble for over a year in the late '80s, every Tuesday, at a club in the Lower East Side. Charles Persip played drums many times with that group on several of the gigs. I believe the club was called First on First.

One of the most important things I think Makanda shared with me was when he said that "many musicians are never really matched to their instruments during their life in music." Wow, he was right. Within my excursions in exploring the woodwind family (Makanda literally played every member of the woodwind family), I have now found that in the Bb clarinet, I can express my ideas with a voice that I truly enjoy, with a more effortless reality as opposed to some of the other woodwinds. This is not that I still don't love the other members of the woodwind family that I have recorded and performed with over the years. I remember this is a similar type of occurrence that happened with John Carter.

Any musician who commits his life to this music, deserves a treasure or a vacation in Shangri-La.


Focusing on Bb Clarinet

AAJ: For you to now focus exclusively on the Bb clarinet is such a major decision, especially in light of you having established yourself as a multi-instrumentalist. Please explain what brought this about?

MM: I have been playing the Bb clarinet for several years and always have wanted to explore its endless possibilities. By osmosis in practice, lately, I made a concerted effort to do this. I have just released in the past six months two recordings that feature myself exclusively on the Bb clarinet—The Magic Door (Not Two, 2007) and Duology (Boxholder, 2007), a duet with Ted Daniel. I have not quit the other woodwinds, just put them aside to focus on an extremely difficult instrument. The joy I have been experiencing doing this is immense. I find it easier now to fulfill some of my thoughts with the clarinet, through musical articulations during improvisation, than I ever did with the members of the saxophone family. I am also finding new ways to compose tunes using this hip horn. Remember, the Bb clarinet has been in the frontline of jazz since the beginning of this special music's inception, so I am proud to try and carry on that tradition. Tone and sound...what a wonderful experience to be part of!

Maybe like the late, great clarinetist John Carter, I will commit to the Bb clarinet as my singular main instrument of expression and not return to the rest of the woodwinds that I have explored in my career. Changes, especially radical changes, are healthy in one's life and anyway, there is always room for more clarinetists in the world of jazz. I always loved Pee Wee Russell during my formative years and was wowed when I heard him with Monk. I think he was a pioneer and one of the original avant-garde artists of the twentieth century. Also Jimmy Hamilton, Tony Scott and Johnny Dodds. (Incidentally, Dodds may well be one of the greatest blues players that ever lived). So, what's not to love about the instrument, when artists like the ones I just mentioned laid down a path for guys like me to build upon?

AAJ: You worked with the legendary Denis Charles on at least two recorded occasions; your debut Under The Wire (Enja, 1992) and Here At!(Soul Note, 1994) and what is one of his last dates Ithem (Ayler Records, 2004). Give us some insights into this very troubled but creative man both on a musical and personal level.

MM: Actually, Reggie Nicholson is the drummer on Under the Wire and Denis is the drummer on Here At! and Ithem. Both these recordings were done within six months of each other in '93. Denis was one of the innovators to come into the new music or avant-garde in the middle '50s when he joined Cecil Taylor's band, and moving along to record with Steve Lacy on a classic Prestige recording called Soprano Sax (1957). Denis, Wynton Kelly and Beull Nieidlinger—what a swingin' rhythm section that Lacy put together!

I met Denis around '83, doing some street gigs and at that same time I hooked up with Roy Campbell, Zane Massey, Alex Lodico, Bob Arkin and Antoine Roney and also Haze Greenfield, pianist Denton Darien, Tom Bruno and trumpeter Gary Strauss. Gary has a beautiful tone like Chet Baker's. As soon as I first played with Denis, I not only heard that undeniable swing (you could hear strong Blakey and Max [Roach] influences immediately), but also that I was interacting with one of the most spiritual and decent human beings that I ever met. My relationship with Denis lasted until his untimely death. Denis was like a healer. He could make anyone feel comfortable, any age, race, gender, economic status, and with that spiritual quality, he transformed it in the music every time he played. His ears were enormous, so when you rehearsed any original, he heard it instantly, adding his exceptional grooving rhythms. Besides all of that, he was hip, not square. His tone on his ride cymbal, was what any drummer would aspire to acquire—hey, a poem [laughs].


We did the Ottawa Jazz Festival together with Bob Cunningham on bass, and many other gigs over the years in different settings. Denis and William Parker! Wow. I remember Denis telling me that William was his favorite bassist during that period. I loved performing and recording with them both. We did the What is Jazz Festival in '93. Part of that gig is on the Ithem recording on Ayler Records. I also had a hip trio with Denis and Tyler Mitchell for some gigs. Fred Hopkins, also a master bassist and giant of the music, was the bassist that I hired for the Here At! recording session on Soul Note. It was the only time that Denis and Fred recorded together. What a rhythm section. On one tune, William Parker is added so you get to experience Fred and William exchanging in a beautiful bowed bass duet.

The only type of trouble Denis encountered in his life, in my opinion, was the system. An artist's personal life is their personal business. This type of musician is rare and so the planet was graced with Denis Charles' presence. He was a giant in the music, who contributed immensely to the art of jazz. I am so delighted that Denis was part of my early discography and performances. Hey, I can say I recorded with Denis Charles!


Surviving Day-To-Day

AAJ: Looking at your career since you left the blues circuit—none 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.

MichaelMany 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 survive—gigs, 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.

Remember—only 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.

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