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Thoughts on Steve Marcus

by Tim Price

Steve Marcus, saxophonist, b.1939; d.2005

In thinking about Steve Marcus' passing and the effects that he had on this music.
I wonder how many people would think of him as a component in early Mike Mantler "Escalator Over The Hill" projects with Carla Bley. Or in 1965 or 66 playing hair raising Coltrane-esque tenor with Stan Kenton's more progressive bands with Dee Barton on drums. That band should be talked about in the same breath as Maria Schneider's and Gil Evans from a stepping over the dotted line standpoint. Marcus was also one of the first guys playing Soprano in some of those situations...and with his own concept and sound.

I remember once with Coryell Marcus played so incredibly on Larry's music and I couldn't for the life of me why he never got the proper kudos from the jazz press. In a way, he should have been bigger than anyone considering he was one of the originators and propagators of that genre.

Marcus was smart, he made a living as a musician, he made people around him feel like playing. Some of the best times I saw Buddy Rich in later years was when Steve Marcus started to play and turned the heat up so high, that you could see Buddy smiling and digging that they were going to be getting into something.

Though Miles Davis introduced a fine-tuned version of fusion to the world with Bitches Brew, he was by no means its primary architect. The concept of a union between jazz and rock music had been knocked around for several years prior to Brew's release by such jazz musicians as Gary Burton, Larry Coryell, Steve Marcus, Jerry Hahn, Charles Lloyd, as well as Soft Machine. Sadly, many of their recordings have become lost with both the passage of time ; only recently has this fervor calmed enough for the music of this era to be properly reevaluated. The Water label is helping out immensely in this regard by reissuing such albums as Tomorrow Never Knows and others originally released by the Vortex label. Herbie Mann, one of the oft-overlooked godfathers of this scene, founded the label; in addition to employing scenesters Miroslav Vitous and Sonny Sharrock in his own group, Mann used his stature with Atlantic to form this subsidiary label (as well as its successor Embryo). Another guy who INVESTED in the people he believed in. These Vortex records were right on target with the " JAM BAND " train of thought playing that was also happening today- yet it was decades before. He founded a way of playing that was going on in the mid 60s. I saw him on TV with Stan Kenton in the 60s and he absolutely killed it. Later at Berklee I heard "jazz in the classroom " records he was on & realized he played this way from the jump. His message was there. NOT, ,just notes but a passion and a true message in every solo. As the old cats would say - HE WAS REACHING FOR SOMETHING.

"The Beatles made kids of us all," Steve Marcus, told the writer Stuart Nicholson five years ago. "I had spent much of my previous years completely enveloped in Coltrane and Bartok and really heavy, profound music - and then when the Beatles came along I just felt like a kid again." Marcus was a powerful saxophonist. He was also in at the beginning of jazz-rock fusion - involved in pioneering groups attempting to marry the melodic sophistication and spontaneity of jazz with rock and funk dance rhythms. Marcus, visionary and innovative drummer Bob Moses, guitarist Larry Coryell and New Zealand-born pianist Mike Nock were young jazz-obsessed neighbors in New York in 1967, gripped by the idea of joining the Beatles and the Byrds' infectious song-hooks to the transcendental energy and virtuosity of Coltrane, their hero and spiritual model. Marcus was to go on to play much more orthodox jazz - notably in Woody Herman's swing orchestra and with star big-band drummer Buddy Rich - but he was a key participant in early fusion, leading one of the first groups to play it when he ran the Count's Rock Band on and off for three years from 1967. Marcus was born in New York's Bronx. He began on clarinet but switched to saxophone at the age of 15.

Joe Viola the reed teacher at Berklee then, asked me what I was listening to. I told him these Steve Marcus records were things I was finding, and I never heard anything like it. At that point he told me about Steve being around Boston. So, Joe Viola joined Jane and I a few times at the Jazz Workshop, on Boylston St, to hear Steve. It was then I realized what an open mind Joe Viola had, yet I think that was something that was essential to all of us who came in Joes studio. Imagine though when Marcus saw Joe, and sat and talked about things with Joe, and told him about the new Beatles record " Abbey Road " and also loving the Coltrane release " Sun Ship". A conversation I'll never forget, nor will I forget the after the gig coffee/ muffin talk with Joe Viola about the gig we heard and the great stuff he heard Coryell play.

Not only was Steve a great exciting player, but he had what all great jazz musicians should have...HE KNEW HOW TO PLAY A BALLAD.

In the world of jazz, a loss like this is a direct hit to the music...there's a lot of great guys out there today playing the instrument...but the muscularity and creative spark of a Steve Marcus will sorely be missed.

This guy never headlined at any major jazz festivals, BUT - what he did was something even greater than that...he played everyday with a leader that would never accept anything less than bloodcurdling solos. He also traveled with Coryell city to city in vans and station wagons playing the clubs that are only talked about anymore, that hired jazz six nights a week. I can confess for one seeing him night to night that this guy never missed. In Boston- at the old " Jazz Workshop" club on Boylston St, my girlfriend Jane and I would go to catch Coryell every night. The cover charge was really pretty low for the early 70's, and every night Marcus tore the club up!!! Talk about burning. Damn was he on fore. What I saw was a guy who HAD TO PLAY.

He had no other choice in life, that was his destiny. and that my friends is something that no critic or jazz magazine has any control over. That's why since hearing Steve Marcus when I was a kid in the 60's , I followed every note and every step of his career I could. This man had a destiny...and it was adding something to the music and the saxophone. and he sure did and we are all lucky for it. The other thing that I thought of immediately was I used to go every night when he played Coryell at the Jazz Workshop in Boston. One night on a Saturday I came in with my horn, cause I had an early strip lounge gig , I had no intention of asking to sit in or even getting close to the bandstand with my horn. I had talked to Steve a lot that week as well as Larry. Steve saw I was carrying my horn and said "Just come up and play something" realizing that even though I was way out of my league - the learning experience would carry me for the rest of my life. THIS WAS 1970 ! I WAS 18. I learned something that day from Steve Marcus, I also learned that every time you play, the next day is even better and there is even more to learn. But if you don't take the chance you'll never realize some of the things you're trying to accomplish, or need to. I'll never forget him for showing me that valuable lesson.

It's a drag not to have someone like that on the scene anymore - 66 is such a young age. He lived not far from me, in New Hope, PA which was at one point in the 60's a musicians community. He was a road rat who was never home - an unbelievable player who I doubt anybody will ever forget. I sure won't.

Black Darkness White Sky Light
Created: October 5, 2006.
©2006, HarriRautiainen and respectiveauthors
Black Darkness White Sky Light

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Black Darkness White Sky Light
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