JOHN MARSHALL: I come from the South Shore of Long Island, NY. My dad was a music teacher in an elementary school in Merrick. I grew up in Wantagh and he taught in Merrick, which was not far. When I was eight years old, we moved to the North Shore of Long Island, and that’s where I went to high school. Cold Spring Harbor High School. I started playing the trumpet when I was nine years old. My dad would bring various instruments home for me to try. I liked the trumpet, and after a short while he decided to get me private lessons. So I had a good basis on the instrument pretty early. All the typical American concert band repertoire, the Herbert Clarke cornet solos. My father had some records at home, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra—things that were current. The first trumpet players that I heard that knocked me out were Rafael Mendez and Maynard Ferguson, because dad had those records. He didn’t have that many jazz records. But in 1967, when I was 15, Clem DeRosa came to be our high school band director. He was one of the first to bring the big band repertoire into the high schools. Previous to coming to my high school, he had taught at another high school in Huntington called Walt Whitman High School, and they had a big band. DeRosa had the classic Count Basie charts, and other good stuff. There were contests around Long Island, and New York State. Various high school big bands competed. Since Clem was more versed in it than most other band directors, his bands would always win. Quite a few guys who came out of his bands became professional musicians. Bassist John Burr was one. He went on to have a very good career. He’s a year younger than me. There are many others. Then the time came to go to college. In 1970, there were three places you could go to study, to play jazz or to big band music. Berklee College of Music in Boston, Indiana State, and North Texas State. I got a half scholarship to Berklee and I went up there. It was a strange time. My parents were getting divorced. I hated Boston and only really wanted to live in New York City. The classes at Berklee were overcrowded, and I was living in a dormitory room with two other guys. We were all trying to practice. A drummer with a practice pad and aluminum drumsticks, a pianist with headphones and Fender Rhodes, and me. We were also expected to study academic stuff that I had had already in high school as well as basic music theory. So I bugged out and split after one week. I ended up crashing here and there in NY, trying to do it my way. I became something of a survival artist, driving a taxi, and doing whatever it took to stay in the city.
VOJ: During those few years, who were some of the first people you saw play live?
JOHN MARSHALL: In the late ‘60s, rock music was a big deal. A lot of the kids I grew up with were into these groups, not so much me, but the guitar players. The thing to do was to go to the Fillmore East concerts. They had three bands a night and two shows a night, so six sets a night at this joint. So we’d get tickets to go hear Miles Davis—he had just left the acoustic format and going towards the electric instruments, and playing bigger venues. So I heard him at every opportunity at that time. And I heard Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. Ornette was very encouraging to me. He invited me to his loft, and even used me in a couple of his projects. this was a curious time because Coltrane had died in 1967, after taking the music pretty far out, and kind of leaving everyone out there. So it wasn’t a strong time for straight ahead jazz, although the important players survived. In the loft scene free jazz thrived. It ultimately became boring to me. The good straight ahead jazz gained traction again around the time Dexter Gordon returned from Europe. I was just scraping by, doing some latin gigs and rhythm and blues. I would park my taxi and go hear people like Chet Baker, for example, who was making his comeback. Getting serious about the music had to wait until I extricated myself from the day jobs. Finally I had the time to start transcribing and really get down to the nuts and bolts of it.
VOJ: So you were mostly self-taught then?
JOHN MARSHALL: Yes. I had a very good background in the trumpet as a teenager with private lessons. But as far as jazz, I was self-taught. In 1976 I studied with trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer. He was one of Barry Harris’ top disciples and had come to New York with Barry in 1960 from Detroit along with Charles McPherson. By that time, when I got with Lonnie, I was already transcribing a lot of Fats Navarro, who was my first love as far as in terms of copying a trumpet player. He had everything. He died so young, but he had everything. A beautiful sound, fantastic lines. He really had it all. Most trumpet players will agree with me. Charlie Parker was very important. Dizzy was too complicated for me at first . I couldn’t even begin to write down what he played. It was too advanced for me. Later I got to it. The trumpet players I was trying to analyze and copy were Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham. I did a lot of transcribing—just tried to take little pieces as building blocks for eventually building a style. I played a lot of rhythm and blues gigs. One of my first gigs in New York was in 1971. It was an after-hours place in Bedford-Stuyvesant. We were covering James Brown tunes. The job was one to five in the morning, Friday and Saturday nights. When the sister club next door closed at 1:00 the whole crowd would go around the corner and up the stairs to this after-hours place. We were doing whatever was popular at that time—James Brown, Cool and the Gang, Wilson Pickett. When the people were dancing, they would extend the tunes and let the trumpet or saxophone play solos. Looking back, that was excellent experience. You couldn’t get over with the crowd by playing a lot of notes or by playing bebop. You had to pick your notes, play something funky, putting the rhythm first. If you’re playing something in this style, the rhythm comes before everything. So it forced you to think that way. That was often valuable later. Rhythm is really the first element.
VOJ: Do you remember the first serious jazz gig you got?
JOHN MARSHALL: I went with Buddy Rich in 1976 and stayed for two years.
VOJ: Can you tell me a little bit about that?
JOHN MARSHALL: I was just knocking around the lower east side, trying to survive. A couple of my friends were already in the band. Buddy needed a fourth trumpet player, and my friends recommended me. There were no auditions or anything like that. You would just show up at a gig and sink or swim. If you didn’t get fired the first week, you might have a shot at staying a while. He’s remembered for those horrible tapes of course, but it was a great experience for me and so many others. Suddenly I was playing with all these wonderful musicians. Like Bob Mintzer, whom I roomed with. Steve Marcus was in the band. And you were working all the time. It was steady roadwork and steady money and of course there’s only one Buddy Rich.
VOJ: What was it like to get to hang out with him?
JOHN MARSHALL: We didn’t hang out. I tried to stay out of his way. I didn’t know quite what to expect of him. He demanded 110% of everyone, as he did of himself. It was a great experience.
VOJ: After you left that band, what was the next step for you?
JOHN MARSHALL: At that time I heard Tom Harrell’s band. It was a ten-piece group he co-led with Sam Jones. It was a short lived group. Neither Tom or Sam really wanted the responsibility of being the band leader. They played a Sunday night gig at a club called Gulliver’s in New Jersey. I heard that group a few times, and subbed on it once or twice. I recorded those gigs on cassette to study later. The way Tom was playing in 1978 was just breathtaking. I figured I needed to get off Buddy Rich’s band, because I was tired of living out of a suitcase, but also to get into a stable situation where I could practice more methodically. So I quit Buddy and then right away auditioned for the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band. The Thad Jones – Mel Lewis band was going out on the road. I didn’t get the gig that time. they went on the road for two months, the end of 1978. That was the tour when Thad got punched in the mouth and decided to stay in Europe and so on. And when he came back, Mel had to continue the band without Thad. I auditioned for the band again, got the gig and I stayed with Mel from January of ‘79 to ‘83. But he kept going on these tours that didn’t pay much, and I was making good money as a utility player with [Lionel] Hampton at that point. I was trying to juggle both gigs, playing with Mel and Hampton. Mel’s music was better—especially the charts—but Lionel Hampton had more steady work, because he had a big name. With him, I even played lead for a while. I don’t know how I did it, in retrospect. I even got to play as a last minute substitute in an all-star band in 1979. That was a big deal for me. Promoter George Wein used to put together Lionel Hampton All-Star Bands for European tours. They would hire, for example, four outstanding soloists as trumpet players. But none of them wanted to do the heavy lifting and play lead. But somebody had to do it. I was hired on short notice when Danny Stiles bailed out of the tour, very possibly because of trepidations about working alongside Cat Anderson, who was a complex character. Suddenly I was in a trumpet section with Doc Cheatham, Wallace Davenport and Cat Anderson. I still remember the whole personnel. In the trombones we had Curtis Fuller, Benny Powell, and Kai Winding. On drums you had Oliver Jackson. Bass, Chubby Jackson—no relation. Wild Bill Davis on organ. Sam Turner on percussion. And the saxophone section was Paul Jeffreys, Arnett Cobb, Ernie Wilkins, Cecil Payne andPaul Moen. To be around these guys was a precious experience. It so happened that the only guys who didn’t really drink were Doc Cheatham and myself, so often we’d be the only ones who’d show up at breakfast. I got to hear amazing stories from him. Most days we ate breakfast together. He was an unforgettable guy. Life went on and I met my wife in ‘82. She moved to New York for me from France. I tried to stay in town more and ended up subbing on Broadway shows and playing more dance gig club dates— anything that would be more local. I ended up being a founding member of a quintet called the Metropolitan Bopera House, which was a real pure bebop band. First led by Danny D’imperio and then later co-led by me and pianist Tardo Hammer. We’d play the Sundays at Eddy Condon’s once a month. Gary Pribek was the first saxophonist, then later, Andy Fusco and Ralph LaLama. In 1988 I toured Europe with Dizzy’s big band. It was the last year he took the classic big band repertoire on the road. In ‘89, he started with the United Nations Orchestra, which was a Latin American thing. 1988 was the last year he took the classic big band charts out. I love Dizzy. I can’t express how much I love him as a person and his musician. He was the most accessible genius you could hope to meet. Just as happy to talk about things with the dishwasher as with the mayor. He was real people. indispensable to the development of the music in so many ways. Around this time I started to think long-term. I’m not a great composer or arranger or educator. I just play the trumpet. Where is this going in 20 or 30 years? So when the chance came to audition for a couple of the German radio bands, I applied. I ended up getting the fifth trumpet gig in Cologne with the WDR Big Band. I auditioned for it a couple times in ‘91 and then joined in ‘92. Now I’m only nine months away from retirement. But I’ve kept busy. I’ve done a lot of quintet tours CDs that I might not have been able to do without the financial basis of the WDR gig, which comprises about 200 days of work a year. It’s a decent life over here when you have a gig like that.
VOJ: What was it like for you to make the transition from New York to Germany, just in general?
JOHN MARSHALL: I was going into this cushy gig. So it was a big move to Germany, but as far as my job, I couldn’t believe how short my work hours were. How they just play some charts for a couple hours and that was it. That was all. You got paid for a whole day’s work like that. Germany… I could write a book about the cultural differences between the United States and Germany.
VOJ: What about the differences in just the jazz scene and people’s approaches?
JOHN MARSHALL: It varies from European country to European country. Germany, I find the real true American jazz tradition hasn’t penetrated as well as it has with other countries. Holland, for example, has embraced it much more. Maybe it’s because in Germany, from 1933 to 1945 there was a separation. A cut-off. And after the war, you didn’t have the musical role models in Germany for jazz that you had in some other countries. The crop of players that were active in the late ‘40s in Holland, for example, were certainly better musical role models than the few guys in Germany. German schools, over the years have promulgated the attitude, “We have our European jazz, we don’t need to emulate anybody or sound like anybody.” Which I think is completely absolutely the wrong approach. I read somewhere that one of Wes Montgomery’s first gigs in Indiana before he moved to New York was to play all theCharlie Christian things and play the solos exactly as Charlie played them, night after night. And it didn’t hurt his playing, did it? someone who says “I don’t want to sound like anybody”, is deluding himself. that way, you’re going to sound like nobody and nobody’s going to want to hear you. It’s as if one said: “I want to be a great novelist. I haven’t read any books other than comic books, but I want to write great novels.” It’s not going to happen. “Well I want to be the greatest painter since Van Gogh. I haven’t looked at any paintings, besides my own…” It’s just not going to happen.
VOJ: I’m totally of the same mindset.
JOHN MARSHALL: It’s just a laziness. It’s an intellectual laziness when the teachers at the conservatories will tell the kids, “Oh, just do your own thing. Just express yourself. Don’t worry about Charlie Parker. That’s old stuff. That’s been done before.” Barry Harris tells people, “If you love this music and you don’t seriously deal with Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, you’ve missed the boat.” I think that’s much more on the mark. I tell students, “If you just play the melodies right, play the notes correctly that Charlie Parker and Bud Powell wrote, there’s so much nuts and bolts—there’s so much building blocks, raw material to build on in terms of hip, harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic shit. That’s a big step forward. Just learn it and play it right and play it exactly. Play it correctly. Don’t just kind of play it. Really get it right. The right chords.” That’s one of my pet peeves. And it’s like Dexter Gordon said in the movie ‘Round Midnight. Your style grows inside you for many years. It’s not like you walk into the supermarket and look at the shelves and say, I’ll take a few of these and a few of that. Now we have so much information and it can lead towards a superficial approach. In the forties musicians would eagerly wait for the next Charlie Parker record. And they would play them over and over again, until they wore them out. It was only a few minutes of music, until they knew every corner of it. Today it’s all a bit too easy.
VOJ: Do you think that your unique personality and playing came as a result of studying other people? Or is something that you’ve put conscious thought into?
JOHN MARSHALL: It takes a long time, developing personality as a person and as a musician. I think it’s normal and probably a good thing when you’re younger to keep your mouth closed and your eyes and your ears open. There’s so much to learn and you really don’t know much. And as time goes on, choose your preferences and style. “Okay, I want my style to go in this direction. I’ll keep this and I discard that.” It’s an editing process. This takes a long time. To have a clear idea of what your style might be or might become. Even to know who you are as a person. I’m much more of a big mouth than when I was younger. I was very shy. I didn’t know anything, and I don’t know that much now. The instrument itself is so daunting. Some days, you feel you’re just starting from scratch to get sufficient technique to do the music justice. Just trying to play clean and find the pretty notes. That’s enough. If I can just do that and play a nice phrase here or there, maybe even one of my own, I’m happy. You have to trust your ears. So much of it today is “Learn this mode, learn this scale, learn this pattern.” It tends too much towards mathematics. All the time spent working with the play-along records is ill-spent. If that time was used to totally absorb the original recordings, it would be wiser. I hear people practicing with the play-along things all the time and I don’t hear if they were playing in a real situation, with a great rhythm section, and weren’t cutting it, they’d face some withering glances, at the least. When you play with those records, the rhythm section is swinging, and it creates an illusion to the young player that he’s swinging too. But he’s not even hooking up with it, them locking into any pocket or anything. They’re skating over the top of it. And rhythmically or harmonically. It creates a false illusion that you’re really with it when you’re not. That’s my opinion. I respect that they put value on practicing with those records, but it was never something that seemed natural to me. It’s like it always seemed like an unnatural act to me. I’ve done it before, but it’s never very satisfying to me. I think the time is better spent with the keyboard, and when you learn a tune, and, if you’re a bad piano player like I am, just goof around with the chords on it until understand the architecture of the tune, by laboring through it on the keyboard. And maybe even learning the words. And the wonderful songwriters! I’m still a huge fan of the great song writers.
VOJ: Any general advice for a young musician who may be thinking of pursuing a career in jazz?
JOHN MARSHALL: Don’t expect to make any money anytime soon! Don’t go into it for the money. We used to say, “If you can play, you play. If you can’t play, you teach.” But that’s not true at all any more. Some of the greatest players I know derive most of their income from music education. Music education—jazz education— it’s a self-perpetuating thing of dubious validity. The best that 90% of these people can hope for is to get a teaching job later, because what playing jobs are there? I knew so many great players in New York—great jazz players—who are laboring away on Broadway, playing eight shows a week. It just seems so crazy to me. Jazz players of that level laboring away at those shows. These days, when I go see some of my favorite guys in NY, they’re playing in bars or restaurants and people are talking loud and maybe only five people are really listening. Everyone else is just talking to their date or having dinner . And all these great jazz players that I want to hear, I travel to New York to be with them, and only five people in the room are listening. If they were playing in Japan or Russia or this place or that place—I’ve been playing a lot in Russia lately—they’d be playing to a large large room of people attentively listening. That’s the irony of New York. Players of sublime ability surviving on the most mundane kinds of jobs. You have this intense concentration of the best and most talented, most advanced jazz players and this very crass, unappreciative atmosphere. America still is not appreciating this incredible music. My role models, they’re all gone now. Bill Hardman, Tommy Turrentine, Charlie Rouse, Junior Cook, Clifford Jordan, George Coleman… just wonderful memories. Cedar Walton, Sam Jones, and Billy Higgins—they called them the magic triangle. I heard that group with all kinds of different horn players. Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon—those were my big influences. It’s a bit too academic and mathematical for me these days. It has to hit me in the heart first, then my head later. Like Bob Brookmeyer once said, “The first things that attract you to a player are great sound and great time. Everything else after that.” If you hear somebody and the sound is not attractive and the time is not attractive, you’re not interested—you’re already tuning out. Sound is paramount. Sound is your soul—the mirror of your soul. If you really care about the music, you’re enraptured by trying to capture the special sound that is in your head. That’s the whole thing. We’re all emulating the human voice, ultimately. When you’re trying to play something beautiful, if you care about it, it’s a beautiful song. Maybe you’re thinking about how Frank Sinatra sang it, or some other great singer. And then time. I think Tom Harrell is a fantastic example. An absolutely unbelievable talent. Genius. I’ve heard mediocre records that Tom was on, and just the way he played the rhythm of the melody made the whole record sound good. His time was so happening. He could even make bad music sound good. Certain melodies of certain records. It’s a mediocre tune. But when he’s in there playing the melody on the trumpet, all of a sudden it sounds good.
VOJ: So let me ask you, what do you think it is about jazz that keeps you interested?
JOHN MARSHALL: It’s never the same. Look at rock music. What’s different about it from night to night? A jazz solo is a guy telling a new story every night. The classical guys are beautiful, but their job is to play it exactly the same way every time. With jazz you have a story—you’re going to be surprised by the guy next to you, by what he has to add to it, by the story he is telling. You’re going get inspired, and add something of your own as well. You’re telling a new story, every time you play the same tune. How many times did Charlie Parker play Ornithology? Each take was astounding. Charlie Parker with strings, live at the Apollo. Three shows from the same day. Four tunes. Twelve takes. Four tunes, three shows, and it’s astounding how he tells a completely different story over this arrangement. That’s jazz. That’s the genius of jazz. That kind of creation.