Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Marsh, Warne (Marion)

Tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh was a true original, but his legacy has long been obscured by the shadow cast by his mentor, pianist Lennie Tristano. However, his work has since caught the ear of a new generation, and has created a quiet revolution in the work of musicians like saxophonist Mark Turner and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.

Warne Marion Marsh was born on October 26, 1927 in Los Angeles, California into a well-to-do Hollywood family. His father, Oliver, was a well-known cinematographer, and his mother Elizabeth was a classically trained violinist who performed in film orchestras.

His mother recognized three-year-old Warne’s talent, when he was able to pick out melodies on the piano. In junior high school, he played tenor saxophone as well as the bass clarinet and tuba. His interest in jazz had not yet sparked, and so he intended to become a studio musician, a typical path for instrumentalists in Hollywood.

Young Warne had a strained relationship with his father, who was an alcoholic and displayed no interest in music. When Oliver Marsh died in 1941, his thirteen-year-old son displayed little emotion, marking the beginnings of a stoicism and detached nature which persisted throughout his adult life.

In fact, in later years, some called his solos cold and unemotional, underscoring the difference between the way his playing was perceived and his philosophy of music, which centered on emotional freedom and expression. His concept of expressive freedom stemmed from theapproach pioneered by Lennie Tristano, the pianist and educator who became a towering figure in Marsh’s musical and personal life.

Shortly after his father’s death, Marsh began practicing for eight to twelve hours a day. He learned solos off of jazz records, including Coleman Hawkins’s “Body and Soul” and Ben Webster’s “Cottontail.”

Marsh’s first gigs around L.A. were with ensembles comprised of young talents whose selling points were not merely their musical ability, but also their youth and good looks. The first of these groups was a big band known as the Hollywood Canteen Kids. Marsh later joined the Teen-Agers, which became the house band for a weekly radio show hosted by songwriter Hoagy Carmichael.

Despite his early success, Marsh became bored with the Los Angeles music scene, as it was geared towards commercialism rather than artistic experimentation. He enrolled in the University of Southern California for less than a year, then left to join the army in 1946. He was stationed in Virginia, where he played saxophone in the Second Group Special Services Band.

In the army, Marsh developed a reputation as a quick study with a broad harmonic knowledge. He dedicatedly studied the improvisations of Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and frequented jam sessions where he and fellow army musicians played in the bebop style, which was gaining popularity.

In 1947, Marsh was transferred to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. He frequently took a bus to Manhattan, where he listened rapturously to Charlie Parker and also began to study with Lennie Tristano, who had a strict teaching method and held weekly jam sessions at his home studio.

At age twenty, Marsh was discharged from the army and moved back to California. There he gigged with L.A.'s top jazz musicians, but he longed for the more stimulating New York scene. He made his way back during a tour with drummer Buddy Rich’s big band. Upon returning to New York, Marsh began to perform with Tristano and his most advanced students, among them alto saxophonist Lee Konitz.

The style created by Tristano, Konitz and Marsh is virtuosic and refined, with advanced melodic and rhythmic concepts. When compared to bebop, it sounds subdued, and draws from influences outside of the jazz tradition, including modern classical music such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Hindemith. Barry Ulanov, editor of the jazz magazine Metronome, was an early champion of the style and its main performers, although Marsh's contributions were often overlooked.

Aside from Ulanov, few critics were fond of the music. That, coupled with Tristano and Marsh’s abhorrence of commercialism, meant that performing opportunities were rare. In spite of this, they did make some landmark recordings in the late 1940s. These include the album “Intuition,” recorded by a sextet for Capitol in 1949.

Most of the tunes on this album, such as "Wow," are traditional in terms of harmony, but display rhythmic and melodic inventiveness in the heads and solos. Also, two tracks, the title track “Intuition” and “Digression” are completely improvised, with no predetermined harmonic or formal structure. These performances use the same principles that were later associated with tenor saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the “free jazz” movement, although they precede that style by almost a decade.

Despite a lack of critical and popular attention, leading musicians recognized Marsh as a great player. Bebop musicians such as Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Roy Haynes, and Max Roach sometimes attended Tristano’s jam sessions, where they heard Marsh and his peers use fresh approaches to improvisation.

The Tristano Quintet recorded a live set in Toronto in 1952, which includes one of Marsh's favorite tunes, "Out of Nowhere." Marsh and Konitz later joined forces without Tristano to record a memorable album in 1955, which includes "Topsy"

This constant activity brought Marsh renown amongst jazz musicians for his clear and concise playing, with each phrase improvised with precision and direction. According to Tristano, when Charlie Parker heard Marsh play, he exclaimed, “you watch that kid: he’s got it.” However, he never achieved a level of public acclaim or recognition to match the admiration he inspired in musicians.

Throughout the 1950s, Marsh was between New York and California. His moves from New York were mainly motivated by a lack of public recognition, and his unwillingness to stay in California was perhaps due to a degree of success that in turn motivated him to try New York again.

In Los Angeles he performed and recorded with the top west coast musicians, including alto saxophonist Art Pepper. In 1956, the two recorded the tracks that were later be released as Art Pepper with Warne Marsh on a Japanese label in 1972. Eventually his association with Pepper crumbled, probably due to Marsh’s passivity as a bandleader.

He began to long for the intensity of the New York scene, and returned to the city in 1957. Back in New York, Marsh reestablished his relationship with Tristano. He recorded a solo album, Warne Marsh, for Atlantic and a memorable live set at New York's Half Note with Konitz in 1959, which included "Subconscious-Lee." He also recorded as a sideman to Konitz in 1959 on a memorable session with another saxophone original, Jimmy Giuffre, which included tracks such as "Palo Alto."

Marsh was at the height of his talent, but was still virtually unrecognized by the press. Unlike Konitz, he was never able to break away from Tristano's thrall and establish his own public persona, which surely would have helped his record sales and career. He went unmentioned in Down Beat and Metronome polls of 1961, the year he headed back to California.

The period between 1961 and 1969 was one of little progress. Marsh spent the first few years living in his mother’s home and hardly made an effort to perform music. He and his wife Geraldyne briefly moved to New York to live at Lennie Tristano’s home in Jamaica, Queens. While living there, Marsh worked at a factory and occasionally performed with his mentor. Soon however, Marsh was back in California, where he joined pianist Clare Fischer’s big band, and extra money by cleaning swimming pools.

In 1969, Marsh recorded Ne Plus Ultra, the fruit of collaborations with alto saxophonist Gary Foster, which was well-received. In 1972, he joined Supersax, a group that performed arrangements of transcribed Charlie Parker solos, such as "Ko Ko," orchestrated for a full saxophone section, trumpet, and rhythm section.

The group won a Grammy Award for its first record, Supersax Plays Bird, and was met with a favorable reception from both critics and audiences. From 1974 to 1976, Marsh enjoyed the greatest commercial success of his career, leading his own group on European tours, playing for audiences whose enthusiasm went far beyond that which was displayed in the U.S.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Marsh continued to perform, albeit with a level of passivity. He recorded an album of ballads for Criss Cross in 1983 which contained Carmichael's haunting "The Nearness of You," and reunited with his mentor Tristano in 1984 to record a live set at New York's Half Note, which included "Background Music." He also frequently played at L.A.’s Donte’s jazz club. On December 18, 1987, while performing “Out of Nowhere,” he collapsed on stage and died shortly thereafter.

Warne Marsh's legacy and contributions to jazz remain a source of debate. While his solos are indisputably works of sheer intellect and refined musical concept, the question of emotional expression still comes up. It’s not clear whether doubt of his expressive qualities stems from his actual playing or because of the detached air he conveyed to audiences.

Also, the fact that he rarely composed, and for the most part recorded and performed a very limited repertoire throughout his career, means that his legacy is only that of a stylist, and one whose full range of talents could have been better documented.

What is evident is that his unique language of improvised rhythmic experimentation, subtle gestures, and graceful melodies marked a departure from the formulaic lexicon of bebop in his day, and paved the way for some of today’s most creative jazz artists, including Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, who recorded this homage to Marsh in 1995, to stake out their own new territory in turn.

Discography as Leader:

In Copenhagen Storyville, 2007

Warne Marsh 3D, 2005

Marshlands Storyville, 2003

Ballad Album Criss Cross, 1983

Star Highs Criss Cross, 1982

Crosscurrents Original Jazz Classics, 1977

Live In Las Vegas, 1962 Naked City, 1962

Flowering/Warne Marsh Collectables,1958

Live At Dana Point, 1957 VSOP, 1957

Music For Prancing VSOP, 1957

Contributor: Jacob Teichroew