Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Mysterious Michael Marmarosa - [aka] Dodo Marmarosa

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

As was the case with pianist Al Haig, who was the subject of a recent feature on these pages, Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa was another excellent pianist from Bebop’s early days who left the New York scene and faded into obscurity. Although, unlike Al, who remained in music albeit somewhat “stage left” of the major developments in Jazz, Dodo returned to his native Pittsburgh and seemingly just vanished.

Thankfully, Dr. Robert Sunenblick, the owner-operator of Uptown Music, a label that records Jazz artists who are deserving of wider recognition while also specializing in discovering “lost tapes” and obscure live recordings, found Dodo alive and well in Pittsburgh and interviewed him in 1995.

Dr. Sunenblick’s interview with Dodo forms a portion of the insert notes to Uptown’s Dodo Marmarosa: Pittsburgh, 1958 [[UPCD 27.44] which is made up of live performances by Dodo and his trio which were recorded at the Midway Lounge in Pittsburgh, PA. It also includes music from Dodo’s appearance on local television program entitled Jazz Scene, an appearance at the University of Pittsburgh Student Union and some private recordings that Dodo made as part of a quintet of local Jazz musicians.

A lot of well-known jazz pianists came from Pittsburgh - Earl Mines, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Horace Parlan, Sonny Clark, and Johnny Costa (and Billy Strayhorn - if one counts him as a pianist). Perhaps the most unusual story involves Michael ‘Dodo' Marmarosa, who in 1946-47 was everyone's favorite pianist out on the West Coast. When the recording ban (1948) caused the L.A. jazz scene to fizzle, most of the beboppers headed East to New York City. Marmarosa went back to Pittsburgh, and, except for a fleeting appearance in Chicago in the early sixties, was never heard from again.

Serious medical problems was the cause given by most writers to explain his absence from the national scene. Leonard Feather described "the slow slide into obscurity as spelled P-I-T-T-S-B-U-R-G-H." Dodo did go back to family and stability (Pittsburgh); nevertheless, he continued playing regularly and became prominent locally. Feather described him as one of "the great Might Have Beens." But he was there in Pittsburgh for the finding - and occasion-ally there was even a blurb in the Downbeat calendar (Strictly Ad Lib). Once a musician is out of the national spotlight, the press exposure and the recordings stop, and Dodo 'disappeared’.

Always unassuming, unable to appreciate his creativity or brilliance, two events in the 1950's almost brought about his real disappearance - his wife leaving him (with the resultant loss' of his two daughters) and a short, but harrowing Army experience in 1954 where he was drafted, labeled crazy, hospitalized, given shock treatments, and then discharged three months later. Back home, Dodo became even more remote. He lived day-to-day, seeking no gigs on his own - jobs came because a friend would call him (especially Danny Conn). But he practiced continually, his entire world revolving around the piano. Full of self-doubts, he was unable to share his music - on some nights if you were there and heard him that was enough - no questions, no compliments, no requests, no encores. On other nights, he was very congenial. His family, first generation Italian, rejected any professional help, looking upon this as a stigma.

During 1946-47, Marmarosa was among the most recorded musicians in L.A. He was frequently present when the small post-war record labels had sessions (Atomic, IRRA, Dial, Beltone, Sunset, Down Beat, Keynote). His versatility and exceptional reading abilities led musicians of varying styles to seek him out - Charlie Parker (twice), Benny Carter, Willie Smith, Lester Young, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson, Howard McGhee, Barney Kessel, and even Slim Gaillard. In addition to appearing with the L.A.-based Boyd Raeburn Orchestra, he was often on the bill of Gene Norman's large extravagant concerts (Just Jazz) in Pasadena. Dial and Atomic Records even recorded him as a leader (the Dials coming out several years later on an early 10 inch LP, Piano Moods). But the session that brought the young pianist the most attention was the March 28, 1946 Dial date with Charlie Parker (Ornithology,Night In Tunisia, Yardbird Suite, Moose The Mooche). In early 1947, Esquire magazine included him (along with Miles Davis and Lucky Thompson from the same session) among their New Star awards. This prestigious honor in a widely circulated publication placed him among the top piano stylists of the day (the jazz writers polled by Esquire also chose among their New Stars, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stiff, and Sarah Vaughan!).

When he left Pittsburgh at age 16, he was a fully-formed classically trained pianist. At age 9, his parents thought they had the next boy classical genius, but Dodo started listening to jazz over the radio. He ran into Erroll Garner (who attended a different high school), and together they practiced, exchanged ideas, and would often hang out at the home of Tootsie Davis, an older pianist who provided encouragement and guidance.

After a few local appearances (with Brad Hunt's society orchestra and with vocalist/guitarist Billy Yates), Dodo joined the Johnny ‘Scaf Davis band. Dodo's father literally dragged people to his house to hear his son play. When lead trumpeter Jimmy Pupa (who had made his reputation with Red Nichols and Bunny Berigan, and was with Davis at the time) heard Dodo, he recommended him. As was wont in those times, the wartime draft made it very difficult for bands to maintain personnel, and bands with more financial backing frequently raided other bands seeking musicians. Within months, Gene Krupa raided the Davis band, hiring most of the musicians, including Dodo, but soon after, the band broke up when Krupa was arrested and jailed for marijuana possession.

Dodo, Jimmy Pupa, and Buddy DeFranco (from the Davis band) made a pact which meant, according to Pupa, that "if one of us got hired on a good band, we would see to it that the rest of us got hired too." After Krupa, they joined in succession the bands of Ted Fio Rito, Charlie Barnet and Tommy Dorsey. With Krupa and Dorsey, Dodo was featured in small groups. (After Krupa's release from prison, Dorsey re-united the original group - Krupa, DeFranco, Dodo - for a V Disc session). Charlie Barnet also highlighted the young pianist on a Decca recording when he renamed the Ralph Burns' composition Dick Tracy Liquidates 88 Keys, The Moose (“The Moose” was another name Barnet called Marmarosa).

In late 1944, Dodo joined the high-profile Artie Shaw big band and obtained national exposure through the many recordings for RCA Victor and Musicraft, especially the hot combo within the band, The Grammercy Five. Although the small group recorded only 6 sides (also featuring Roy Eldridge and Barney Kessel) the records became very popular on the radio. Shaw disbanded in Los Angeles in November 1945, and Dodo stayed out on the West Coast, joining Boyd Raeburn. Raeburn led a large experimental band which provided an outlet for adventurous composers, arrangers and young musicians. During a typical concert, in the middle of the impressionistic George Handy compositions and sultry vocals by Ginnie Powell, Marmarosa was introduced to play a few solo pieces.

A post-war population boom occurred in Los Angeles with the migration of many southern Blacks to the new factory and shipyard jobs. Little jazz clubs sprung up everywhere with the focus being on Central Avenue in south L.A. and the chic Billy Berg's supperclub in Hollywood. Musicians of all styles made the migration, but the new music, bebop, was introduced by its flag-bearers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker when they opened at Billy Berg's in December 1945. Parker spent much of 1946-47 (although he was hospitalized 6 months from July 46 - Jan. 47) on the West Coast, leaving in April 1947. Jazz promoters Gene Norman (Just Jazz) and Norman Granz (JATP) booked large auditoriums for all-star concerts. Marmarosa was at the center of this activity. He lived in a little two-story house in a working class neighborhood in Hollywood, practiced continually on his rented Steinway upright, wrote music and dreamed. He painted the inside of his bathtub green (to resemble the South Seas) and waited for the next call. He made a lot of recordings, but interestingly never worked with any of the leaders who called him (except for Lester Young, Wardell Gray and Benny Carter). He made the rounds of the after-hours clubs, and even appeared as a solo feature at both Billy Berg's and the 400 Club (on Western Ave.) in Hollywood. And then James Petrillo, the autocratic head of the American Federation of Musicians called for a recording ban, and it all slowly ground to a halt.

Dodo returned to Pittsburgh and played local gigs until the late 1960’s when he “retired” from making public appearances. His last gig was as a solo pianist at the Colony Restaurant in his home town. The owner of the restaurant really cared for Dodo and picked him up and drove him to the gig every night.

Dodo died in 2002.

INTERVIEW conducted by Robert Sunenblick, MD with Michael “Dodo” Marmorosa


RS: How did you get the name Dodo?

Dodo: When I was a little kid, my parents used to ask me, "What's your name?", and I couldn't say Michael. They gave me the name Michael. I don't know why. So, I ended up with Dodo. It stuck with me. I started playing and everybody called me that. So I said, well, I didn't really like the name, but...

RS: The Moose was a name that Charlie Barnet made up for you [based on a song title]?

Dodo: Ya

RS: Did band members call you Moose?

Dodo: Ya, they used to call me Moose.

RS: The real name of the song was Dick Tracy Liquidates 88 Keys?

Dodo: Just The Moose. You know Ralph Burns, the great arranger. He wrote it for
himself and then he left the band and then I joined. Barnet said Well, Dick Tracy
Liquidates 88 Keys is no good, we will call it The Moose. It wouldn't fit on the label.

RS: Erroll Garner...You knew him when you were in high school? Dodo: Right

RS: And you used to go down to Tootsie Davis’ house and you used to practice?

Dodo: Right

RS: Who was Tootsie Davis?

Dodo: He was a piano player. I don't know what he did for a living. I think he was on welfare or something. He and his wife lived in a house and we would go there in the afternoon, four o'clock… after I got out of school... I would listen most of the time... The first time I ever heard any jazz was when Erroll played. I studied classical piano, and one time I ran into him. I met Erroll and he played for me. It's the beginning of my influence in jazz... what started me out. I said, "Erroll, that's good. I want to play."

RS: Who were some of the influences that...I mean everybody gets asked this thing...

Dodo: You mean piano?

RS: Ya.. .or even somebody that wasn't a piano player that sort of influenced you?

Dodo: Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins,

Chu Berry, Benny Carter...

RS:You recorded with Benny Carter didn't you?

Dodo: I worked with him. That's one group I did work with in Hollywood. Billy Berg's [club].

RS: What role did Art Tatum or Teddy Wilson or Bud Powell have on your piano?

Dodo: I used to listen to their records. Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, and Billie Holiday's group, you know the group they had with Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge…

RS: Was Art Tatum one of the people that influenced you?

Dodo: I used to listen to all his records. I used to buy his records. Had a little record store on Broad Street where the Hunting and Fishing Club is. When I was going to high school, they used to have a little record store in there, and I used to have a little money. My Dad would allow me so much spending money. I was just starting out listening to jazz and I used to go in and get records of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday. And those records like that and they influenced me, naturally. They influenced everybody. Dodo: Benny Goodman's quartet records were marvelous. I used to listen to them with Johnny Guarnieri and Artie Bernstein, I think was the bass player, and I don't know the drummer, Nick Fatool. They made some good recordings. Air Mail Special and Poor Butterfly and The Sheik. Guarnieri was a great piano player. He had a wild left hand. He played something I could never do, something I could play with two hands, he could play with his left hand. Halleluiah. Have you ever heard of that record? I could never do that 'cause it takes time to get from here to there, and I thought how the hell does this guy do that. It always amazed me how he did that. It sounds reasonable, you know. You play the roots and then you have to play a chord. It takes time to get from here to there.

RS: The first trio recording you were in was the Krupa one, wasn't it? Dodo: VDisc. Liza and The Man I Love, Hodge Podge.

RS: I thought there were just two songs?

Dodo: There were four all together. Three or four songs. I think probably 4.

RS: Was there also a trio within Tommy Dorsey's band?

Dodo: Quartet. Buddy Rich, Buddy DeFranco, Sidney Block, and myself.

RS: And on the live performance, he would feature the quartet?

Dodo: Yes. That was good, boy. Buddy Rich, he was something else, great drummer, the greatest. Buddy, he'd just gotten out of the Marines. Nobody liked him, but I got along good with him. I don't know, maybe I shouldn't have said that. He was hard to make friends with or something, but we got to be real good friends. We drove around in his car. He used to take me out in his convertible. Mel Torme was with us. We used to go out to the beach, drive around, you know. Buddy was something else. Then he got his own band. They were playing the Palladium one night. I went there after he got his own band.

RS: The Lester Young recording, how did that come about?

Dodo: Well, I was staying at a hotel in Hollywood, and I went back to my hotel in the morning and they said there's a note for you from Lester Young. He wants you to be at the Radio Recorders at 11 in the morning, the record date. So I thought... I went to my room lor a while and rested. I went at 11 o'clock and met him In the recording room. He was sitting in the corner, you know, he was sitting all by himself and said, “OK, play these tunes in E-flat..."

RS: Was Freddy Green on that recording?

Dodo: No

RS: How did the Charlie Parker thing come about?

Dodo: Same way., He called me for a date. I had an apartment, a small house. I just got calls from different people and they would ask me to make a date. I stayed there about three or four years and did lots of recording dates.

RS: When was the first time you met Charlie Parker? Was it because Dizzy sat in one night with Charlie Barnet? Did that ever happen?

Dodo: Ya, I think so. Dizzy played a couple of shows with Barnet when I first met him. We got to be pretty good friends. I used to go up to 52nd Street and listen to these guys play and he was playing the Downbeat. I'd go and listen to Erroll Gamer. I was playing with Artie [Shaw’s orchestra] and I'd go up and listen to Erroll Garner. He was playing with, I forget he had a trio. I'd go up there, have a few drinks, and listen you know, and then they said, "Here's the Downbeat." I went over to the Onyx club, Ben Webster was playing across the street at the Onyx club. I used to go over and listen to him and then I went over to the Downbeat a couple of times. Diz was playing over there. He had a couple of other guys and they asked me to sit in one night. They played, "Sweet Georgia Brown" in really fast tempo. I couldn't keep up. I was playing all kinds... some things playing half-time instead of playing four beats. That's pretty fast.

RS: After the Charlie Parker recording, did you ever play with him live at the Finale Club?

Dodo: No

RS: So it was just a recording and you never played with him live?

Dodo: No

RS: And then after that it seems like there was a group with Howard McGhee and
Teddy Edwards. Did you play with them at the Finale Club?

Dodo: I never played there,  no.

RS: But you had a group with Lucky Thompson, is that correct?

Dodo: A recording. We never worked. The only one I ever worked with was
Lester. We worked for one week, three days, or something like that. I forgot
where we played. I think it was San Diego. I'm not sure...
RS: Did you ever play live with Slim Gaillard?

Dodo: Recordings

RS: Wardell Gray?

Dodo: Ya, I may have played with him.

RS: What about Barney Kessel?

Dodo: He played on my recordings.

RS: When you got back from the West Coast the only band you joined around that time was Artie Shaw? Is that correct?

Dodo: Ya, in 1949...I think it was

RS: For how long?

Dodo: About a couple of weeks.

RS: And they broke up?

Dodo: No, no, they didn't break up. I got drunk when I was playing in the Officer's Club and I broke some windows. I pushed a plate glass window. I was drunk... they said, "You're subversive... or something like that. I'm going to have to let you go. I don't want to, but you will get me in trouble if I keep you on the band. It was a good band, a swinging band. Al Cohn would play tenor in that band, DonFagerquist [trumpet]...

RS: What about that recording that took place with Jazz Wallace and Thomas Mandrus.

Dodo: Let's see... They called me at home and said, "Do you want to make a date with your own group," and I said, "OK", so he said, "You take your musicians and go Sunday." The guy who supervised the recording... his name was Bass... Ralph Bass. I think it was if I’m not mistaken.

RS: Was that originally done for Savoy Records? They recorded it?

Dodo: They recorded it in Pittsburgh. New York label I think. They sent a man in to supervise the recording. Hyde? George Hyde.

RS: Did you ever play anywhere with Jazz Wallace or Tom Mandrus?

Dodo: I played with Tom Mandrus. Never worked anywhere with Jazz Wallace.

RS: How did he get picked for the date?

Dodo: I knew of him. Joe Wallace. They used to call him Jazz, right. Marvelous, he's still going.

RS: Did you ever get to New York City after you came back from California? You went to Chicago, but did you ever go to New York?

Dodo: When I first came back that's when I joined Artie's band. I went to New York. It was in 1949. We ployed a couple of one-nighters in Maine and Canada.

RS: Which place in Canada?

Dodo: Montreal, I think. I think we played there or we just stopped there. We were in a big hotel and all kinds of clothes.I had never seen a place as beautiful... really nice.

RS: The last place you ever played was the Colony Restaurant?

Dodo: Ya

RS: Did you ever play after that professionally, in any clubs, festivals,
anything like that?

Dodo: No

RS: When you made the Argo recording and you picked a lot of those tunes, I guess Leonard Feather made some remark about the kinds of tunes you picked.
Dodo: He wasn't too fond of it. Well, I didn't pick all of them. Jack Tracy was the producer. I improvised a little thing they called, Tracy's Blues, or I suggested they call it that...minor thing.

RS: So he picked some of those tunes, April Plays The Fiddle, Me And My Shadow, Why Do I Love  You.

Dodo: No, Why Do I Love You was my choice.

RS: The album opens with Mellow Mood. That's beautiful.

Dodo: Well, I wrote that when I was 14 years old.

RS: You recorded that more than once, didn't you?

Dodo: Yes, with Jackie Mills, I'd forgotten it for a long time, of course. I never had the introduction for it. Sorta weird introduction. Just sorta came to me... Fourth of minor, Fourth minor, minor, major... than a major on 5th and said, well that would be good. It was a nice record. It wasn't real modern or anything.

RS: Did you ever join Johnny ‘Scaf Davis again?

Dodo: Ohya.

RS: When was that?

Dodo: In I960, around there sometime. I don't remember how It came about. Let's see. I was in Chicago. I was staying on the North side, and I got a call from somebody. Bass player, I think it was and he said, "You want to come out and join 'Scat's' band? Come out and listen to us play. They were in another part of town. I heard the band. They had a piano player and he left the band, and I joined the next night, for about a month and a half, two months, or something I like that.

RS: Tell me about being in Chicago.

Dodo: I went there with Tubby (Vitullo). We had a big apartment, two beds in each room. Tubby and I shared one room and the bass player Murray Horn and Jerry Morris, the drummer in the 'Scat' quartet. .. Tubby used to go around town and everything. He'd drive me in my car. I had a little 1950 Ford, and he'd drive me to work and then he'd take the car and there was plenty of gas in it. He didn't have any money or anything, but I just took him along 'cause he was a good buddy of mine. If he wanted to go on a vacation, I'd say come along with me and we'd go to Chicago. We'd start off, I'd say, "We'll go to the coast, you know, 'cause I wanted to see my wife and kids. When I got married, we moved to California and we got separated and all that and I went back to Pittsburgh. I wanted to go back out there to see them, so I'd say, "Come out with me," and he'd help me drive. I said, "You don't need any money." I had all the money. I gave him half of the money to put in his pocket. I kept the other half, so at least he had some money and then he’d pay for the gas or I'd pay for the food. You know, back and forth. Make him feel like it was... He was a good guy.

RS: How far did you get?

Dodo: We got near Chicago and he was driving and he said, I don't think this car is going go make it." He said, "I think we better go up to Chicago." I said, "Okay, you know about cars more than I do. If you say it won't make it, it won't make it." So we went up to Chicago on the North side. We got a hotel room together and we got this little place... you know where... Sir Gants is in Chicago? On the North side. I guess he'd probably been there before 'cause he knew where it was or something and I think I got a job playing in the bar. I played there a while and I had a good time and then Tubby moved east to his own apartment over at the St. Lawrence Hotel. He got a job working in a shoe store, and then I got the job with 'Scat Davis in the country somewhere. It was a big night club. It had just opened. I drove out with Murray the bass player and I let Tubby have the car. We had a good time. It was a good experience.

RS: How did the Argo recording come about?

Dodo: Joe Segal drove me out. He had to go somewhere. He drove me out from downtown Chicago to Sir Gants. He said I'll pick you up. That was the night I got drunk, drinking all this wine. I was supposed to have a job and then he said we're going to have some recordings. I didn't get the job 'cause I acted like a damn fool, but I was drunk, you know. If I was sober, I'd never think of doing such a thing. But this wine, boy. I can't drink wine worth nothing. (Note: Sir Gants was a restaurant/bar on the North side of Chicago.)

RS: So when he called the recording and you got in the studio, had you ever seen Richard Evans or Marshall Thompson before?

Dodo: No, no.

RS: He's tasty isn't he, Marshall Thompson

Dodo: Oh, beautiful. Richard Evans, beautiful bass player. I was very happy with that day. A lot of people didn't like it, but a lot of: people told me I thought you were good. It's not real modern or anything like that. I was trying to be a little on the commercial side you know. Sometimes you play too far out and people don't understand it. I wanted to get some gigs out of it. Get the record out and get some good gigs out of it. But I'm sort of happy with it.

Dodo: I wrote a lyric to Mellow Mood. I never had a lyric, but I wrote a lyric to it. Tell me what you think of this lyric.

There's a moon on high
There's a reason why
It's a Mellow Moon
Way up high.

It's a night in June
There's a lovely tune
It's A Mellow Moon. I put in
Moon instead of Mood.

This night in June
Stars up in the sky
Know the reason why
Skies are blue
Rain begins to fall
There's no moon at all
Let the raindrops fall
I could care at all

When the moon's on high
Everyone stops to sigh
It's a Mellow Moon, Mellow Moon.

RS: Do you remember being on the TV program with Danny (Conn)?

Dodo: It was after the Argo recording. It hadn't been released yet. It was released the next year. (On the TV program), We played Devil Moon and I played the first part twice. It was wrong the way I played it. Before the TV show, we had a rehearsal in the afternoon and then we went out to get something to eat and came back and we were in a different state of mind. Then we did a thing on Gone With The Wind. And Dodo's Blues. I didn't put that name on it. Dodo's Blues is the one I wrote on the other side of Mellow Mood, the original, the first one with Jackie Mills and Ray Brown on Atomic Records.”

The following video features Dodo along with Richard Evans on bass and Marshall Thompson on drums on Why Do I Love You?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the wonderfully informative post! I first heard Marmorosa's music on a New World complilation LP back in the early 1980s (here are the liner notes; sadly, the album is unavailable on CD or as a digital download.

    Joe Segal is still around today. He and his son Wayne run the world-renowned Jazz Showcase here in Chicago. Joe is known for his acerbic musician introductions, which invariably skewer rock and hip hop (which he calls "hip hops and rap crap", much to the chagrin of younger musicians).

    Keep up the good work!


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