Friday, February 2, 2018

Charlie Mariano: Jazz Saxophonist - A Career Overview [1923 - 2009]

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

“I don’t know any Jazzman who has as good a sense of melodic development in his solos as Charlie.  The lines he finds!  And he’s so warm.”
- Shelly Manne
I’ve always had a special fondness for combos with a trumpet and alto saxophone “front-line.” Perhaps this was because one of the first Jazz groups I ever worked with had this configuration.
I liked the brightness of the brass and crackling sound of the higher register alto saxophone, especially when paired with a trumpet.
The combination just sounds so hip.
But I had no idea how brilliant this pairing could sound until I encountered it in the form of Stu Williamson on trumpet and Charlie Mariano on alto saxophone.
Stu and Charlie were on the first Contemporary LP that I ever bought at my neighborhood record shop. The rhythm section was Russ Freeman on piano, Leroy Vinnegar on bass and, of course, Shelly on drums.
Entitled Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 5: More Swingin’ Sound [Contemporary S-7519, OJCCD-320-2], it was recorded on July 16th and August 15-16, 1956 and, as I was to learn later, it was a sequel of sorts to Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 4: Swingin’ Sounds [Contemporary S-3516, OJCCD-267-2] recorded on January 19, 26 and February 2, 1956..

Charlie, along with Stu Williamson, would also stay with Shelly’s quintet for Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 7: The Gambit [Contemporary S-7557; OJCCD 1007-2], recorded on January 14, July 17, and 25, 1957 to which he contributed an extended, 4-part suite named after the chess move in the album title. Monty Budwig takes over for Leroy Vinnegar in the bass chair on Vol. 7.

In his masterful and definitive West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960, Ted Gioia had this to say about Charlie’s extended composition - The Gambit [paragraphing modified]:

“In January 1957, Manne's quintet returned to Contemporary's studio in Los Angeles to record another extended composition, this one written by group member Charles Mariano. The new piece, "The Gambit," was another four-movement work in the same vein as the earlier "Quartet."

The band was the same — except for the substitution of Monty Budwig for Leroy Vinnegar— as the one that had tackled the first Holman extended work. The similarity between the two works, however, stops there.

While Holman had used blues structures as the essential foundations of his work, Mariano's work is more harmonically and rhythmically complex — which perhaps explains why the group needed three recording sessions to tape the nineteen-minute composition — with more obvious ties to the European classical heritage.

The first movement, "Queen's Pawn," starts with a mock processional that moves through a series of shifting meters, finally settling into a relaxed 6/4 for the solos. The second movement, "En Passant," builds off a series of static harmonies, first basing Mariano's somewhat "outside" solo on a repeated vamp. The piece then shifts into a minor drone behind Williamson's trumpet solo. The third movement, "Castling," opens with an unaccompanied counterpoint duet between Mariano and Williamson, which evolves into another shifting meter pattern in which 4/ 4 alternates with a subdivided 8/8. The movement closes with a restatement of the coronation march that opened the work. The final section, "Checkmate," starts with Manne soloing on mallets in a slow 3/4 meter; Freeman, Mariano, Williamson, and Budwig gradually enter, setting up rhythmic variations in the still restrained tempo, until a sudden leap into a fast 4/4 underlines extended solos for each of the band members. This section ends as suddenly as it began with an unexpected and brief restatement of the opening processional.”
Shelly kept this version of The Men together for about two years until Charlie Mariano made the decision to move back to his native Boston, MA in 1958.
Nat Hentoff has described the music by this band as “ … lean, angular, rhythmically probing, and emotionally striking in a hard unsentimental way.”
The music on Vols. 4, 5 and 7 by Shelly group with Stu and Charlie in the front-line was fresh, crisp and clean as was much of Southern California in the 1950s. To use a friend’s favorite phrase: it was “happy, joyous and free.”
Richard Cook and Brian Morton writing in the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th edition reflected that the recording contained – “…excellent early material from a notably light and vibrant band fronted by the underrated Stu Williamson and the always inventive Charlie Mariano. … Shelly played as soft as he ever did, and with great control on the mallets.”
Three things about the music on Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 5: More Swingin’ Sound [Contemporary S-7519, OJCCD-320-2] and the other albums featuring the Williamson - Mariano front line struck me immediately and forcefully: [1] Shelly Manne’s use of timpani mallets, [2] the luminous trumpet work of Stu Williamson who also plays valve trombone surprisingly well and, most of all, the plaintive wail that was so much a part of Charlie Mariano’s alto saxophone tone.
“Soulful” would become a word that was used often in relationship to Jazz, but nothing I ever heard then or now is as soulful as Charlie’s playing on these recordings.

Working backwards, I also caught up to Charlie great solo on Stella by Starlight on Stan Kenton’s 1956 Contemporary Concepts [Capitol Jazz 7234 5 42310 2 5] and followed his career quite avidly when he and his then wife Toshiko Akiyoshi put a quartet together that lasted over 7 years.

Here’s an overview of Charlie’s career.
Charlie Mariano: Jazz saxophonist
The alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano had two distinctly different musical personalities. On the one hand he was an incisive bebop soloist who extended the ideas of Charlie Parker with skill and panache, contributing to many recordings with Stan Kenton, Shelly Manne and the bands of his former wife Toshiko Akiyoshi. On the other he was a restless musical explorer whose style was difficult to categorize, investigating Eastern music and learning to play the “nagasvaram”, fusing Indian music with jazz, playing free improvisations with the cream of the European avant-garde, and pioneering rock fusion, most famously in his own group Osmosis and in the multinational United Jazz and Rock Ensemble.
For the most part, Mariano’s musical identities were separated by the Atlantic Ocean. He made his initial reputation as a bebop player in his native United States, before settling in Europe at the start of the 1970s and using his home in Cologne as the launching pad for his travels and exploration. However, one aspect of his work transcended physical and musical boundaries, in that Mariano was a gifted and strong-minded teacher, passing on his wealth of knowledge to students worldwide after the success of his first teaching posts at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.

Born into an Italian-American family in Boston, Carmino Ugo Mariano soon had his name Anglicized to Charles Hugo, and before long, simply Charlie. Although he listened keenly to opera and jazz in roughly equal proportions at home, he did not begin to play music until he acquired his first saxophone at the age of 18. However, he soon made up for lost time, playing within months of starting the instrument in some of Boston’s roughest bars before being drafted into a military dance band.
Stationed in Los Angeles in 1945 he heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg’s Hollywood nightclub, and was immediately inspired to learn all he could about their style, transcribing Parker’s records and learning his solos by heart.

Back in Boston in 1946 he went through the standard musical apprenticeship of the era, paying his dues in the bands of Shorty Sherock, Larry Clinton and Nat Pierce, but simultaneously studying at Schillinger House, which was expanded into the Berklee School during his time there. In 1953 he was recruited for Stan Kenton’s band on the West Coast, and after two years in this high-profile job he joined the drummer Shelly Manne for a more settled work pattern involving less touring and more time in the Los Angeles area. This produced some of his most distinctive early records, such as his contributions to Manne’s album The Gambit.
Leaving the West in 1958 to return to Boston, Mariano started teaching at Berklee, and playing with the trumpet tutor there, Herb Pomeroy. He met and was married to the Japanese pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, forming a quartet with her that first recorded in December 1960. The group (and the marriage) lasted seven years, and during that time they traveled widely, making several records in Tokyo for RCA Japan with a mixture of Japanese and American jazz musicians. Mariano also arranged for Akiyoshi’s Japanese All Stars big band.
Back at Berklee for a time in the early 1960s, Mariano also played and recorded with Charles Mingus, most famously on the album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Mariano greatly liked Mingus’ workshop methods of developing new music, using experience as much as academic theory, and formed his own jazz workshop-cum-nightclub in Boston.
Mariano’s interest in fusion started when rock music was in its infancy. Osmosis was formed in 1967, and he went on to work with the European free jazz and rock fusion band Pork Pie with the guitarist Philip Catherine and keyboard player Jasper Van’t Hof.
From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s he also traveled widely in the Far East and India, absorbing local music and instrumental techniques.
In 1975 he was invited to join the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble, originally formed for a German television chat show, but soon developed by the keyboard player Wolfgang Dauner into an independent band in its own right. Mariano played reeds alongside the English saxophonist Barbara Thompson, and also in the line-up were the trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Ian Carr (obituary, February 25, 2009), the bassist Eberhard Weber and the drummer Jon Hiseman. The group’s debut recording Live in Schützenhaus became Germany’s biggest selling jazz album of all time. The group continued to tour and record into the present century.
From the late 1980s until the present, Mariano had been an energetic freelance. He worked with the Swiss bandleader George Gruntz, in individual projects with several members of the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble, and with the oud player Rabih Abu-Khalil. He also returned to his earlier American style of playing at occasional reunions of Kenton band colleagues, and in Al Porcino’s Big Band.
In 1995 Mariano was given a diagnosis of prostate cancer and warned that he might only survive another year. He threw himself into work with greater zeal than before, as well as undergoing alternative therapies, and brought his burly frame, shock of white hair and broad-toned saxophone sound to a characteristically wide range of musical projects, culminating last year in a final series of reunions with Catherine and Van’t Hof both in the recording studio and in a triumphant concert at the Theaterhaus in Stuttgart.
Charlie Mariano, jazz saxophonist, was born on November 12, 1923. He died on June 16, 2009, aged 85.

The following video features Charlie along with Jerry Dodgion, alto sax, Victor Feldman, vibes, Jimmy Rowles, piano, Monty Budwig, bass and Shelly Manne, drums performing When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.


  1. I had the chance to play one concert with Charlie at the Bratislava Philharmonic with a group organized by Slovak drummer Dodo Sosoka. Charlie was obviously an awesome musician - complete command of bebop, modern jazz concepts, and classical Indian music. I learned a lot from him, and what a great human being he was. Thanks Steven for the post - it brought back how great Charlie Mariano truly was. Jeff Gardner

  2. Hi there, I’m one of Charlie’s 6 daughters. I like what you’ve written here, though there are a few lapses in chronology and facts. That’s OK. The funniest thing, I must say, is to describe my dad as having a burly frame. He was such a scrawny little guy, only 5’8”, gentle and sensitive. But this is good and I thank you!

  3. Hi Cynthia, or anyone else; please have Cynthia get in touch with me, as we have one of Charlie's compositions, Dorothee, that is absolutely beautiful...and who Peter Herbolzheimber, one of Germany's most famous Big Band Arrangers, has arranged for Big Band. My name is Gene Aitken, former Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Northern Colorado, and now CEO of The world needs to hear and play, this beautiful ballad arranged by Peter for big band. And, we need approval from the Mariano family in order to pay them royalties on the sales of this music! Many thanks for your help and support...Gene

  4. Hi Cynthia, please contact the song Dorothee...beautiful and needs to be heard. Just wrote a longer letter, and following up. Many thanks, Gene


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