Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Warne Marsh's Inner Melody - The 1983 Downbeat Interview with Francis Davis

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“He hasn't always been able to call his own tune, and he has sometimes had to pay the piper, taking menial day jobs which at least afforded him the luxury of playing only the music he loved and could be proud to call his own. But he has always faced the music—he has accepted the responsibility of his own melody—and that melody is an eternal and individual one which has thrilled and enlightened everyone who has listened closely enough to hear it. And however long it took to come, it finally came right straight off the top of his head.”
Francis Davis On Warne Marsh

“By far the most loyal and literal of the Tristano disciples, Warne Marsh sedulously avoided the 'jazz life', cleaving to an improvisation philosophy that was almost chilling in its purity. Anthony Braxton called him the 'greatest vertical improviser' in the music, and a typical Marsh solo was discursive and rhythmically subtle, full of coded tonalities and oblique resolutions. He cultivated a glacial tone (somewhat derived from Lester Young) that splintered awkwardly in the higher register and which can be off-putting for listeners conditioned by Bird and Coltrane. Marsh's slightly dry, almost papery tone is instantly recognizable.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“There is a controversial quality to his playing that is as tangible as the spoken word. At times he can be heard beginning a statement, pausing as though to reflect, then starting up again with those same few notes, this time able to finish his train of thought. But it is Warne Marsh's sound, often described as "an acquired taste." which grabs at the listener. So colored by upper harmonics that its tonal center constantly threatens to break, Marsh's tone is like an artist's palette, rich in hues and, in the hands of this master improviser, capable of painting a picture which so clearly tells a story.”
- James Rozzi 1992

Four years after this interview Warne would be dead at the age of 60 [1927 - 1987].

It was conducted by Francis Davis and it appeared in Downbeat, January 1983.

In his eponymous Jazz Encyclopedia, Richard Cook summed up my view of Warne nicely when he wrote:

“He played long, intensely relaxed lines in a buffed grey tenor tone which deliberately eschewed any kind of extravagance of timbre or rhythmical idiosyncrasy: it was a paradigm of 'linear' improvisation, nothing on show for its own sake and every potential emotional outburst suppressed in favour of a coolly effective whole, In the age of Rollins and Coltrane (let alone Ayler), it was scarcely a popular position to take, and Marsh knew it, but like so many jazz musicians he relied on the attentions of a small but dedicated audience. The attentive were always rewarded with playing of freshness and spontaneity, which only revealed itself to genuine listeners.” 

“TALK ABOUT WARNE MARSH — OR TALK with him — and sooner or later the subject of Lennie Tristano enters the discussion and begins to dominate it. The tenor saxophonist remembers making his recording debut as a member of a Tristano sextet in March 1949, when he was 21, but the recollection of his second recording session, just two months later, is even more vivid. Indeed, it is unlikely that anyone interested in jazz, whether he was there that day or not, will ever forget the session at which pianist Tristano had his group improvise two titles — Intuition and Digression — without specifying keys, chord progressions, time signatures, or even tempos up-front,

"It was at the end of the session," Marsh recalls, "Lennie had gotten us together — me, Lee Konitz, Billy Bauer, who was the guitarist, and the bass player Arnold Fishkin — and explained to us that we were going to improvise strictly from what we heard one another doing, The only thing that was set was the order of entrances, with Lennie starting off — setting the tempo and the mood — that and the fact that we'd play for three minutes, because we were making 78 rpms. So we would give each other approximately 15 or 20 seconds and then come in. ..."

Marsh wasn't caught off guard by Tristano's instructions. "This was normal for us. We had practiced it some and done it in clubs, and this was our second date together for Capitol, so we were ready. When I listen to those sides now, I'm amazed at how far ahead Lennie was, at what great music he was playing. And it's free improvising — free, right straight off the top of his head."

More than 30 years after the events Warne Marsh describes, and more than four years after the pianist's death in 1978, Tristano's rank in modern jazz and his role in its evolution remain points of great contention. The problem the critic inevitably encounters with Tristano is that he seems at once major and peripheral. He was a trailblazer, as Marsh's comments suggest, but he can hardly be hailed as an innovator, for few among the jazz rank and file chose to follow his path. Certainly, the somber, ruminative music that five men, chastened by their leader's stern piano intro, collectively and somewhat tentatively improvised in the Capitol studio that evening in 1949 bears little resemblance to free jazz as we understand that term today, in the fiery wake of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. But just as certainly, Tristano's music can stand on its own abundant merit, all questions of historical precedence aside, and Tristano should at least be credited with formulating both a profound and wholly original system of improvisation based upon the riddle of license and self-denial, and more important perhaps, a school of thought to go along with it, Tristano's theories about jazz reach their apotheosis not so much in his playing as in his teachings, and in the playing of two disciples who continue to spread his gospel — saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.

The sins of the father, both real and imagined, are often visited upon his sons, even in jazz, and those who found Tristano's music rhythmically stillborn and too cerebral were quick to mark Konitz and Marsh as dispassionate, inhibited players. Konitz threw off that onus early on, soloing heatedly and brilliantly in almost every conceivable jazz context, But Marsh, who has remained secluded in the folds of the Tristano legend to a great extent, ironically achieving a high level of visibility only when he reunited with Tristano or Konitz, has never really been able to shake the curse. Never fully accepted by the boppers, he has been cited as a patriarch of free improvisation by avant garde saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton, who has dedicated at least one piece to him. Yet Marsh, whose musical values are deeply rooted in the flowing rhythm of Lester Young and the harmonic vocabulary of Charlie Parker, expresses little interest in the activities of the post-Coleman avant garde and, in any event, it is impossible to imagine him soloing in an AACM-like context [Association for the Advancement of Creative People - founded in Chicago in 1965 by Muhal Richard Adams]. If the younger generation of jazz listeners knows Marsh at all, it is by reputation or by the well-received two-tenor records he made in the late 70s with Lew Tabackin (Tenor Gladness) and Peter Christlieb (Apogee) — records which Marsh himself, a perfectionist in the Tristano mold, both arrogant and insecure about his own abilities, does not particularly like.

Laboring in relative obscurity, however, Marsh has matured into one of the most stimulating improvisers in all of jazz. His cool, liquid style is spiked with paradox. Playing a standard pop song, he will frequently dissolve its melody completely in an attempt to isolate and purify the song's harmonic base. Yet the new melodies he stretches over its chords are appealing and memorable in their own right, and the idea of melody is something he bears proudly and carefully aloft, as though it were a sacred chalice from which he were determined not to spill one precious drop, If he is a melodic player, however, he is not really a lyrical one in the conventional sense — his tone is one of the palest and brittlest in jazz. He has a knack for rhythmic displacement, and he uses silence and space almost as tellingly, if not as mischievously, as.did Thelonious Monk — he speaks of "the ability to play the rests and give them meaning too." But because he is not a virile, breast-beating swinger, many of his rhythmic niceties are lost on all but his most attentive and most sophisticated audiences. Above all else, there is an inner-directed quality to Marsh's best solos, a feeling of rigorous soul-searching as riveting as that which one hears in Coltrane, but quite different in character. There is nothing purgative, nothing Promethean or sheerly physical about Marsh's solos. Instead, one hears in them what critic Harvey Pekar has described as "the kind of intense concentration a scientist must feel when deeply involved in his work." 

It is this quality of passionate intellectual involvement, no doubt, which draws some listeners to Marsh at the same time it keeps larger numbers — seeking simpler, more immediate pleasures from jazz — away.

When Warne Marsh is playing, even his most abstract thoughts seem tangible—the notes seem to float in captions above the bell of his horn. In conversation, he is harder to read. Once a student of Lennie Tristano's, Marsh is now a teacher himself, commuting three days a week from his home in "a nice conservative Connecticut small town" to the one-room efficiency in the Broadway resident hotel where he sees his students. The first impression a stranger might get from Marsh is that he is guarded and rather distant. But it soon becomes apparent that he is painfully shy, almost jittery, as he paces around the small disordered room, lighting cigarettes he lets burn out, pouring coffee he doesn't finish, repeatedly adjusting the mouthpiece on the tenor saxophone that stands idle next to a drum set in the center of the floor. A slightly built man whose dark hair is just beginning to turn grey at the temples and on the chin as he enters his mid-50s, giving him a slightly wispy look, Marsh answers questions slowly and thoughtfully, not venturing on to the next word until he is absolutely certain it is the word he wants.

Marsh grew up in Los Angeles in a family which cherished music. "My mother's musical through her fingertips. She's from that Russian-Jewish tradition where, hopefully, the first son will be a musician. But in this case, my mother was the first born, and the first son was not playing the violin, not at all, so she just walked in and took over. In the early '20s she played in the string quartets rich Hollywood actors would hire to accompany the premieres of their silent movies. I was her first son, so it came true there." But instead of violin, Marsh studied accordion, switching to tenor saxophone in his mid-teens.

"Like Charlie Parker out of Ben Webster," Marsh replies when I ask him what he sounded like as a teenager. "I've got a tape someone sent me from when I was 19 years old in the army at Camp Lee, Virginia — a tape of the Special Services band we were in. But Tex Beneke was my very first inspiration. I was in a kid band that played for servicemen and young people at the Hollywood Canteen during World War II. We had Glenn Miller stock charts, with Tex's solos written out, plus the harmony was given. 1 heard him on the radio quite a bit — '43, '44 — his records were very popular. You know, young big bands— what were they going to play? Besides the white band charts, maybe some Duke Ellington. I was already playing Body And Soul by Hawkins and Ben's solo on Cottontail. My ambition was to become a studio musician. In Hollywood that's the only way you're encouraged to think. By 17, I was serious, but what I was offered included no real Jazz as a career, if you wanted jazz, you left L.A. and went to New York. It was quite clear-cut then."

The apprenticeship at the Canteen led to a job on CBS radio backing Hoagy Carmichael. But by the time he was 19, Marsh was in uniform himself, and it was through trumpeter Don Ferrara, a fellow G.I,, that he heard about Lennie Tristano, When he was transferred to Fort Mammoth, New Jersey, Marsh began formal study with the blind pianist.

Tristano changed Marsh's listening habits.

"I became disenchanted with Duke's band when I realized that no two saxophone players in that section played with the same vibrato." He began listening even more closely to Charlie Parker, and "I began hearing Lester Young, and really fell for his manner, on a quite conscious level.

"Now that I look back on my studies with Lennie, though, I have to admit that I came to him with my own feeling for a melody, my own way of playing. What he taught me was that you don't have to imitate your heroes or your idols, You have to accept the responsibility of your own melody.
"Lenny always knew me at least two years better than I knew myself, I mean, he could sit and listen and tell me what was original and what was derivative. I doubt my personal education would have ever gotten to where it has without him, because he presented it all so clearly to me when I was 20 that I've never really been at a loss for ideas since, and if I want more ideas, I know from him exactly where to look — to 20th century classical thinking, which is best heard in Bartok. It's a compound of 19th century thinking, which is to say you can take the most advanced conventional harmony and meter and rhythm and begin compounding them, which is what the best composers have done in this century. Just add harmonies to harmonies, meters to meters, which is being done in jazz, and rhythms to rhythms — poly-rhythms — which has been done better in jazz than in composition.

"Lenny really knew music. My life would be a lot different if I had never met him. For one thing, I probably would never have taught."

Marsh began teaching by giving saxophone lessons to children and adult beginners in a Pasadena music store when he and his wife moved back to California in 1966. During his 10-year sojourn out west, he was also a founding member of Med Flory's Supersax, a group whose five-man saxophone section played re harmonized Charlie Parker solos. "Getting into Bird again was really meaningful at first," Marsh says, but ultimately, the experience was frustrating to Marsh (and to his fans) because he never got to solo on any of the group's records. "On jobs, everybody blew. Med's a democrat, but he's also a conservative . . . he's probably a Republican . . . and his thinking on the albums was that we should keep it to the format of the original records — trumpet solo, piano solo, and transcribed Parker solos by the whole section — no improvising by the saxes."

Returning to New York in the mid-'70s, he began his teaching career in earnest. When I ask Marsh how his teaching philosophy differs from Tristano's, he replies "It doesn't. I feel I was so well-trained, [that] it's a simple matter to turn around and give that training to someone else." The method involves "a lot of ear training at first — listening to records, transcribing solos, a lot of that. One of the first things I expect them [students] to be able to do is to present a melody in a convincing manner. The next step is learning to improvise on that melody, and it becomes necessary to get into the other notes — the harmony — but it all proceeds from a melody." As Tristano did with him, he has his instrumental students sing their exercises before attempting them on their instruments. " 'A musician who can't use his voice!' Lennie used to say. 'How can that be?"'

With the emergence of Tristano and his coterie in the mid-'40s, jazz entered the age of anxiety. Lee Konitz once said of Warne Marsh, "He's had a big emotional thing going on within himself, and sometimes what he plays isn't what he's capable of, because he has trouble releasing his emotion. It's some kind of fear of breaking loose. But when he does, it's really something to hear, I tell you." And Marsh himself has said of Charlie Parker, "Bird was able to get to the point where he played all music. I mean he got outside of himself by going through himself and eliminating everything in his personal character that might tend to distort his music."

What character armor did Marsh have to shed before he could get in touch with his feelings and create to his full capacity? "Fear," he laughs nervously. Fear of what? "Fear of really expressing myself. It's not exactly encouraged in American life, It leaves you exposed, but that can be your strength too. I got over it once and for all around 1963 or '64. I just felt like playing all the time." And he hadn't felt like playing all the time before that? "No."

Has the musician's life Marsh created for himself been easy or difficult? "Oh, I've had a wonderful life. I've had a lot of opportunity, a lot of work. There's a world of music I'm proud to be a part of, with the people I still consider my heroes—Bach, Bartok, Charlie Parker, Lennie, Lester." Does he ever wish he had pursued fame more aggressively? "Not in the least. I'm not oriented that way. I've got only the one career I've got. I've done mainly one thing for 30 years — music, my own music.

"Some of the best careers aren't very lucrative, though," Marsh admits, In California in the late '60s, faced with supporting a family for the first time in his life, Marsh supplemented his earnings from music by performing manual labor, but he is not bitter about the experience, describing a job as a tv repairman as "paying four or five dollars an hour, great money in those days, "and a job cleaning swimming pools as "a nice job outdoors." In New York most of his income derives from teaching. If he has one regret, it seems to be that the close-knit, racially integrated jazz community he found in Manhattan when he first arrived in 1947 has been torn asunder— he speaks of Birdland as if it were Eden, and there is a sense of loss in his voice when he describes "a gig in Queens, a dance sponsored by probably a Communist front organization, Youth for America or something like that, for $75 cash. Me, Bird, I think Kai Winding, and Red Rodney, the four of us plus rhythm. A casual, you know? Jazz casuals, we used to call them."

I suspect it frustrates Marsh that circumstance prevents him from playing in front of audiences as much as he would like to — four weeks or so a year at the Village Vanguard, scattered concerts around New York and New Jersey, and the occasional European tour must only whet his appetite. He has said; "At some point, you have to be prepared to create — to perform. It's vital, man, if we're talking about jazz, the original jazz, the performing art, It fulfills its meaning only when you play it live in front of an audience." Still, I will agree with him that he has created a wonderful life for himself. He hasn't always been able to call his own tune, and he has sometimes had to pay the piper, taking menial day jobs which at least afforded him the luxury of playing only the music he loved and could be proud to call his own. But he has always faced the music — he has accepted the responsibility of his own melody — and that melody is an eternal and individual one which has thrilled and enlightened everyone who has listened closely enough to hear it. And however long it took to come, it finally came right straight off the top of his head.”


  1. Many thanks Steven.

  2. In the early 80s, my teacher and friend John O'Neil went to hear Warne play at Pizza Express in London. Got home about 4am. John rang the next day and said we were going to see him again. 4am bed next day. When John repeated the instruction later on that day I had to say 'no'. I was tired! I seem to remember I was the one who drove us up from Oxford and we listened to Al Jarreau the whole time. This ritual went on for Warne's entire six night engagement. John wrote Warne's obituary for The Times. I still don't understand his music but still listen to it and I was deeply sad when I learnt of his death.


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