Saxophonist Dan St. Marseille is a musician who can take care of business, both on and off the bandstand. Not only is he a competent saxophonist dedicated to mainstream acoustic jazz, but he also is the owner and musical director of one of the West Coast's increasingly respected small jazz labels, Orange-based Resurgent Music.
Talk to St. Marseille, whose quintet plays Steamers Cafe in Fullerton tonight, and you soon realize the secret of his success. He has impeccable taste in music and musicians that guides him in performance and with his company.
In the past three years, Resurgent has issued some 10 albums by St. Marseille and others, including pianist Cecilia Coleman, bassist Henry Franklin and Orange County-based vocalist Dewey Erney. In that time it has gained a reputation for decent sound, professional packaging and solid musical performances.
"I don't have any formal business training," St. Marseille, 34, confesses in a phone call from his home in Orange. "But I've always been good in math and in organizing, which makes for a good bandleader.
"I think my business sense is an instinct, a willingness to do what needs to be done. A lot of musicians know what they should do [to support their careers], but they just can't seem to do it," he said. "I enjoy the business end of it and like to balance my time between playing and the business. I don't want grass to grow under my feet."
Like many musicians, St. Marseille became frustrated trying to solicit interest from one of the major recording labels. "I talked to Polygram, and I got the same story I was hearing from everybody else: 'Your music is wonderful, but nobody knows who you are, and we don't like to take risks.'
"Companies have their own agenda. They want you to have some connection, like being the sax player for Joe Williams or
somebody, or they want to say they saw you on 'The Tonight Show.' They want some ammunition. The way a person looks influences them. They want to feel like they've discovered the artist on their own."
So when someone suggested that St. Marseille put out his own album, he thought, why not?
He enlisted his former saxophone teacher, Gary Foster, to appear on the album. He took the advice of his friend, photographer William Claxton, and gave the program a West Coast, Chet Baker theme. He found a willing investor and went on to make "Long Ago and Far Away" in 1993. In three months he'd sold 400 copies.
Rather than paying himself back, St. Marseille used the money to make another album in 1994, "Contours," this time with guest percussionist Poncho Sanchez and trumpeter Ron Stout. Pianist Coleman approached St. Marseille about doing an album for her. St. Marseille, who has deep admiration for Coleman and her work, agreed. Suddenly Resurgent was more than just a one-band label.
Distribution is a major sticking point for small labels, but a chance meeting with distributor John Breckler, who owned Redlands-based Callisto Distribution, led to Resurgent discs being stocked in Tower Records stores around the country. Since their meeting, St. Marseille has taken over Callisto, putting him in the record business for real.
St. Marseille's entrance into music was less sudden. He began playing the clarinet at 9 and the saxophone while a student at El Toro High School.
His introduction to jazz came when his father, an opera singer and teacher, turned him on to the music of the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
"I liked the pop music of the day, the Rolling Stones and all that, but it was just something to hang out to or to dance," he said. "I had a much deeper reaction to jazz and classical music."
His switch to saxophone came when he heard saxophonist Hank Mobley on recordings of drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. "I had heard John Coltrane, but as a kid, it didn't make sense to me. But when I heard Hank--woo!--I wanted to play sax."
St. Marseille played with bands at Saddleback and Orange Coast colleges, but most of his training came through private lessons with Foster, the respected studio musician who's worked with the big bands of Louie Bellson, Clare Fischer and Toshiko Akiyoshi.
"Gary taught me that the role of a jazz musician is very special," St. Marseille said. "You're not just duplicating something; you're trying to get to the very essence of the music; you're trying to get the feeling and the emotion out. Every note you play has to be thoughtful."
Though he's worked briefly with Cab Calloway, Conte Candoli and Richie Cole, St. Marseille says he has built a following for himself playing area clubs and recording.
He has traveled to Europe four times to play with different bands and, since the release of his albums (the latest, and Resurgent's bestseller, is "Retrospection"), has been called to play various venues up and down the West Coast. (He'll appear at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City on Monday.)
But the heart of his career, both as musician and record company executive, is his dedication to mainstream jazz and improvisation.
"I don't try to force the music to go in any direction. I try to play exactly what I feel. That's the definition of honest improvisation."
* The Dan St. Marseille Quintet plays tonight at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton; 8 p.m. No cover. (714) 871-8800. St. Marseille also plays Monday at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. 8:30 p.m. $12. (310) 271-9039.
When Dan St. Marseille wanted to record an album, he ended up forming his own label. Now Resurgent Music in Orange is steadily building a solid reputation.