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All That Jazz

Talented Lesser-Knowns Deserve a Documentary

March 16, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The history of jazz is filled with the shadows of figures who, despite innovative abilities of one sort or another, have gradually slipped out of sight. The Ken Burns documentary "Jazz" has been justifiably criticized for its omissions of such obviously major figures as Erroll Garner. But there are many, many others--lesser-known, but similarly gifted--and a useful, entertaining jazz documentary could be produced around their work, around those who, in Burns' own words, "didn't make the cut."

It wouldn't be difficult to come up with a list of some of the more intriguing players: alto saxophonist Buster Smith, of whom Charlie Parker said, "I used to quit every job to go with Buster"; trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, described in the '60s by Don Ellis as "the most creative and avant-garde drummer in New York"; the elusive pianist Joe Albany, who recorded with everyone from Lester Young and Parker to Charles Mingus, but whose productivity was diminished by a harrowing personal life.

And that's just a start. One could also include clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, usually associated with New Orleans-style music, but actually a genre-challenging improviser whose solos often had the pointillistic qualities of contemporary classical music. Among others: Don Byas, a tenor saxophonist whose mastery of the harmonic developments surfacing in the jazz of the '40s made his work a bridge between Swing and bebop; Don Lamond, one of the first big band drummers to adapt the ideas flowing from Max Roach and Kenny Clarke to the setting of a big band rhythm section; and trumpeter Fats Navarro, often praised but still too little appreciated for the impact that his long, elegant lines and full, resonant sound had upon Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and virtually every trumpeter who followed.

Most jazz fans could add their own favorites to this gathering of players whose accomplishments too often have been eclipsed by the emphasis upon major names. And there is one more who unquestionably should be included in an assemblage that can legitimately claim the title of Down Beat magazine's critics' poll category, Talent Deserving Wider Recognition: tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh.

More than most, Marsh was a player who could easily have slipped away through the cracks of jazz history. Despite the almost universal regard in which he was viewed by fellow musicians, he never broke through to the larger music audience.

One can only hope that some belated recognition will be generated by the publication of "An Unsung Cat" (Scarecrow Press and the Institute of Jazz Studies) by Safford Chamberlain--an apt title for a Marsh biography. It will not come easily, however. The available discography is not large, and Marsh's unrelenting dedication to improvisational creativity can make his recordings thorny listening experiences.

But the results of careful attendance to his music are more than worth the effort. As Chamberlain's well-researched, insightful treatise makes clear, Marsh was a true original from the point at which he became associated with Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz in the late '40s to the moment of his death. (He suffered a heart attack while playing "Out of Nowhere" at Donte's jazz club on Dec. 19, 1987, at the age of 60).

Chamberlain fills in the details of a life only sketchily known to even many of his fans, and includes a detailed bibliography. In addition, and of special interest to musicians, the book includes transcriptions of a number of Marsh solos, dating from his earliest work in 1949 to a private tape-recording a few months before his death, and offering illuminating information about his unusual approach to rhythm, harmony and phrasing.

An identically titled CD collection of Marsh performances--including several, but not all, of the transcribed solos--has been selected by Chamberlain for release on Fantasy in early April. It's especially fascinating to examine Marsh's solos on recordings such as "Marshmallow," from 1949, with Chamberlain's transcription of the solo close at hand. Marsh's improvised chorus on "Marshmallow"--which is actually the chord changes of a favorite bop standard, "Cherokee"--emerges as a brilliant example of spontaneous, structured composition. And here, as in a number of other transcriptions, Marsh's remarkable capacity to play motivic phrases that are completely liberated from the bar line is impressively displayed.

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