Eddie Marshall: Covering the Jazz Spectrum

No doubt it’s somewhat of an exaggeration to claim that Eddie Marshall has played with all of the major jazz figures of the past two decades. But if so, the degree of untruth is only slight. He first came to prominence at the dawn of the 1960s, working with pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and her husband of that time, saxophonist Charles Mariano. Subsequently, there were year-long stints with two other noted saxophonists, Stan Getz and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Eddie next veered in the direction of free jazz, accompanying many of the leading artists of that persuasion—Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Albert and Donald Ayler—in some of their New York performances. Later, after transplanting himself and his family in San Francisco, he became a charter member of the Fourth Way, one of the first of two small jazz ensembles seeking to create a “fusion” music that incorporated rock rhythms. (The other like-minded outfit was the Free Spirits, which numbered drummer Bobby Moses in its ranks.)

By the time the Fourth Way came apart at the end of the 1960s, Eddie Marshall’s name had already become a by-word with the San Francisco jazz community. During the 1970s, two new associations in particular hare served to further showcase his talents. First, he has become, in effect, the house drummer for the San Francisco jazz club. Keystone Korner. There he has worked with a diverse spectrum of artists ranging from mainstreamers Dexter Gordon, Ahmad Jamal, Ted Carson, George Coleman and Mary Lou Williams, to avant-garde saxophonists Oliver Lake and Sam Rivers, to singer Eddie Jefferson, to such unclassifiables as pianists Randy Weston and Jaki Byard. Second, for three years he was one-fifth of the recently disbanded group led by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, an impressive aggregation that included pianist George Cables, saxophonist Manny Boyd and bassist James Leary, III.

To watch Eddie play is to be present at a display of poetry in motion. His fluidity, taste and grace, even at the fastest tempos, defy description; they must be witnessed first-hand to be believed. He has much the same kind of relaxed and gentle touch found in the work of Billy Higgins, and these qualities manifest themselves in his conversation as well. Currently, he is becoming more active as a writer. His composition Knucklebean, for instance, is the title selection on one of the last albums made by the former Hutcherson quintet. In a field sometimes rent by violent partisanships, Eddie Marshall is that rare musician of whom everyone speaks with warmth and respect.

FK: How did you end up in San Francisco?

EM: I ended up in San Francisco by playing with Dionne Warwick’s band in the late ’60s. My wife and I were travelling with Dionne’s band and my wife got pregnant. We travelled right up to the last minute. The airlines wouldn’t let us go back to New York because she was 9 months pregnant, so we stopped in L.A. to have the baby. We liked the weather, and there was no hurry to go right back to New York, so we stayed in L.A. Then, about six or seven months later, when I was getting ready to go back, Mike Nock called me from Frisco to come up here and work with the Fourth Way.

FK: What did you do before that?

EM: After I left Toshiko’s band, I was drafted into the Army in 1962 and I didn’t get out until ’64. Then I joined Stan Getz’s band.

FK: Did you record with Getz?

EM: No, I didn’t record with Stan. It was the quartet with Gene Cherico [bass], Gary Burton, Stan and myself—just the four of us. I took Roy Haynes’ place.

FK: I wonder why that band was never recorded?

EM: Well, we only stayed together about a year and it was a very hectic time for Stan. It was right after that Gilberto-bossa nova thing.

FK: That takes you up to 1965. Did you join Dionne Warwick after leaving Stan Getz?

EM: No, I worked with Rahsaan [Roland Kirk] for a year first. But he didn’t record at that time either; he was struggling then. too.

FK: Then after Rahsaan you went with Dionne, then you came to San Francisco when Mike Nock called you and said he wanted to put a band together, is that right?

EM: Right. So I said, “Well, I’m going to go back to New York, but I’ll check it out anyhow,” so I came up here. And I’ve been up here ever since.

FK: The Fourth Way was not playing straight-ahead jazz but a lot of even eighth notes.

EM: Yeah, a lot of what we called “rock” then, and there were attempts at fusion jazz.

FK: How did you feel about playing that kind of music?

EM: I loved it because all of that music is fun for the drummer. I grew up with my father playing dances, rhythm and blues, and stuff like that in his band. It was sort of strict for drummers in the late ’50s and early ’60s. You know, you just played the back beat. But then when I heard jazz, and I heard Max Roach and Art Blakey and Art Taylor, all the people who were playing in those days, I went crazy. I could never play back beat again.

FK: That’s why I asked you about rock. It seems in that music, the drummer’s role would be a little more restricted.

EM: It requires another type of skill. The first skill it required for me was endurance. And you really do learn how to play along with people. Jazz is a different thing altogether. To me, the rock and roll music and the soul music stuff is a lot like Latin music. There’s a discipline to it, but when everyone’s doing their little part, it grooves.

FK: I’d like to go back and ask you a question about your father. What kind of a band did he have?

EM: It was basically a dance band, because that’s what the bands were hired for in those days. He played the piano, and I grew up hearing a lot of Nat King Cole, Oscar Peterson, and Teddy Wilson. That’s what he loved to play, and that’s basical ly what we played. In those days there were a lot of black clubs and we made a fairly good living like that.

FK: That was in Boston?

EM: That was in Springfield, Massachusetts.

FK: How old were you when you started playing with your father?

EM: Fourteen.

FK: You were undoubtedly the youngest person in the band.

Eddie MarshallEM: Right, and sometimes I’d be playing with some of my teachers. My old man knew all these guys in the school district, the good horn players that happened to teach school. One of them was my music teacher in junior high. We’d both come to school sometimes just completely zonked out from staying up all night.

FK: Did you major in music when you were going to school?

EM: Nope. I never even got a chance to play in the band!

FK: Why was that?

EM: Well, I wanted to play basketball, that was my thing, you know. I got into drums because my old man played piano, so I played piano. I was studying piano from the time I was six and I hated it. I wanted to play the drums! Gene Krupa was my main hero. I loved the drums and I always wanted to do that, and when we tried out for the different instruments in band, I’d go for the drums, but I never would get it because they wanted me to play the piano.

I always watched drummers. Joe Morello used to come by my house, he’s from Springfield too, and he and my father would have rehearsals. I’d see him playing, I would watch, and I knew I could play. I never even touched the drums until I was maybe 13. What happened is, my father had a drummer that couldn’t make the job. He split and left the drums up at the house. So I did the rehearsals. I told my old man I could handle it and he got stuck and had to hire me. I’ve been working ever since.

FK: Had you had any instruction at that time?

EM: None. But what happened was, I was 14, and I still had to finish school. My father said he knew I was really interested, so he made me take lessons, like he did with the piano. The first teacher I had was an old Polish man named Joe Sefcick, who looked like Kojak. He was a drummer in a pit band. Joe knew everybody. He knew George Stone, Moe Goldenberg, and Jim Chapin. So I studied with all of them. It was amazing. Joe would write me a note and I’d go to George Stone in Boston and study there for free.

FK: When did you move to New York?

EM: When I was 16. By that time, I’d heard Max Roach and those guys and I wanted to play like that.

FK: And you took more lessons?

EM: Yeah, I took lessons from Moe Goldenberg and from Chapin and from everybody else I could get hold of.

FK: I’ve often thought that you have remarkable technique and I wondered how you came by it. Part of it, I’m sure, is just your gift. But it must help to study with teachers like that.

EM: I’ll tell you, it does, man. And those are great guys. George Stone could take a stick and make a drum roll with each finger. Old Moe Goldenberg, before he died, was the same way. They were just dedicated to drums. With Max and Art and those guys, you see the same kind of dedication like that, and I wanted to be like that. That’s why I really feel lucky sometimes, because those great old teachers are gone, though there are a lot of good young teachers.

FK: I notice that every so often one or two of your compositions will pop up on a record. Do you still play the piano at all?

EM: Yes.

FK: I have a theory that most drummers, if they couldn’t play drums for some reason, their second choice would probably be the piano.

EM: You know, all those years I hated playing the piano and studying, but now I wish I had studied twice as hard. Piano helped me when I started playing the drums, because I could read.

FK: Was the record with Toshiko and Charlie Mariano your first session?

EM: Yes, I was 22.

FK: How did you come to be involved with that band?

EM: I was living in New York and I came home to visit my folks in Massachusetts, and they told me Toshiko was in Hartford. I had just seen her, because when I lived in New York, she used to work at the Hickory House a lot, so I’d go down there and see her. They wouldn’t allow a horn in the Hickory House, so Charlie would be sitting and watching, and Toshiko, Jake Hanna, and Gene [Cherico] would be playing. So when they were in Connecticut, I thought, “Well, I ‘ l l stop by on the way back to New York.” So I stopped by this club and they wanted me to sit in. So I sat in with them, and when I got back to New York, she called me. The other drummer split, so I started working with them then. We went all over the place.

FK: How long did you stay with that group?

EM: Until I got drafted. That was about two years.

FK: Too bad that group didn’t record more.

EM: I know it, because we had some good tunes, and we worked a lot, too. In fact, that’s how I first met John Handy. We had a long gig, a month at the Five Spot, and John Handy was playing opposite us. It was just after he left [Charles] Mingus.

FK: So you spent two years in Toshiko’s quartet, then you went in the Army for two years, then you went with Dionne Warwick. That must have been interesting, too, because there are a lot of different time signatures in her music.

EM: You should have seen it. One time we went to Puerto Rico and we were playing in one of those big clubs with a string section. We had a 7/4 bar in Anyone Who Has a Heart. The guys in the string section just couldn’t feel this phrase. You know how Burt [Bacharach] phrases all of his stuff. It would never feel right.

FK: It must have been difficult for you to hold things together.

EM: Basically, it was still like rhythm and blues. There’s a whole lot of bass drum, and that kept it together.

FK: That takes you to Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Fourth Way. The Fourth Way stayed together how long?

EM: Just about three years.

FK: When did your association with Bobby Hutcherson begin?

EM: In 1977.

FK: You’ve worked a great deal with him.

EM: That’s what I’ve been doing mostly for the last three or four years.

FK: One of the things that most impressed me about you during this period is that you were more or less the house drummer for Keystone Korner and had to play with just about everyone. Has this posed any problems for you?

EM: Actually it doesn’t present any problems, because it’s music and I really love it all. I’ll tell you, though, I came up playing time. It used to be very hard for me to even approach free music. I had a steady gig at the Dom in New York City. Archie, Pharoah, the Ayler Brothers and all the people like that would come in and play. Most of the time, if they didn’t bring their drummer, they’d ask me to play. I’d be trying to play, because I’d seen Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali and those guys play loose like that, but I didn’t know how to do it. I would try, though. I guess Archie sort of understood that I was trying, because I remember one time telling him, “Look man. I don’t think I’m really makin’ it.” He says, “Man, just keep on playing.” And so after awhile I get there, and then it starts flowing. And that’s what it is. It might seem that this guy is just beating the shit out of the drums, and maybe a lot of people do that, but you can bet your bottom dollar that nobody could do that for more than five minutes unless he knew what he was doing. He’d be exhausted. That’s how I used to get at first. I’d be trying so hard I’d just be exhausted. But then I started relaxing and listening. Playing that music is a whole involvement. You have to breathe and, most important, you have to all breathe together, and then it flows. Everything just gets real light like that when it’s working right.

FK: And that’s how you made the transition to playing free jazz?

EM: Yeah. In about the middle of the ’60s, just before we came out here.

FK: That leads me to a question I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. Is it possible to have a legato style playing drums?

EM: Yes, it is.

FK: How does one go about achieving it?

EM: The only way I could put it into words is, it’s like a liquid feeling, or when you’re in water. If you’re immersed in water and your arms are swinging like this [flails vigorously], nothing is going to happen. You have to move like this [smoothly and gracefully]. That’s the basic feeling I have anyhow.

FK: Something else you said suggests another question. You mentioned that when you were able to relax, you were able to cope with the demands of free playing. How do you go about relaxing?

EM: I think I just got older and got more relaxed. But I’m still learning it. I have ways of disciplining myself, through yoga and stuff like that.

FK: Are there things that you do regularly before you play?

EM: There are things I do every morning when I get up. I do my yoga exercises and stuff. But before playing, I mainly try not to eat and never drink liquor. Both of those slow me down. I hardly ever drink anything, but every once in a while someone will say, “Here, have some champagne,” or something, so I’ll take a sip. I’ll take one sip and, I don’t know if it’s psychological or what, but I can feel it. Not that I’m drunk, but I feel a little bit lower. I know a lot of it’s psychological, though, ’cause I’ve heard myself on tape when I’ve thought my playing wasn’t really right, and it wasn’t that bad.

FK: What do you do when you’re faced with an extremely fast tempo? How are you able to hold it?

EM: That’s when you really have to relax! That’s what I tell some kids that I’m teaching. That’s the hardest thing. The first thing in playing a fast tempo is breathing. It always gets back to breathing with me, for some reason. If the tempo is fast and I start tightening up, I’ll take a breath again. A lot of it is breathing. You have to practice, too, there’s technique involved. But there’s so many different ways that drummers do this, you know? Like you see Max [Roach]. Now Max, to me, can play the fastest straight-four tempo in the world. I think his basis for the whole thing is his foot rocking on the hi-hat. His toe comes down on the “2” and his heel goes on “1,” and he can just go on like hell. Even when I was a kid, I used to be amazed that Max would do that with his foot. For myself, I’ve got these four limbs here, and one of them has to be the master. When I play fast, the key is in my right hand.

FK: Is that true in medium tempos too?

EM: Yes. I would say I’m more or less ruled by my right hand.

FK: I think most drummers are.

EM: But I’ll tell you, I think there’s one that isn’t. It’s Elvin! I don’t think he’s ruled by anything! I’ve been trying to decipher that man for 20 years! He’s just amazing.

FK: How did you approach independence when you were learning to play?

EM: Very cautiously! You know, I have a theory that most of the drummers are pretty well-coordinated anyhow. Maybe that’s why we become drummers, because it’s easier for us. And a lot of the guys were very good in sports and stuff, too. You see a lot of drummers who used to play ball or box.

FK: I think there probably are some similarities between sports and music, in that you have to spend a great deal of time developing your reflexes and coordination. The main difference is that the scale of the movements is larger in sports than it is in music.

EM: Right. I remember when I was a kid, I’d come home from school and I would get on that practice pad for at least a couple of hours. Until I was about 17, that’s all my life was. I didn’t have girl friends or anything. That was it.

FK: It seems that if one is going to achieve in music at that young age, it’s necessary to be single-minded and give up everything else.

EM: Yeah. I was always impressed with music, but what happened is, my father brought me into New York with him on a trip when I was about 14, and that did it. School was over then.

FK: How do you think of your own playing in terms of its relation to the beat? Do you tend to play in front of it, behind it, or in the middle?

EM: I’m an ahead-of-the-beat drummer, in a sense. I know I’m really on top of it, and on certain tempos more than others. But I’m conscious of it, and I can pull back on things. I couldn’t do that all the time; it’s just recently that I’ve acquired that knowledge of how to hold back.

FK: What about your grip? Last time I saw you, you were playing matched.

EM: I just went back to the conventional grip. Before that, I played matched grip for about ten years.

FK: What led you to go back?

EM: I had an argument with this guy. He asked me why I’m playing my way. I said, “I feel better this way. It’s easier for me.” He said, “Well, if you’ve played matched grip so long, you probably can’t play the other way anyhow.” So I got my practice pad out and now I’m doing it both ways. Almost all the drummers do now. You see Max play matched grip a lot of times now.

FK: Could you tell me a little bit about your recording activity? I know you’ve made a number of records with Bobby Hutcherson’s group, and you have one album with the same people under your name, Dance of the Sun [Timeless/Muse 315]. What else?

EM: Let me see. I did a couple of tunes on Ahmad Jamal’s last two albums. That’s just about it.

FK: My feeling is that there are some drummers in this area—and you are definitely one of them—who, if they lived in New York or Los Angeles, would be much better known by the jazz- record-buying public. San Francisco may be a wonderful place to live, but musicians here just don’t have much of a chance to record and become more widely known.

EM: No, you don’t, but it’s so nice here. I was just talking to a lady today from New York, and we were saying the same thing. I just about grew up in New York. We were talking about the good things and the bad things. We love New York City, but it’s so hard. I can stand it, but I had a chance to get the kids out of there. Now they want to go back!

FK: Maybe that’s because they’ve not been there.

EM: We probably will eventually end up going back East, for a while anyhow, because my family’s still back there. I’m the only one out here. But it’s nice here, and the guys here are so nice. There’s a lot of musicians. I haven’t been playing with Bobby Hutcherson’s band for four months now. Bobby has another band and he’s gonna try to deal mainly with recording in the studios for a while to try to make himself some money. He’s always been hassled to get studio guys to do the records, and he just held out as long as he could. So he’s doing that, and I’m just playing all over.

FK: I would think you would be in very heavy demand.

EM: Yeah, it’s been pretty good. And I’m writing more. In fact, I’m supposed to send Johnny Griffin another tune.

FK: When you play a solo, do you have an idea that you build around, or do you just let it flow, take it as it comes?

EM: Since I’ve played the piano for so long, subconsciously I’m aware, so I just play along with the tune. I always tried to play like that before. When I first started off playing, if a guy told you to play a solo, that meant the chords. They’d give you one chorus or two choruses. But I know all drummers don’t think like that. In the new music, you can just play a solo, and maybe end the solo with a drum roll and the rest of the band comes in.

FK: In that situation, you have no choice.

EM: Right. There’s nothing to count, no changes.

FK: Up until Elvin came along, didn’t most drummers construct their solos to fit the chord changes? Max certainly seemed to think of his solos in that way.

EM: Max was my favorite for playing drum solos for years.

FK: What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever had to do as a drummer?

EM: Well, there’s two challenging things. One of them is playing in those stage shows. That’s challenging. That gets hectic, because it’s all reading.

FK: Challenging, but not especially pleasant?

EM: The pleasantry comes when it clicks. There are so many people involved in this one thing, that everybody has to do their part exactly right. When they do it, then it really clicks. That part of it is cool. But initially, when you start the rehearsals, that’s challenging. The most musically challenging thing I had was playing with Joanne Brackeen. I had met her one afternoon and she wanted me to play with her that night, and it just never happened, because I didn’t know what was going on with her music. Another challenging one for me was working with Eddie Jefferson, because I never had worked with a singer of that type. He was very definite in what he wanted to do and was actually a part of the bebop scene and knew that music. The first set I worked with him was just chaotic. We couldn’t keep the time together or anything. It was really bad vibes. I said, “Look, Eddie, if you want a different drummer, that’s cool.” So he says, “Man, you play your bass drum on all four?” I said, “Well, I can, but I haven’t been doing it on this gig.” He said, “Try playing 4/4 on the bass drum.” I did that, and the thing sailed the rest of the week. We had a ball. Sometimes it takes a little while to settle into a different person’s groove.

FK: And your most rewarding musical experience?

EM: So far, I’d have to say, some nights playing with Bobby. Oh, man, that band was hot. Bobby, George Cables, that was a good band.