Just about every city has a first-call jazz drummer, the player that heavyweight out-of-towners hire when they’re traveling without their own rhythm section. From 1968 until his death last September at 73, Eddie Marshall was the cat who got the call.
Even before he became the house drummer at the storied North Beach jazz club Keystone Korner, accompanying a steady parade of legends such as Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, Bobby Hutcherson and Woody Shaw, Marshall had established himself as a true trap set poet. An unfailingly swinging and tasteful accompanist whose combination of poise and intensity elevated every gig he played, Marshall choose the San Francisco good life over the New York hustle, assuring that his reputation as a superlative player was confined mostly to his peers.
He was so busy accompanying other players that he was well into middle age before he started to concentrate on leading his own band. When he assembled a quintet in 1989, Marshall recruited veteran peers, like pianist Mark Levine, and rising young stars, like Berkeley High alumnus Peck Allmond. In honor of his life and spirit, the Jazzschool, where Marshall was a longtime faculty member, is launching the Eddie Marshall Scholarship Fund at Freight & Salvage Sunday with the 1st Annual Eddie Marshall Tribute.
The concert features the core of Marshall’s early 1990s band, including Levine, tenor saxophonist Kenny Brooks and Allmond on trumpet and saxophones and bassist Jeff Chambers, with drummer Akira Tana rounding out the quintet (Yoshi’s San Francisco is hosting another concert on Feb. 19, “Celebrating Eddie Marshall,” featuring Bobby Hutcherson, Bobby McFerrin, and the drummer’s mid-90s band Holy Mischief).
For Allmond, who spent countless nights watching Marshall on the Keystone bandstand, the drummer was a figure of awe. “I was kind of scared of him, but after high school I got to know him from playing on the scene and I realized Eddie was one of the kindest people I ever met,” Allmond says.
When Marshall recruited him for his band in 1989, Allmond felt surprised and delighted, though it was a full year before he really felt he had a handle on the music. An inspired composer, Marshall created the group as an outlet for his writing, but he also encouraged his sidemen to bring in their own pieces.
“His tunes are really amazing, very complicated, very humorous and swinging,” Allmond says. “So here was the guy I’d seen playing with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and he’s saying, Peck, why don’t you bring in another tune? That was so helpful to my development.”
Allmond, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1980, played with Marshall’s quinet until the end of 1993, when he relocated to New York City. While the band worked regularly around the region, with Jazz At Pearl’s serving as homebase, Marshall never got the group into the studio.
As part of his Bay Area Jazz Archives series on Jazzschool Records, pianist Mark Levine recently released a double album, “Jazz at Filoli,” that documents Marshall’s quintet in action in the summer of 1992. Beautifully recorded by Bud Spangler, the session offers a potent reminder of the drummer’s manifold gifts as a composer with an ear for sinuous melodies, leaving no doubt why Chamber Music America bestowed Marshall with several grants.
Saving the day
His talent was a combination of nature and nurture. His grandfather was Kaiser Marshall, a pioneering drummer who played with the great Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in the mid-1920s. Though Eddie had no contact with him while growing up in Springfield, Mass., both his parents played piano, his mother for the church choir and his father in nightclubs. Marshall took piano lessons as a child but basically taught himself to play drums when his father’s band would break from rehearsing. One day, the drummer had to leave town to avoid arrest, and the 14-year-old saved the day.
In a 2000 conversation in the Noe Valley home he shared with his wife Sue Trupin, Marshall recounted his young life’s turning point. “I said, ‘Dad, I can do this job,’” Marshall recalled. “He was stuck, so he had to take a chance. I remember I got paid $11, and I was just thrilled. I had never ever wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be a truck driver or something. But that $11 really did it. I worked with my dad for about six months, and when I turned 15, I started working with my uncle, who had a rhythm and blues band called Cookie and the Seven Sharps.”
During his high school years, Marshall spent more time on the bandstand than he did in the classroom. When he graduated at 17, he left Springfield for New York City, determined to break in to the jazz big leagues. Drawing on his acquaintance with Horace Silver, whom he knew from back home, Marshall persuaded the bandleader to let him try out at the end of an audition for a new drummer.
“It was like 2:30 in the morning when I finally got a chance to play,” Marshall said. “I called for ‘Filthy McNasty’ and it was so fast and so strong I was paralyzed. I just barely made it through the song. I had never played with guys of this caliber. The dynamics and intensity were totally overwhelming. I just went home and really got into practicing.”
First major gig
The practice paid off in 1958, when he landed his first major gig, joining the quartet of pianist-composer Toshiko Akiyoshi and her then-husband, alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano. He spent years touring the world with Akiyoshi continued to perform with her on West Coast gigs for the next five decades . An early-’60s stint in the Army took him off the scene for a while, but when he returned he quickly landed a year-long gig with Stan Getz and later toured with Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Marshall landed in San Francisco in 1967, when an old buddy, pianist Mike Nock, told him that alto saxophonist John Handy was looking for a drummer. Marshall was planning to head back to New York, but then he and Nock founded the groundbreaking fusion band the Fourth Way, one of the first jazz groups to plug in and incorporate elements of rock.
“Bill Graham really liked us, so we opened for a lot of groups and worked all the time,” Marshall said. “I really had to get myself together to play that music, because it was so aggressive. I quit smoking and drinking and everything, ’cause I was getting out of breath.”
When the Fourth Way slowed down, Marshall planned to move back to New York. “And then the Keystone club opened, and Todd Barkan said, ‘Man, all these guys are going to be coming, and they all ask who’s the drummer out here.’ So I stayed and I just never looked back.”
Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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