The singing oncologist: Natalie Marshall in Berkeley

Natalie Marshall, a practicing oncologist,
Natalie Marshall, a practicing oncologist, is also an accomplished singer and uses it as therapy. She plays California Jazz Conservancy Saturday

Berkeley oncologist Natalie Marshall plunged into jazz vocals to scratch her own creative itch. But as she’s gained confidence, technique and musical knowledge, Marshall has found that singing can also have therapeutic applications.

“Sometimes a patient will say ‘I’m feeling kind of bad today, can you sing me a song?’” says Marshall, who performs 8 p.m. Saturday as part of the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rising Stars Series. “One patient had been really sick and as she was getting better one day she said I need some music therapy. We ended up singing ‘So Far So Good’ in the hospital room together. It’s a healing moment that’s not about giving an injection.”

A longtime jazz fan, she started working with musicians about five years ago while living in Albuquerque. She was on the board of the respected non-profit Outpost Performance Space when her husband, guitarist and playwright David Weisberg, encouraged her to sign up for a 10-week course that essentially brought a group of professional and amateur musicians together for impromptu sessions.

“I had so much fun I got bitten by the bug,” she says. “From that course a few people came together and we spent nine months practicing before our first gig, which was in an Albuquerque bowling alley.”


She came to the course completely untrained, but she possessed a good ear and a lifetime of listening to great singers like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day. Constructive criticism from the professional players guided her development. When some of those musicians left the area, she launched her own band the Marshall Plan with veteran guitarist Tony Cesarano, a protégé of the great Hungarian-born guitarist Attila Zoller (Cesarano will be joining Marshall on Saturday, along with reed expert Danny Bittker, bassist Adam Gay, and drummer Bryan Bowman).

“Tony is my mentor,” Marshall says. “He’s a big inspiration who helped me to be a better singer and develop arrangements.”

While heartbroken to leave her musical compatriots behind, Marshall, Weisberg and their son were eager to find a city with more cultural ferment, and ended up moving to Berkeley in January 2013. As a playwright, Weisberg has found a home at Berkeley’s Central Works Theater Company, which is premiering his play Totem and Taboo in February.

Marshall worried she was unprepared for the level of musicianship in the Bay Area, and ended up enrolling in a class at the CJC with Laurie Antonioli, who was immediately impressed by her knowledge of the idiom, particularly vocalese. “She knows all the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross tunes!” Antonioli says. “It’s a rarity to have someone like that walk through the doors of the school. She’s very hard working.”

Now enrolled in the CJC’s Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies, Marshall has learned how to read music, play basic piano, and has started creating her own vocalese pieces, writing lyrics to recorded jazz solos. The Jazzschool gig is her first sitdown concert in the Bay Area, but she’s played for numerous ballroom dance events, where she gained invaluable experience watching dancers respond to the music.

“It’s very unlike doing a restaurant gig where people might be talking the whole time,” she says. “The dancers are really zeroed into the band.”

For Saturday’s concert, Marshall is introducing a new vocalese piece based on a Chet Baker trumpet solo on “The Answer Is Yes,” a tune from guitarist Jim Hall’s 1975 album Concierto (CTI). She’s created a duet arrangement of “I Thought About You” featuring Bittker’s bass clarinet (“One of my favorite instruments,” Marshall says), and several bossa nova numbers featuring Cesarano. Her love of swing era songs is represented by “The Fable of the Rose,” a minor hit for Helen Forrest with Benny Goodman in 1939.


While she doesn’t have any plans to give up her medical day gig, Marshall doesn’t see her musical journey ending any time soon. “I’m a doctor who likes to sing on the side,” she says. “You know that British television show The Singing Detective? I’m the singing oncologist. I’d like to have one or two a month regularly, where I can do the thing that makes me so happy.”

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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