Warne Marsh

One of my first great musical experiences in New York happened shortly after I had arrived in 1980. I was rehearsing once a week with a band co-led by trumpeter Manny Duran and singer Carla White up in Breton Hall on 86th street and Broadway. During one of the rehearsals a shy thin gray haired man with a goatee walked in the room with a tenor saxophone and began to play with us. We were playing something like Tad Dameron's Hot Houseand this old guy begins to improvise like I had never heard before. With a sound that reminded me of Lester Young his lines came out snakelike weaving around smoothly, crossing over barlines with ease and playing amazingly complex rhythms throughout. This is what jazz is about I thought - improvising music in a completely unique style with a sense of exploration and risk taking. He was a musical tightrope walker keeping me in suspense as to what he would do next. Fantastic! After the piece was finished I was introduced to the one and only Warne Marsh. 

Shortly after this rehearsal I received a phone call from Warne inviting me over to his studio for a session. I was thrilled with the idea of getting a chance to play with this musical genius and I was curious as to what music he would want to play. At first Warne just called standards like God Bless the Child and Just You Just Me,but then he wanted to play some Charlie Parker compositions and other bop masterpieces. I felt as if he were testing me and finally near the end of the session Warne pulled out some very difficult and twisted music written by Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, pieces like Subconscious Lee and Lennies Pennies. I had never played such complicated bebop music before. I noticed that these pieces sounded very similar to Warnes style of improvising with their unusual rhythms and across the bar-line phrases. I took the music home and began working on it as Warne wanted to play again the following week and I also decided I had better go out and buy some recordings of this amazing music to find out what it should sound like and who these musicians were. I knew of Lee Konitz from the Birth of the Cool recordings with Miles Davis and I had heard about the great blind pianist Lennie Tristano but I really never knew anything about Warne. 

Warne was from Los Angeles born in 1927 to a musical family (his mother was a professional violinist). He began studying accordion very early but switched to tenor saxophone in his mid-teens in hopes of becoming a Hollywood studio musician. In those days Warne was a big fan of Ben Webster, Tex Beneke and Duke Ellington' band. In 1946 he went into the army where he met a trumpeter who told him about a brilliant jazz pianist named Lennie Tristano who he was studying with in New York. Shortly after Warne was transferred to an army base in New Jersey he sought out the blind pianist to take some lessons with him. Tristano immediately changed Warne's listening habits and encouraged him to check out Lester Young and Charlie Parker and to listen with more care. Lennie also taught him that you shouldn't imitate your idols but instead take the responsibility to find your own way. He also taught him to look towards 20century European music for new ideas especially to Bartok. Tristano saw that Bartok had taken the most advanced conventional harmony and meter and rhythm and began compounding them adding harmonies to harmonies, meters to meters and rhythms to rhythms creating poly-harmonies, poly-meters and poly-rhythms. Warne's incredible talent helped him to quickly absorb these complex new ideas and soon he became a member of Tristano's band. In 1949 Warne took part in a historic Tristano recording along with Lee Konitz when they recorded two pieces Intuition and Digression which were completely improvised with absolutely nothing preconceived. This was the first recording of free jazz. I was amazed when I first heard these pieces that they sounded so beautiful and not unlike the other precomposed compositions on the recording. This group obviously had played together many times before and as it turns out they had been experimenting with free improvisation for quite a while even trying to do this on gigs. This was not the free improvisation styles of Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor or Sun Ra of the 50's but a more melodic and harmonic one that lighted the path for the free improvisations of Keith Jarrett in the 70's. (The multi-instrumentalist and free improviser Anthony Braxton lists Warne as one of his heroes and on numerous occasions has recorded some of Warnes compositions and has publicly proclaimed him as a major influence on his free improvisation style). 

Warne stayed with Tristano for three years and like Lennie, Warne went on to become a teacher, as there just wasn't enough performing gigs to pay the bills. It was very sad for me to find out that this great musical genius was forced into manual labor as a swimming pool cleaner to survive. To me this is exactly what happens in a country that doesn't put any value on creativity and talent in the arts. And of course we all know great musicians or artists who are stuck in some dumb job just to pay the bills that should be out in public sharing their talents with the world. Anyway Warne just kept on playing when he could, working occasionally with Tristano or Konitz and with a group called Supersax that arranged Bird solos for an ensemble of saxophonists. He also toured Europe once in a while and had the occasional gig at the Village Vanguard but he never was given the credit he deserved as one of the most unique improvising saxophone players in the history of jazz. 

Fortunately there are a number of recordings available for you to hear how great Warne was. Check out the recordings he did with Tristano of course but also look for a great recording called Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz Live at Club Montmartre (1975) on the Storyville label or one he did for Criss Cross entitled Star Highs (1982) with Hank Jones or another fantastic one he recorded with pianist Bill Evans on Fantasy called Cross Currents (1977). A recent reissue shows Warne in top form in 1957 on the VSOP label with the title Music For Prancing and another great one on Criss Cross with Chet Baker called Blues For a Reason (1984). 

Warne Marsh died in 1987 on stage at Dante's a club in L.A. while playing one of his favorite standards Out Of Nowhere. I feel very fortunate to have gotten a chance to play with Warne and will always remember the many times we got together and experimented with his incredible musical ideas. I hope those of you out there that haven't heard of him will go out and check out some of his recordings. Thanks and see you next month.