If you were a superb musician back in the 1940s and lived in a city or moved to one, you were likely going to find yourself auditioning for a name band pretty quickly. But for every great musician who wound up in a major orchestra, there were hundreds of others who remained in their smaller home towns and earned a decent living playing in territory bands. Tenor saxophonist Arno Marsh was one of those regional musicians—until he ran into Urbie Green in 1951. [Pictured, from left: Trumpeter Don Fagerquist, Arno Marsh and tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld at Capitol Records in Hollywood in 1958, courtesy of Arno Marsh]
Unlike many of the tenor saxophonists who worshiped Lester Young and adapted his cooler, linear sound, Arno favored Chu Berry [pictured], Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins—saxophonists with more bite. In the '50s, Marsh played in Woody Herman's Third Herd, with stints in the '56 orchestras of Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson before settling in Las Vegas.
In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Arno, 83, the tenor saxophonist talks about growing up in the Midwest, and his early career on local bands that toured neighboring states.
JazzWax: What did your father do in Grand Rapids?
Arno Marsh: My dad played banjo, before the guitar became popular. Then he was a professional guitarist. He also copied music for the Grand Rapids Symphony. And in his spare time he was a painter and mechanical draftsman. Later in life he built a lake resort in Northern Michigan.
JW: Your dad was quite something.
AM: He was. My mother was a piano player and flutist. But back in the early days when they met, she played piano in silent movies. Unfortunately my mom became ill early.
JW: What happened?
AM: Schizophrenia. She was in and out of institutions when I was young. As a result, I hardly knew her. I only saw her maybe three or four times in my life.
JW: Who raised you?
AM: My grandparents. My dad, my brother and I lived all with them in their house. At least we had the influence of one female.
JW: Is your brother older or younger than you?
AM: My brother Jim is a year younger. He joined the Army when he was 18 years old and spent his career in the military. He wasn’t musically inclined.
JW: How did you become interested in music?
AM: I loved music from the time I was a child. I always was more interested in listening to Louis Armstrong than Guy Lombardo. And there was always music in the house. My father often had jam sessions there, and he played jazz—or whatever they played in the 1930s.
JW: Did you listen to records?
AM: Not records, just the family radio. I’d listen to whatever came on. When I was 10 years old, the doctor diagnosed me as being asthmatic. He told my dad he should get me blowing an instrument.
JW: What did your dad do?
AM: He brought home a trumpet, but I didn’t like it. So he brought home an alto sax. That was better, and I took some private lessons. In high school I played in the marching and concert bands. Pianist Clare Fischer was there, too. He organized our school’s first dance band.
JW: What was your first professional job?
AM: In1946, I left high school to go out on the road in a sleeper bus doing one nighters with the Walter Marty Orchestra, a territory band. Marty played alto sax.
JW: Did your high school pals join you?
AM: Yes, eventually, I got a whole bunch of guys from Grand Rapids on the band. Clare and his trumpeter-brother Dirk, trumpeter Bill Velten, drummer Mike Balish, tenor saxophonist Morey Velten. There were six of us. Eventually we all went with John Paul Jones, another territory band out of Salina, Kan. We used stock arrangements. I wasn’t with the band very long—maybe into 1947. Jones broke it up, and all of us went home to Grand Rapids.
JW: How did you wind up on the tenor sax?
AM: I worked with a band called the Duke Ambassadors, a band started by Sonny Burke in the '30s at Duke University. When I was on the band, it was fronted by drummer Sammy Fletcher. He came in to do a summer job in Michigan and he needed a tenor saxophonist. I worked with the band during the summers of 1947 and '48. [Pictured: The Duke Ambassadors in 1937]
JW: What did you do after playing with the Duke Ambassadors?
AM: I went with Joe Saunders. He was a piano player. I did some time on the road playing one-nighters. By 1949, I went with pianist Lee Lockwood in St. Joseph, Mich., at the Whitcomb Hotel [pictured]. It was strictly dinner music and dancing. I did that for a year, until 1950.
JW: What did you do next?
AM: I went back to Grand Rapids again. There weren’t many gigs. Back home, guys would meet, shake hands and play stock arrangements. I worked a lot at the Crispus Attucks American Legion Hall with small groups. Then I did after-hours clubs at the Lamar Hotel. It was just a quartet fronted by Harold “Popeye” Booker, a piano player. Dick Twelvetrees was the drummer and Pete Glover was on bass and me on tenor and alto. We played strictly jazz. [Pictured: Eastown Theater in Grand Rapids, Mich.]
JW: How did you get discovered by Woody Herman?
AM: Woody’s band came through Muskegon, Mich,, and played at the Fruitport Pavilion. I already knew Urbie Green.
JW: When did you meet Green?
AM: When Urbie [pictured] was with Gene Krupa’s band in 1948. He had asked me to sit in with some of the guys in the band when they closed down the joint where they were playing. My chops were up, and I had made an impression. I was working with the Duke Ambassadors in Michigan, playing a ballroom in Grand Haven, when they came through. We were off that day, so I had a chance to meet Don Fagerquist and Al Porcino. Urbie was a nice guy.
JW: How did your audition go with Herman?
AM: It went great. Soon after the audition I received a telegram offering me a chair in the band. They were in Detroit at that point. But I had an interesting situation.
AM: In one hand I had Woody’s wire asking me to join the band. In the other I had a draft notice just as the Korean War was heating up.
JW: What happened?
AM: I took the physical but flunked. I had a history of being an asthmatic.
JW: So you joined Herman’s band?
AM: Yes, I joined Woody in December of 1951. We went out on the road for a few days to Oklahoma. On my first gig, I had to sight-read the band’s book.
JW: Whose chair did you fill?
AM: I replaced Kenny Pinson, who returned to Detroit. The reed section was me, Dick Hafer and Bill Perkins on tenors, with Sam Staff on baritone and Woody, of course, on alto. Nat Pierce was on piano, Sonny Igoe on drums, Chubby Jackson on bass, Urbie Green, his brother Jack and Carl Fontana on trombones, and Doug Mettome and Don Fagerquist at different points. [Photo, from left: Woody Herman, Arno Marsh, Dick Hafer, Bill Perkins and Sam Staff, courtesy of Arno Marsh]
JW: What do you remember of Fagerquist?
AM: His nickname was Dugan. When Chubby Jackson left the band, Red Kelly came in. He gave Don that name, and I have no idea what it signified.
JW: What other changes took place?
AM: Sonny Igoe was replaced by Art Mardigan. We started making noise with that band in 1952. We got into San Francisco and Ralph Gleason [pictured] wrote a column in the San Francisco Chronicle that named us "The Third Herd." Woody’s bands hadn’t been named before that.
JW: What did you think of Fagerquist?
AM: I enjoyed Don’s playing. He was such a tremendous jazz player. He was a funny guy.
JW: What did you think of Doug Mettome?
AM: He was a fantastic trumpet player. One of the biggest, fattest sounds I ever heard coming out of a horn. When I first joined the band, both Doug Mettome and Don Fagerquist were in there, if you can believe it. Don and Doug together were unbelievable. Don, of course, played jazz trumpet, and Doug played lead.
JW: And Chubby Jackson?
AM: Chubby was a very funny guy. He had been in Woody's 1945 "Goosey Gander" band. When I joined in '51, we had some uniforms made. The jacket was one color and the pants another. Chubby had his made in reverse colors. That's the kind of humor he had.
JazzWax tracks: Arno Marsh can be heard on Woody Herman recordings in 1952 and '53, as well as in 1956. One of the finest examples of Arno Marsh with the Woody Herman band is Woody Herman and His Orchestra: 1956. It's at Amazon as a download. Arno has a particularly fine solo on These Foolish Things.
JazzWax tracks: Here's Arno Marsh in Woody Herman's band in 1956 on Nat Pierce's arrangement of Horace Silver's Opus de Funk from the album mentioned above. The soloist is Richie Kamuca...