On the phone, Arno Marsh sounds the way he plays. There's a smoothness to his voice, and the cadence of his words swings. Swinging, in general, is a lost art. Those who came up in the '40s and '50s have a real knack for it. When they start blowing, they slip right into the groove, with that two-four junkyard dog chasing after them. [Pictured: Arno Marsh in recent years, courtesy of Arno Marsh]
Swinging, of course, has nothing to do with reading. As Arno says, you feel it and want to play it, and your mouth and fingers do the rest. Guys from the big band era have that feel embedded in their souls, the way the rest of us automatically remember how to ride a bike. For Arno, swinging comes naturally. [Photo of Arno Marsh playing Stan Getz's 1954 Selmer Mark VI, courtesy of Randy Marsh]
In Part 2 of my two-part interview with Arno, the tenor saxophonist talks about Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and the hardships of the road in the early '50s...
JazzWax: What was Woody Herman like?
Arno Marsh: Let me tell you something about Woody. Everyone who had worked in that band loved the man. Woody showed his musicians enormous respect. If he didn’t like you, you left pretty quickly. That happened to tenor saxophonist Phil Urso. He was a strange guy. I never got close to him. He got fired during a Hollywood broadcast. He did something goofy and was gone.
JW: Was the Third Herd band drug-free?
AM: As far as I knew there were no drug users on that band. Woody had put up with that in the Four Brothers band and it lost quite a bit of money when he had to break it up. After the Four Brothers band, Woody wanted an orchestra that could connect with more fans. The Third Herd’s book was more danceable.
JW: You left Herman in 1953?
AM: Yes. I went back to Grand Rapids. I was on the road so long it started to get to me. Frankly, I don’t know how all those bandleaders did it.
JW: Why was the road so hard?
AM: You’re traveling 300 to 400 miles each day, sometimes through the night. Once in a while you get to stay in one location for a while, but that was rare. You’re checking in and out of hotels. [Photo of Woody Herman and Arno Marsh in 1952, courtesy of Arno Marsh]
JW: How did you do the wash?
AM: Hotels had laundry service. You usually didn’t eat in the room. You ate in hotel coffee shops.
JW: How did the band travel in ’52 and ‘53?
AM: By car. Woody leased a fleet of four cars. We didn’t follow each other. That was a recipe for trouble. Each driver knew the directions and drove independently of each other. [Photo of Arno Marsh and a photo-miffed Woody Herman in 1952, courtesy of Arno Marsh]
JW: What about the wardrobe and drums?
AM: We carried our horns in the cars. But the band boy handled all the clothes and drums. He drove a small van. He traveled independently as well, often leaving ahead of us so he could get there first and set up. [Photo of Arno Marsh, left, and Bill Harris on solo trombone in 1956, courtesty of Arno Marsh]
JW: Where did you eat?
AM: At truck stops. You have to remember that this was the days before air conditioning in cars. In warm weather, it could be very hot. And if the heat wasn’t working, cold in the winter. [Photo of Arno Marsh soloing with Woody Herman in 1956, courtesy of Arno Marsh]
JW: And if you were black?
AM: Oh, it was much harder.
I remember we did a concert tour with Dinah Washington and the Mills Brothers. When we got down South, they had to stay in black neighborhoods. I was driving a station wagon on that trip while the rest for the band was on the bus. I was driving the guitar player in the Mills Brothers. I stayed where Dinah and the Mills Brothers stayed. I can tell you it was demeaning for people as talented as they were. But the places we stayed were so friendly to me, and the food was so good. [Photo of Victor Feldman on vibes with Arno Marsh behind, right, in Woody Herman's 1956 road band, courtesy of Arno Marsh]
JW: When you went back home, what did you do?
AM: I formed my own group. Norm Schnell on piano, Bob Tuller on bass, Dick Twelvetrees on drums and me on tenor. We worked at the Hotel Rowe in Grand Rapids. Then we went up north in the summer, since hotel management would shut the Rowe in the hot weather. [Photo of Woody Herman's Third Herd courtesy of Arno Marsh]
JW: What did you do in the years that followed?
AM: I played the Rowe for a couple of years. Then in December 1955, I went back with Woody. [Photo of Woody Herman's Third Herd, courtesy of Arno Marsh]
AM: I missed the big time. Woody kept that band together until 1956. Then he broke it up to go into the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas.
JW: What did you do?
AM: I went to Chicago and transferred into the union there. While I was there, Stan Kenton was at the Blue Note. He needed a saxophonist because Lennie Niehaus was leaving. His wife had just had a baby. Tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins shifted to lead alto, and I played Bill’s tenor book. The other reeds were Billy Root on tenor and Pepper Adams on baritone.
JW: Big difference in the reed sections?
AM: Oh yes. Woody was the kind of bandleader who would get up and start stomping and swinging right away. Kenton’s band was so heavily loaded it was like trying to pick up a house. The emphasis was always on volume rather than swing. This was 1956. I was with Kenton for only about 30 days. He broke up that band in Los Angeles.
JW: What was next for you?
AM: I decided to transfer into the Los Angeles local. While I was there, I played in one of Maynard’s Dreambands [pictured]. The charts were by Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel and Willie Maiden. The reeds were Joe Maini on alto, Richie Kamuca and me on tenor, and Willie Maiden on baritone.
JW: What else did you do in L.A.?
AM: I auditioned for Les Brown and got the gig. Billy Usselton was leaving to join Ray Anthony, who had landed a TV show. But then Usselton decided not to leave, and the Brown gig fell through for me.
JW: What happened next?
AM: I joined Hank Penny in Las Vegas.
Hank was a country humorist. The band behind him was a small jazz group. I spent two years with Penny in Vegas.
JW: How did you get the job?
AM: Sue Thompson, Penny’s wife, sang with his band. She talked to the band’s bass player to introduce us.
JW: What was the town like back then?
AM: Vegas in the late 50s was really different. It was just starting to surpass Reno’s population. There was so much work for a musician. If you could play, you didn’t stop working. I transferred into the Las Vegas union. [Pictured, from left: trombonist Trummy Young, radio personality Ted Phillips and Arno Marsh in 1957 outside radio station KOWL in Lake Tahoe, courtesy of Arno Marsh]
JW: You played with Charlie Ventura there?
AM: That’s right. Charlie came into the Thunderbird Hotel and needed a tenor player. Ventura was a sweetheart. Al Cohn had written his book. They were all groovy charts. There were four reeds, two trombones, two trumpets, Charlie on tenor, and a trio. We were working opposite Jackie and Roy in ‘57.
JW: Did you stay out there?
AM: I did. I worked the Reno-Lake Tahoe-Las Vegas circuit.
JW: Did you spend any time in New York?
AM: Yes, when I was with Woody in ’52 and ‘53. One time we were working at the Band Box, which was next door to Birdland. During a break, we went up to the street for some air. A cab pulled up and Charlie Parker jumped out. But he couldn’t pay the driver. I remember he was playing Birdland that night with Art Taylor, George Duvivier and Bud Powell. [Photo by Bob Parent]
JW: What happened?
AM: While the cab was idling, Parker ran down to the bar to get some money. But he came back empty-handed. They wouldn’t give him an advance. So I paid his fare.
JW: Did you get to know Parker?
AM: I was rooming with baritone saxophonist Sam Staff in Woody’s band. Sam played baritone. We roomed at the Hotel Knickerbocker, which was on 45th St. just east of Broadway. Sam knew Parker, and sometimes Parker would come up, and they’d play chess. Parker was a real nice guy.
JW: Was that the first time you met Parker?
AM: Actually no. One time, when I was with one of those territory bands back in 1946 or '47, we played in Kansas City. After our show was over, a bunch of the guys went to this old movie theater on 18th and Vine, which had become a club.
AM: They had what were called Blue Monday Sessions. These were jam sessions that would start late Sunday night and last until daybreak on Monday. Well, we’re playing one of those, and in comes this guy with an alto saxophone. He got up and played in front of us and floored everyone. It was Parker. He was in K.C. visiting his mother.
JW: Who was your biggest influence?
AM: Chu Berry, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. Sonny Rollins. And Wardell Gray and Stan Getz. I loved Getz and marveled at his playing. His ability, facility and knowledge and concept were amazing. [Photo of San Getz and fan Roy Mathers]
JW: What was the turning point in Las Vegas for jazz musicians?
AM: I think the long musicians’ strike in 1989. After it was settled, the hotels didn’t want us anymore. There’s very little work there now for older musicians. I live about 25 miles out of town. I play once a week or so with a couple of bands that features young musicians and us older guys. It keeps our chops in shape.
JazzWax tracks: If you dig Arno Marsh, you're in luck. Bob Lorenz's Woofy Productions has four live recordings of Arno from 1997 and 2004 that are absolutely superb. They're available on CD or as a download. Here's what's available at Woofy (just click on the album covers when you reach the page)...
- Arno Marsh Quintet with Carl Fontana Live at Capozzoli's, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 (1997)
- The Arno Marsh Quintet: Sunday Afternoons at the Lighthouse Cafe (2004)
JazzWax clips: Here's Arno Marsh in 2009 with fellow saxophonist Tom Hall playing Disc Jockey Jump. Arno is on the left...