Marjorie Hyams (1920-2012), a 1940s big-band and bebop vibraphonist who transformed the instrument's role in small groups and was the last surviving member of the original George Shearing Quintet, died on June 14 in Monrovia, Calif., after a long illness. She was 91.
Born in Queens, N.Y., Marjorie was inspired by her older brother Mark, who played with bands in the mid-1930s led by Will Hudson and Spud Murphy. Marjorie began playing piano at age 6 after falling in love with recordings by jazz pianists and classical composer Igor Stravinsky.
In the early 1940s, Marjorie was featured regularly in a quintet on NBC—when radio was required by the musicians' union to use live musicians rather than records to entertain listeners. But instead of playing the piano, Marjorie was asked to play the vibes, an instrument that was completely new to her. The group already had a pianist.
In 1944, with World War II being fought on two fronts, many big bands faced a shortage of seasoned male musicians, a large number of whom had been drafted. Some bands turned to female talent to fill empty chairs. One of those band leaders was Woody Herman, who discovered Marjorie playing in Atlantic City and hired her immediately. Though she admired Herman, Marjorie said she found the juvenile pranks and sexist needling by male bandmates tiresome.
While touring and recording with Herman, Marjorie also recorded with pianist Mary Lou Williams [pictured] in 1946 in an all-female quintet setting—in some ways a structural model for the George Shearing Quintet. During the mid-1940s, Marjorie also played and recorded in a small group led by Charlie Ventura, an ensemble she said was rather gruff-sounding.
In 1948, Marjorie found herself on her own. The musicians' union prohibited members from recording in an effort to pressure record companies to pay royalties. The job action forced changes in the size and work schedules of bands.
Bands that had been financially dependent on recording were forced to shrink for touring at a time when musician-veterans were seeking their old jobs. Marjorie left Herman and became a solo act in 1948—singing and playing show tunes on the piano in New York's Greenwich Village. A fortuitous encounter two years earlier with Leonard Feather at a club would come in handy in '48. [Pictured: Leonard Feather administering his first "Blindfold Test" to Mary Lou Williams in the Sept. 1946 issue of Metronome; photo by Zinn Arthur]
During one of Marjorie's breaks between sets, Feather asked her if she wanted to play vibes in a quintet being formed by Shearing. Marjorie jumped at the chance.
Shearing's decision to add a vibraphone in late 1948 came in the wake of a personnel change. His working quartet had just lost clarinetist Buddy DeFranco [pictured], who decided to sign a record deal with Capitol. Shearing was signed to MGM. Fortunately for Marjorie, she had Buddy's book of arrangements, which she transcribed for a quintet. Which means Marjorie was the original orchestrator of the sound of the George Shearing Quintet, based on Shearing's direction, of course.
The George Shearing Quintet began recording in January 1949 and had a swinging, elegant sound—akin to a fist-full of ice cubes being dropped into a crystal tumbler at a private club. Voiced carefully, so all members appeared to moving in the same direction in swinging unison, the quintet was the first working jazz combo to be integrated by race and sex. Shearing, guitarist Chuck Wayne and Marjorie were white, while bassist John Levy and drummer Denzil Best were black.
Though the group's mix by race and sex mattered little in New York, the composition presented a range of volatile risks on the road, particularly in the Midwest and South. On such tours, Marjorie told me, the racial tension was often high. Glares often landed on her, she said, given the sexual overtones of her inclusion in a mixed-race band.
But Marjorie ignored all hostility, courageously soldiering on and winning support for the group through her pleasant manner, conservative dress and hip playing style. At which point, the overwhelming beauty and swing of the music forced patrons to decide whether they were going to make a fuss and end what they were hearing or let their hearts enjoy the show.
In most cases, Marjorie said, ruffled audience members chose to nurse drinks and listen rather than give in to the stupidity of what they were thinking. But there were plenty of close calls, she said.
After roughly 32 recordings with the George Shearing Quintet—many of them hits—Marjorie decided to leave the group in 1951 to start a family in Chicago. In the decades that followed, Marjorie taught locally, played and arranged. In later years, Feather was often quoted in print saying that she had "retired," which was always a sore point with Marjorie. Despite leaving Shearing in 1951 to stop touring and have a more stable family life, she remained a musician—her life-long passion.
What also isn't widely known about Marjorie is that in addition to being a multi-talented musician, an early bebop vibist and an unintentional champion for female and civil rights, she had a peachy, savvy personality that won you over instantly. And upon a careful listen, you recognize that Marjorie, in addition to having all of the qualities mentioned above, was a darn good vibist with lovely taste. You didn't travel in those musical circles in the 1940s just by applying lipstick correctly.
During our conversations, Marjorie was always relaxed, playful, sharp and modest. I will truly miss her. She was as cool as the instrument she played and proved time and time again that the best way to deal with ignorance is to be exceptional.
JazzWax notes: To read my 2011 interview with Marjorie Hyams, go here. To read my 2011 conversation with Buddy DeFranco on the George Shearing "sound," go here. A special thanks to Lisa Ericksson, Marjorie's daughter, who shares all of her mother's qualities.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Marjorie Hyams' earliest recordings on Flip Phillips' A Melody From the Sky (here}, on Woody Herman's recordings between 1944 and '45, on Mary Lou Williams on The Women: Classic Female Jazz Artists 1939-1952 (here) and Charlie Ventura 1946-47 (here).
The most complete collection of Marjorie's work with Shearing is George Shearing: From Battersea to Broadway.
JazzWax clip: Here's the George Shearing Quintet's I'll Remember April from December 1949—one of Marjorie's favorites...
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