The city of Baltimore certainly has its share of a rich jazz legacy. On the contemporary scene there is increasing jazz performance activity in Baltimore, as well as a growing cadre of exceptional young musicians who are striving to contribute. These include such talented players as vibist-multi-instrumentalist Warren Wolf and alto saxophonist Tim Green. Another who fits that mold is bass clarinetist-composer-bandleader Todd Marcus, who is also contributing to the city’s social activism fabric.
Following his performance at the loft series component of the recent DC Jazz Festival, we caught up with Todd Marcus for some questions…
You’ve chosen to specialize in a somewhat unusual instrument, the bass clarinet. Who and what were your inspirations in making that choice?
I started out as a clarinetist for many years – all through elementary and high school. But when I got to college, I made a friend who started turning me on to modern jazz and gave me an Eric Dolphy record and when I heard Dolphy play bass clarinet I felt that the horn offered a lot more options than soprano clarinet. So in 1997 I got my hands on a bass clarinet and made the switch. And it was many years before I picked up my soprano clarinet again and started reincorporating it into my work.
There aren’t a lot of examples of bass clarinet being used exclusively in modern jazz though. It’s sort of like you have the older New Orleans style players, Dolphy, and then a lot of free avant-garde style players. But the other big inspiration for me was Don Byron because he was one of the only musicians focusing just on soprano and bass clarinet in a way that folks hadn’t really been doing.
It hasn’t been easy because of challenges the bass clarinet presents on sonic and mechanicals level and I’ve worked to present the horn as an equal to saxophones in a straight-ahead playing context. With so few examples of people playing bass clarinet in modern jazz though, I think it’s ended up being an opportunity for me to chart some new territory for the instrument.
In addition to your music career you’ve also chosen a sort of spiritual/social activism path through establishment of Newborn Holistic Ministries. How do these two facets of your life – your music and your social activism – intersect and how has your social and spiritual activism influenced your music, and vice versa?
Well I got a late start on jazz. I actually grew up playing band and classical music on clarinet and when I went to college I was studying political science rather than music. So around that time I started exploring jazz on the side and taught myself theory, harmony, to improvise, and composition. But while I was slowly plugging away on that journey, I had begun volunteering with Sandtown Habitat for Humanity on my Saturdays and that exposed me to Sandtown-Winchester, an African-American community in Baltimore City. During this time I also met a pastor named Elder C.W. Harris and got to learn a lot from him about the community. It was a great opportunity for me because I was a young kid passionate about jazz legends like Coltrane and Miles and a lot of the civil rights era African-American history around that time that was so much a part of the music. So the chance to learn from Elder Harris, a 60 year old life-long community resident who had stayed to fight for the neighborhood when so many others had left was a real blessing. It really helped me figure things out for myself and realize I didn’t see a path for myself in political science but did feel strongly about being part of a community where I could really get into ongoing issues related to ongoing race issues. So in 1997 I left college, moved into the Sandtown-Winchester community and began working with Elder Harris on developing Newborn Holistic Ministries which was a community based nonprofit he’d started to address poverty related issues in our community. And now 15 years later, we’ve made some notable progress by starting and running a program called Martha’s Place for our women overcoming drug addiction and homelessness, a program called Jubilee Arts which offers arts classes and cultural opportunities as alternatives to the drugs and violence our community faces, and turned a number of abandoned buildings and vacant lots into beautifully renovated spaces for these programs.
But all the while that we were cultivating Newborn Holistic Ministries I was still going home at the end of the day and dealing with my other full-time job – jazz and the bass clarinet. For many years I kept the two – my music and my community work – separate because I didn’t want people in either of those worlds to think I was just a part-time enthusiast rather than someone seriously dedicated to each. But over time as I’ve established myself in both, I’ve become comfortable merging these two worlds with people. And at this point I couldn’t see myself doing just one without the other. For me my music is my creative voice and an expression of who I am while my community work is a manifestation of my belief that we all have a responsibility to be engaged at some level in service whether it’s on local or global issues. Nowadays I even have opportunities to combine the two as I’ve held a number of concerts in my community which once had a rich history of jazz (on Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue) and so I’m trying to keep that legacy alive.
Talk about your Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra. When and how did you determine that you wanted to develop a larger ensemble, a broader canvas for your expressions?
Todd Marcus Nonet performing at the DC Jazz Festival
For me this came about as I was really getting into jazz when I was 19 or 20 and had the chance to hear a large group in NY at Smalls called the Jason Lindner Big Band. While I can’t say I’m a huge traditional big band aficionado, I was really taken with the Lindner Big Band because it had arrangements with rich modern harmonies and rhythms and would break down to soloing more like in a quartet with longer intense solos. So hearing that kind of writing really inspired me to start exploring my own writing and arranging for a larger ensemble. Also, hearing Joe Henderson’s Big Band album that came out around that time in the late 1990’s was also a group whose writing inspired me and gave me ideas.
What have been some of your recent Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra activities, and do you have plans to record this unit?
The past year has been a good one for this band with a lot of performances. We received the Residency grant from Chamber Music America to do a year of clinics and concerts so that was a fun way to keep the band working while also engaging new audiences and younger musicians in the music through the clinics we did. The project actually just wrapped up in May when we did a concert in Baltimore and brought in Bennie Maupin as a featured guest. It was a really great show and even though he was playing the tenor sax part, he did bring his bass clarinet so for one selection we played one of his tunes and just he and I played bass clarinet along with the rhythm section. He sounded beautiful and it was a special moment for me to be able to play together with him since he is one of the important people to have given the bass clarinet a voice in jazz. I’m actually hoping we can do some more shows with him next year and then record. I’m looking into some grants now to try to make it happen.
On the musical side of things, I still slowly but steadily continue to write new music for the band. I say slowly because my pieces are often fairly complex with different movements and multiple themes and feels so I find it takes me more time to nurse a composition to fruition these days. Also, over the past couple years I’ve been doing a lot of incorporating Middle-Eastern influences in my writing. I’m half Egyptian so this has been something that I’ve been interested in and exploring a lot as a way to pull something unique from my culture and fuse it with my music. It’s been challenging because jazz and Middle-Eastern music are so different. While jazz uses a lot of rich harmony, Middle-Eastern music tends to be a lot of unison playing or over drones and if you try to add chords, it sort of takes away the Middle-Eastern feel of the music. So it’s taken a lot of experimenting to find ways to make this fusion of the two musics work and I think that lately it’s really been paying off with how my compositions have been progressing.
Has your Jazz Orchestra been more about your playing, or your composing aspirations?
I think it’s been slightly more about my composing and arranging but the playing is still a huge part. And with so many horn players, I have a lot of soloists to feature and try to get everyone heard during each show. Plus, I really like each soloist to really open up and dig in like we do in small group settings because that’s the kind of intensity that really excites me as a listener. But that said, this group has really been a setting for me to deeply explore my compositions in a way that can’t always be done with my quartet. There’s a fullness and range of options from having six horns that lets me do a lot of creative things with the music. And this really lets me tell a story with music by having different movements and chapters that evolve and grow and make the arrangements very rich.
Talk about your work with Barbara & Carl Grubbs and their Contemporary Arts Inc.
I’ve known the Carl and Barbara Grubbs for many years. Actually when I first started getting serious about jazz I took some lessons with Carl back in 1997. I remember I had been in an art store one day back in 1997 looking at jazz paintings and the owner started telling me about Carl and his connection to Coltrane by being Naima’s cousin. And he called Carl up on the spot and put me on the phone with Carl and we talked and set up a lesson. So that was my first introduction to not just Carl and Barbara but a chance to connect with an elder who had been part of the music as a performer and with many other important musicians.
Years later I got to know about the great jazz education work that the Grubbses do with their organization Contemporary Arts Inc. And it just so happened that we had both independently been trying to get grant support for our work from Chamber Music America which is an arts organization in NY that funds a lot of jazz programs. It was actually the staff at Chamber Music America that felt strongly about each our body of work and suggested that we partner together to apply for their Residency grant project. So we did that and got a major grant to do a year of clinics and concerts designed to engage new audiences in jazz.
The project was a ton of work in addition to the musical aspects because on an administrative level we had to setup about 24 clinics and concerts with multiple partners. But Barbara (who is the Executive Director of Contemporary Arts) and I really worked well together and created a project that reached thousands of people. Our clinics exposed students to jazz and actually got them playing my original music with my band. So it was very much geared towards engaging them directly in my music and having them play alongside professional musicians plus we covered topics like music business. I think it went pretty well overall and was a great model for any clinics I’d do in the future.
Any further thoughts or plans you’d like to talk about?
In addition to my jazz orchestra, I also do a lot with my quartet, trio, and duo and I actually have a new quartet album coming out this fall that I think came out really nice. The recording features my original compositions and arrangements of some jazz standards and uses two different quartets. One includes Xavier Davis on piano, Eric Wheeler on bass, and Eric Kennedy on drums and the other quartet uses George Colligan on piano, Eric Wheeler again on bass, and Warren Wolf. Plus, Don Byron plays clarinet on a few tracks so it is a very special recording for me. It’s on Hipnotic Records which is an indie label based in Washington, DC that has been very supportive of me. It’s looking like the record will be released in September so we’ll have CD release dates all throughout the fall and culminate with a performance at the Mid Atlantic Jazz Festival in February. Really looking forward to it all.
As for other info about me and what I’m up to, I always keep my website (www.toddmarcusjazz.com) up to date so that’s a good way to keep track of me. And for my community work, that website is www.newbornholisticministries.com.