Conversation about the ineffable with Charlie McPherson and Joe Marillo

Sax

Marillo at the Apollo.  "When I was ver-r-ry young, it was Jimmy Dorsey. The sweetness of his tone. And from there, it was Charlie Parker."
  • Marillo at the Apollo. "When I was ver-r-ry young, it was Jimmy Dorsey. The sweetness of his tone. And from there, it was Charlie Parker."

"Well, you know, I, okay, let me see," Charles McPherson sounded more spirited than stumped.

I'd just asked a saxophone legend — Charles McPherson! — what originally attracted him to the saxophone. That was like asking the sun why it was hot. But McPherson's husky, perpetually happy-sounding voice shaded into a playful growl. "I guess we'll get into some primordial..." and then McPherson breathed in and started off — improvising soulful answers. "I was attracted to the sax first of all when I was really young, when I was, say, four, when bands used to come through Joplin, Missouri, at the foot of the Ozarks." (When McPherson says "Missouri," it sounds like "Mizzura."

"In 1974 I talked the Catamaran into going with jazz shows six nights a week. Everybody came here. Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, Ahmad Jamal."

"In 1974 I talked the Catamaran into going with jazz shows six nights a week. Everybody came here. Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, Ahmad Jamal."

"And these territorial swing bands would come through the area in the summertime and play at a big park, and I was mesmerized and very attracted to the saxophone. Now what got me, of course, was the shiny, gold color." (The gruff and feeling way McPherson punched that word, "gold....") "And I guess the shape of it," he said. (He drew out the word "shape," swooping through the intonation as though his mouth were imagining a sax's swanlike nape, and valved and keyed body, and the sudden swerve upward to its opening, called a "bell.") And then McPherson said it again, "The sha-a-aype of a saxophone." He went on, "And, of course, I liked the sound itself. But I didn't get a chance to play one until I was about 12 or 13."

Joe Marillo: "People come in to a bar, they'll ask for some silly tune, or they won't listen, or they'll talk and make noise."

Joe Marillo: "People come in to a bar, they'll ask for some silly tune, or they won't listen, or they'll talk and make noise."

(As an aside: I've begun to notice, after a few weeks of talking to saxophonists, that they all speak clearly yet distinctively. They all seem to keep their tonal quirks and accents, their twangs, drawls, burrs, and brogues, yet you can understand perfectly every word out of a saxophonist's mouth.)

So Charles McPherson finally got the chance to put his hands on a saxophone, and how did he know what to do? Who taught the man to play?

Charles McPherson. He played with Mingus throughout the '60s and went on to record and tour with Billy Eckstein, Lionel Hampton, Art Farmer, and Wynton Marsalis.

Charles McPherson. He played with Mingus throughout the '60s and went on to record and tour with Billy Eckstein, Lionel Hampton, Art Farmer, and Wynton Marsalis.

"In school I got a horn when I was in school," he said. "A secondhand saxophone that was a pretty good one, by the way. And with the horn, you got a few free lessons. So I did take a few free lessons with the retail store that sold the horn. And then after that, I studied at a music school that was quite prestigious in Detroit, called Larry Teal's. Larry Teal was a classical saxophonist of note. He's probably not living now. But he had probably the premier privately run music school in the area."

McPherson with student. "Maybe most of the innovators were black because the music springs from the African-American culture."

McPherson with student. "Maybe most of the innovators were black because the music springs from the African-American culture."

Did McPherson learn to play other instruments as well?

"I play tenor," he said, "and I play piano a little bit."

By "tenor," McPherson meant "tenor saxophone." He was telling me that his main instrument was the alto sax -- a smaller, lighter, more agile, higher-toned, and differently tuned instrument than the tenor sax.

Five types of saxophones exist, although the fifth, the bass sax, is an oversized curiosity and is hardly played anywhere anymore. The other four saxes -- soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone -- are distinct and separate musical entities, even though the only physical differences are how long they are and how they're tuned. (To get longer, saxes go from straight, to curved, to bigger and curved, to bigger still and curved and with a brass curlicue on top. The subject of instrumental tuning is fascinating but would take us deep into the scientific study of acoustics.)

Instead, back to Charles McPherson! Why did he concentrate on the alto sax?

"The alto was what I had," he said matter-of-factly. "My mom was able to buy one because they were a little cheaper than tenors. And they were smaller, maybe a little better suited for me, being a kid. So that was it, more than the sound."

How did McPherson get his break into the professional-music world?

"I played with Charlie Mingus," he said, invoking the name of one of the five or six greatest all-time jazz composers. Then, with characteristic understatement, McPherson added, "The bass player."

He went on. "Now Mingus was old enough to be my father, and he was pretty well known, and when I joined his band I was only 20 years old."

And McPherson had to try out?

"Yeah, I had to audition, along with a trumpet player. And we got in his band. And that was the beginning of my career. Playing with Mingus, who was an internationally known figure."

McPherson played with Mingus throughout the '60s and went on to record and tour with such jazz greats as Billy Eckstein, Lionel Hampton, Art Farmer, and Wynton Marsalis. Probably McPherson's greatest claim to fame came in 1988, when Clint Eastwood chose him to rerecord the alto saxophone parts for late jazz great Charlie Parker's ensembles in the major motion picture Bird, starring Forest Whitaker.

Surely such a distinguished career had required a lot of practice?

"I practice at home," McPherson told me. "I try to get in at least three hours a day. I can't always do that, but if I could have my way, I would probably practice four or five hours a day."

Always at the same time?

"No. I get it when I can."

And were people bothered?

"I'm sure someone's bothered." He laughed. "You know, usually, I stop around 10 o'clock in the evening."

Did McPherson live alone?

"No, I'm married. And I got a little kid. My youngest kid is 13."

His practicing at home didn't bother them?

McPherson's tone grew jovial and maybe half-facetious. "Well, you know, I got a feeling I do bother them." He chuckled. "But I try to be considerate. I go away in the other part of the house and I close doors. Or I have my garage nicely situated, and I can go in there and practice and not bother anybody."

What were his practice sessions like?

"I practice scales. I'll spend a lot of time doing finger exercises. I practice harmonic progressions, you know, harmonic movements going from point A to point B. And then I have records that I'll play along with. They're called Minus One. And basically, they have the rhythm section playing on these tunes, and that's all, so you can play along. So it's kind of like the karaoke of the jazz world."

Did McPherson think about the saxophone all day, even when he wasn't playing it?

"Yeah, I do. I'm in love with the instrument. It's such a complicated piece of physics, first of all. It's a complicated piece of machinery. It's a lot of moving parts. So Murphy's Law has a wonderful time with the saxophone: if it can go wrong, it will. And there's plenty of things that can go wrong. And many of the things that go wrong can make you sound bad on the horn, if the instrument isn't up to snuff, you know. The parts have to move right, and the pads can't leak. No air should get out of any part of the horn that you don't want it to get out of. So I tinker. I fix things. Although some problems are too big, and you have to take the horn to someone who has all the tools and that stuff."

Does that get expensive?

"An overhaul for the sax might cost somewhere around $700. That'll last for maybe three or four years. But you always know your horn is in a state of decline. It's never getting any better."

How much was McPherson's horn to begin with?

"Well, I have a vintage Selmer. And most guys do play Selmer, even though there are other good horns on the market. But Selmer is kind of like the Stradivarius of the saxophone. And I could probably sell my horn for $6500, for sure."

Did McPherson name his horn?

"No, no, no," he said slowly. "That's for rock-and-roll guys."

Where did he keep it?

"It's in its case. In the den. And usually, when I leave, I'm so paranoid about it, that when I go someplace, I'll hide it. You know, I'll put it in an area of the house where it's not real obvious. So if someone breaks in, they're apt not to see it."

What about traveling with his sax?

"I have to take it on the airplane. It's too delicate to put under the plane. And quite often, when you take it through security at the airport, it often becomes an object of interest. They want to look at it. And sometimes, the minute they go in there, I have to step forward and say, 'Okay, let me do it. I'll pick the horn up; I'll handle it; I'll do anything you say; you can look anywhere you want.' But I'm the one who's going to handle it. Because there's so many delicate moving parts. It's like a piece of china. They don't know, and they might just grab it, and something might get damaged."

McPherson told me he likes the horn he has now very much. And when I went to see him play at Dizzy's downtown, I could hear why.

Dizzy's, while we're on the subject, is a dedicated, relatively small concert space on the edge of the Gaslamp -- a high-ceilinged, wide-open warehouse with unfinished walls and portable (comfortable) chairs. They don't serve alcohol there -- it's all ages, always -- and no one who goes to hear jazz muddles the experience by talking or reading or eating. Dizzy's is about the music, plain and simple.

And what music! McPherson's quintet (which featured local trumpet whiz Gilbert Castellanos) smoked and cooked and worked it through, tune after tune. Over 100 jazz enjoyers packed little Dizzy's and clapped enthusiastically between songs and after all the solos. McPherson's tone on that old Selmer alto burst into the room, the sound impossibly full, as though the notes had begun deep in his own throat and the horn was just an extended vocal apparatus. But McPherson could play quietly, too, threading the ballads with a sound like sugar wind.

I asked McPherson what kind of music he listens to.

"Certainly jazz," he said. "Though not as much as I used to years ago. But I'll listen to jazz radio, you know, KSDS. And I will listen to classical music quite a bit. Every now and then, I'll listen to pop, too, and see if there's anything interesting, although there isn't very much."

(I have to mention, contrary to what you may have heard, that bad sax isn't better than no sax at all. Soft jazz, "cheesy" listening, bubble-gum-Kenny G-type pop, and especially Muzak all count on the unfortunate saxophone to carry melodies and replace vocal lines. It's almost enough to dilute this incredible instrument's esteemed pedigree.)

And what about that pedigree? What saxophone players did McPherson emulate and admire?

"Most of the guys I admire aren't here anymore. You know, like Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt...I tend to like the bebop guys. Those are the guys I learned from, who were quite strong as I was growing up. But I don't listen to as much music as I used to, because I'm more into doing it, rather than listening to it."

By "doing it," did McPherson mean not only playing music but also teaching it?

"Yes, I teach," he said, "I have a few students. You know, mostly college guys. And I teach intermediate sax, or advanced, but not so much the basics anymore."

Did he have any female students? (I was envisioning a potentially inflammatory direction for my questioning.)

"I had one. But she moved to New York."

So how come so few women played the saxophone?

"That's a complicated question. It probably has to do with socialization and society at large. Maybe little girls think they're not supposed to play, like it's a man's thing. You know, why aren't more women carpenters? You know, they can be, and there are some, but..."

So why were there more African-American sax players than Caucasian ones?

"I don't know if that's the truth," McPherson shot back, though he didn't sound provoked. "I mean, maybe it is. I don't know."

When you considered all the great jazz innovators, for every white musician (Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz come immediately to mind) there were at least five or ten black ones, right?

"That may be," McPherson said. "But if you add up all the jazz players in America, then I don't know if it breaks down like that. I think there are at least as many white folks playing jazz as black folks. But when you mention the innovators, I guess maybe most of the innovators were black because the music springs from the African-American culture."

So then it might be safe to say that there were more jazz artists of American descent than any other nationality?

"Perhaps." McPherson sounded thoughtful. "But, you know, it's so pervasive now. For instance, I can go to Europe, and there are just thousands of European players now. I mean, they teach jazz in the schools over there."

McPherson himself has taught saxophone for decades. He led master classes at San Diego State back in the '80s. But now his teaching was limited to a few students in his own home. Eventually (as you'll read later), I spoke to McPherson's best current student, Ian Tordella.

Saxophone seemed as if it must be a very difficult instrument to play. All that air required, and so on. Could McPherson still blow a fine tune when he had a cold?

"Oh, you can do that," he said. "The difficulty of the saxophone isn't so much the energy of the air as it is the dexterity of the fingers. You know, the coordination. It's a finger game."

What about the difference between playing live and recording?

"For me, playing live, that atmosphere seems to produce more spontaneity. It produces more of a relaxed attitude while you're doing what you do. And so, from the relaxed attitude, spontaneity is more apt to happen. Recording is more of a sterile situation. You worry more about being precise, because it's for posterity. That atmosphere is not necessarily the best for extemporizing. But there's an art to it. Some people have the ability, for whatever reason, to bring spontaneity to their recordings, but that is not an easy thing."

I asked the master why he thought the saxophone had become such a popular instrument. What was the allure?

"People, even lay people, like the sound of that instrument. I'd say there are more saxophone players than there are players of any other instrument. And there's a reason for that, an interesting psychological reason. Certainly, the sound has got a lot to do with it. I think the sound of the saxophone is in some sort of way likable to many people. And, believe it or not, the shape of it. The S look. It seems that women really like the sound of saxophone. They think it sounds sexy. Quite often, when you look at a movie and a director wants to portray a sexy scene, then you'll hear a saxophone in the background. For whatever reason, people think that. Good or bad, whatever it means, on some primordial level. Now these are just some of the things I hear. I don't necessarily think all that."

What do you think?

"The reason I like the saxophone is because, out of all the instruments, it's the closest to the human voice. How it sounds, and also how the tone is produced, what you do with your throat and your mouth. When you play saxophone, it's like you're singing. You have an open throat, and you're thinking vowel-sounds, and, indeed, the instrument is very voicelike; it's very close in timbre to the human voice. In fact, the guy who invented the saxophone -- Adolphe Sax, a Belgian guy -- from what I understand, from what I read about him, it was actually his intent to make a horn that sounded like the human voice. And also to make a horn that sounded like the string section in the orchestra, you know, the violin, the viola, the cello. So for all the saxophones, there's a corresponding string instrument as well. Like, the soprano sax is a violin, the alto is like a viola, the tenor is like a cello, and the baritone is tonally similar to a string bass. They overlap. So you can listen to a sax quartet, and it sounds pretty damn near to a string quartet. So there was some deliberation on Adolphe Sax's part. To have string qualities as well as woodwind qualities and also to have the projection ability of brass instruments as well. This guy was a genius."

Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) didn't develop the first saxophone until 1842. It's interesting to note that Sax's close friend, Hector Berlioz, was a classical composer, and the first uses for the saxophone were as a woodwind instrument in classical music settings. But it wasn't long before Sax himself retooled military bands, replacing oboes, bassoons, and French horns with alto and tenor saxophones.

The saxophone was enhanced over the next four decades, adding notes in the lower and higher registers, extending the bell, and tweaking the technologies behind the pads and keys. The saxophone came to the United States in 1885 and continued to be improved upon and was used mostly in orchestral and chamber music situations by everyone from Ravel and Debussy to Copland and Puccini. But the saxophone had also found its way into other musical veins, mostly in the American South. By 1911, the saxophone was popularized by Tom Brown's saxophone sextet, which played such tunes as "Bullfrog Blues" and "Chicken Walk." Soon thereafter, Sidney Bechet revolutionized how the instrument was perceived and played.

In the 1940s, jazz saxophonists -- such as the aforementioned Parker, Mulligan, and Getz -- began to gain popularity. By the time Selmer began making saxophones in the 1950s, the instrument was firmly entrenched in the musical mainstream, and especially within the mainstream of jazz.

The hallmark of jazz music is improvisation. Louis Armstrong once said, "Jazz is music that's never played the same way once." Could McPherson talk about improvising? How did he approach it? How did he learn a theme, and put himself in the moment, and let himself loose, and personally express?

"Usually, to improvise well," he said, "you have to master a lot of theory. So, having done that, having accrued that kind of knowledge, it's a matter of executing that. But once you've learned some of the academics of what harmony is all about, that's not even the half of it. For people who improvise, after you learn the rudiments, then it's 'What kind of story are you going to tell?' Then, personality takes over. Personality is the thing that executes what you know. So it comes down to what kind of person you are, how well-rounded you are. If you're going to portray love, then, will you be able to do that by way of your medium, by way of your horn? Or joy. Or ecstasy. Or depression. Can you convey that? Do you have the dimension as a performer? You have to be a musical thespian. Can you portray deep sadness? And all these things come into play. And this is what makes a great artist, as opposed to a great musician. A great musician can be a great mechanic. A great artist is one who might not be the greatest mechanic, but their greatness is how multidimensional they are in conveying all the human gradations of emotion."

So it's also a question of tone?

"Tone's important, too," McPherson agreed. "Treatment of tone. For saxophone players especially, having your own sound, your own distinguishable, definitive sound is of utmost importance."

How did a player achieve that?

"That's a hard question." McPherson trailed off thoughtfully. "It's a very natural thing. You know, it's something that has to come about in a natural way. At the same time, I can't say that developing your tone doesn't involve an act of deliberation. Maybe the act of deliberation would be to know that that's what's to be desired. It's like being a little kid in school and learning to write cursive. You're looking at the teacher, and you're trying to make your letters look like her letters. But then, after a while, everybody has his own handwriting. You're creating your own sound. It's what kind of sound you hear in your head. You know, what is your concept of sound? Everybody hears differently. We all have a different set of ideals. But personality has the last say-so. That decides how you do what you do with what you know."


Joe Marillo started on the saxophone relatively late. "When I was 18 or 19," he told me. "It might have been destiny. Why is anyone drawn to anything?"

Joe Marillo's accent is one hundred percent upstate New York. Buffalo, to be exact. It plays through his vowels, unmistakable. "When I was ver-r-ry young" -- Marillo drew his words along distinctively and beautifully -- "it was Jimmy Dorsey. The sweetness of his tone. And from there, it was Charlie Parker. Listening to him improvise and play those intricate compositions that he wrote. They were very intriguing. Because it wasn't the ordinary la-di-di, la-di-da, the simple little melodies, you know. So I don't know why that happened to me, why I was drawn to the sax, but I was drawn to it very strongly by Charlie Parker."

They call Joe Marillo "the Godfather of Jazz." When I asked him how he picked up such a name, he winced and told me he didn't know who said it, or when exactly, or how the name stuck. "Oh, that's just show-biz stuff," he said. "I don't like the show-biz side of jazz. I just want to play the music, you know?"

Marillo got a saxophone himself "when I was about 19," he said. "I got a Selmer, a tenor sax, which at that time was about $500. I wish I'd have bought ten of them, because they're about $5000 now. So I bought a Selmer, started playing by ear, just fooling around. And my brother-in-law owned a bar in Niagara Falls, New York. And that's where I started, just playing blues. Didn't know any tunes, couldn't read music, but my brother-in-law owned the place, so I got to play there every Friday and Saturday night with a drummer and a piano player. I was a honker then, not a jazz player. I'd hit one note for half an hour, and all the girls would be screaming and yelling. You know, the longer you played on one note, the more they liked you. Too many notes: no girls!"

Marillo also learned to play a lot of notes. How did that happen?

"Now I have to tell you this," Marillo said urgently, "and you have to put it in the paper, because a miracle happened to me. I went in the Army, took my basic training at Fort Dix, and learned to shoot 'the awful gun,' and I was on my way to Korea. So I said, okay, I'm on my way to go kill people and maybe be killed, but I brought my mouthpiece with me, and one night I went to the USO building, got a saxophone, and went and sat in with these guys. It wasn't much, you know, we just played some Mickey Mouse blues, no tunes, but some guy comes up to me, a Sergeant Shapiro, and he says, 'Hey, man. You play good.' And I didn't know what to say, because I knew I didn't play good. I didn't know how to play anything. But if you believe in guardian angels...This Sergeant Shapiro says, 'Do you play in a band?' And I told him, no, I was going to Korea. And he said, 'Would you like to be in a band?' And I said, 'Yeah! I don't want to go kill anybody. I don't want to go to war.' And the next thing I knew, I had my orders changed, and I was going to Alaska, and I was in the 43rd Army band. I couldn't read, I couldn't improvise, I couldn't play, but it was a miracle. This Sergeant Shapiro. Never forget his name. I'm looking for him on the Internet, or his family, or his relatives, to let him know what he did for me."

Marillo was eventually kicked out of the Army band when they discovered that he couldn't read a single note of music. He was demoted to kitchen duty, where he "washed dishes and scrubbed floors" for six months. But he "loved it," because he never had to spend a single day of his life fighting in a war.

After his tour in the Army, Marillo decided to study music with all his heart. After all, it had saved his life. But it was tough in the late '50s and early '60s for a young music student to make a living, so he kicked around for a while, playing gigs here and there and even swinging on a trapeze and playing saxophone upside down to make a few bucks. "I don't have any pictures of that, though," Marillo laughed. "I wish I did."

He met his first wife, got married, moved to Philadelphia, and eventually attended the same school -- the Granoff School of Music -- where his idol, the saxophone great John Coltrane, had learned to play a few years before. After Granoff, Marillo could read a little, and improvise, and he stressed to me emphatically that, no matter what else was going on in his life, "It was always the saxophone."

From Philadelphia, Marillo got the call to go to Las Vegas, where he started a family, played a bunch of gigs, and kept practicing as much as he could. Then, 30 years ago, he visited San Diego for the first time and "fell in love."

"Here was another miracle," Marillo said. "I'm in San Diego, I don't know anybody, and right around the corner in La Jolla there's this place called the Aspen Public House. So I went to this guy there, and I said, 'How about we put together some Sunday afternoon jam sessions?' And I don't even know where that idea came from. But we did that, and we put it together, and the crowds used to line up around the corner every Sunday. So I thought this might work somewhere else, too, in a bigger room, maybe seven days a week. So I went to the Catamaran, in Pacific Beach, and in 1974 I talked the owner into going with jazz shows six nights a week. We called it Society for the Preservation of Jazz. Got in touch with some agents in New York, and I booked jazz for a year and a half. And everybody came here. Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, Ahmad Jamal. Out of nowhere, with no experience, we packed the place."

Rollins, Vaughan, Jamal, jazz gods all. The jazz pantheon used to tour to play here, in humble San Diego? Where was that kind of local soul now? In 2006, did we still have a jazz scene?

"I don't like the words 'good' and 'bad,' " Marillo equivocated. "But I have to use...No...I'm not going to use 'good' and 'bad.' I would say the jazz scene in San Diego now is very meager. The only real thing we have is Dizzy's."

Not even Croce's?

"No, no, no. That's not real jazz. We're talking straight-ahead bebop jazz. Over there, it's Latin jazz, and rock jazz, and this and that. From what I gather. But it's not a jazz club. It's a bar, where tourists go in and drink and make noise. They don't go in specifically to hear jazz artists. Dizzy's is the only jazz club in town, period. It's been there now three or four years, it's consistent, and the guy who runs it is a great guy who books the right people. Besides the Dizzy's scene, you've got some great players here in town, like James Moody and Charles McPherson, and also Gilbert Castellanos, who's a brilliant young trumpet player. Castellanos plays all over town, but Moody usually goes away on tour, and McPherson and I get what gigs we can, but it isn't like a real scene."

(Let it be noted that at the time this article was written, James Moody -- two-time Grammy nominee and longtime soloist with Dizzy Gillespie's famed ensembles, who, at 80 years young, is easily San Diego's reigning senior saxophonist -- was away in Tokyo touring with 18-year-old [female!] Japanese saxophone prodigy Saori Yano.)

Marillo went on. "Aside from Dizzy's, as I say, there aren't really jazz clubs. And there's a big difference between playing in a bar or someplace and playing in a jazz club. People come in, they'll ask for some silly tune, or they won't listen, or they'll talk and make noise, and you just put your three hours in and hopefully somebody's listening and you have fun."

But surely we must have the resources on hand to start up a jazz scene in this town?

"I don't think so," Marillo answered matter-of-factly. "I'm always looking for backers to start up some jam sessions again, but no one's into it anymore. People are obviously in the music game to make money, but jazz doesn't make money. Also, the clubs here don't have history. There's no roots here for people who own old clubs, who pass them on. Instead, these places try jazz, but if they're not making money, then the jazz is out. Jazz is a second thought. That's the way it works nowadays, especially in San Diego. San Diego's never been a jazz town. There's a lot of rock bands. If jazz made money, we'd have jazz clubs."

When I went and listened to Joe Marillo saxing it up at Buon Giorno Ristorante in Bonita, the small but dedicated crowd danced and cheered and tapped their feet and bobbed their heads. The music created a euphoric little atmosphere. Yes, it took up a lot of room to have a pianist, a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, a saxophonist, and a singer, and the sound was just a notch or two too loud for quiet conversation, but the mood in Buon Giorno was such that I wondered why more places don't offer live jazz more often.

And because so few places offer paychecks for jazz musicians, to make a living nowadays, a player needs to have a day job. In other words, he has to take on students and give lessons. Marillo has been a piano and saxophone teacher for 40 years and estimates that he's had over 500 students in that time. At present, he's compiling a book that outlines his original method for teaching jazz piano.

I asked Marillo to give me a quick primer on how to improvise real jazz.

"To improvise," Marillo began, "first you have to learn the saxophone, where the notes are. Then you have to learn scales, all the various and sundry scales. Then you learn the chords that are on the scales, and then you have to memorize the chords and scales. Then you learn the melodies of different tunes. Now you could 'ornament' probably a lot faster than you could improvise on the chords. They also call that 'faking it.' Where you just learn the melody and play little notes around the melody, and it sounds like you're improvising. I used to do that for years, before I learned to take it to the next level. Where you learn the chords and you learn the scales, and you create melodies on the spot, other than what you're reading. Some people are more talented at doing that than others. Then, of course, being in the moment with the feeling and the type of rhythm that you play...The rhythm and feeling are more important than the notes, really, although the notes have to be right, otherwise you sound wrong. So there's a lot of aspects to it."

Marillo practices his own chords and scales whenever he can, hours a day, at home, but he says he doesn't take care of his horn the way he should. Today, he plays a Yamaha tenor sax, but, he acknowledged sheepishly, "I'm not a good caretaker of my saxophone, I have to admit." But boy, can he play the thing. At Buon Giorno, on that night I saw him soloing with his band, not only was Marillo's fingerwork fast and precise, but I was struck most by his beautiful, bright tone. On the one hand, it sounded sweet, smooth, and bell-like clear, and at the same time it was ribald, rowdy, and full to bursting with emotion.

I asked Marillo if he was superstitious about his sax, and he answered me without hesitation. "I'm not superstitious about anything. Reality is in the moment, and there's only now-time. When you improvise, you're in now-time, you can't go back and play your solo over again, and you don't know what's going to come out ahead of time. And I try to live my life in the moment as much as possible, without trying to predict or worry that something will happen. There's only the moment we're in right now, and that's all."


Ferran Prat, 35, who is originally from Barcelona, began taking lessons with Joe Marillo in August 2005. The sax was always a fascination for Prat, but he never played before because of his busy career as a licensing executive for a biotech company. Now, after his late start and just a few months of practice, Prat was Marillo's best student. In fact, Marillo told me Prat was "the best student I've ever had in over 40 years of teaching."

"I love jazz," Prat said in his thick Catalonian accent. "And the saxophone is the king of the instruments in jazz. It's the most flexible and the sexiest of instruments."

Did he buy his own sax?

"First I bought a saxophone on eBay," Prat said. "But it turned out to be a piece of crap. So Joe found another one for me, a Yamaha, and it works great."

Is it a tenor sax?

"It's a tenor, yes," Prat said, and then joked, "Real men play tenor."

Marillo originally charged Prat $20 for half-hour lessons, but Prat enjoyed the experience so much that he started giving Marillo $30. "He's a great teacher," Prat said. "And I get so much pleasure out of learning from him, that I felt like I was cheating him, so I gave him more money."

Prat has friends who play trumpet and bass, and he told me his goal is to be able to jam with them someday. "But right now I'm not good enough," he said.

And what were the hurdles and difficulties to becoming a good saxophone player?

"The thing that's hard," Prat said, "is when you step out of the framework. When you know the song and you have the chords, it's relatively easy. You know the rules of what scales you can play, and you know the sequences. The problem is when you don't have any clear structure. Then you have to be able to think musically and play by ear."

Was Joe Marillo a good teacher?

"If I had gone with any other teacher, especially since I didn't start playing until I was 35, I don't know if I would have even continued. What Joe did was start me on improvising from day one, or maybe not day one, but month one, let's say, and he took me straight into what the real rules are. I've read books, and I've talked to other people, and they just get lost in the scales and technicalities. But Joe just says, look, here's a chord progression, and this is a scale that works over that progression, every time. When you hear this, you play this. He goes right to the point. He makes it so simple. And the fact that you can play something that sounds really good from the very beginning just motivates you tremendously."


Charles McPherson's best student right now is Ian Tordella, 27. A saxophonist for 13 years, Tordella has played professionally since 2000.

What did it mean to play saxophone professionally in San Diego in 2006?

"Right now, I have a trio and a quartet," Tordella said, "and we do a lot of holiday parties and corporate events. We'll also play clubs in the Gaslamp, like Dizzy's and Croce's. But, for musicians these days, you have to be ready to play everywhere, all types of music. You have to play for big bands, for pop groups, at the jazz clubs. Basically, you play anywhere and anything that they want you to so you can eat."

Compared to Joe Marillo, Ian Tordella painted a picture of a slightly more vibrant jazz scene in San Diego. Along with Dizzy's and Croce's, Tordella mentioned Gilbert Castellanos's Tuesday jam sessions at the Onyx Room downtown. He also sounded enthusiastic talking about Rosie O'Grady's pub on Adams Avenue. "They do an old-style jam at Rosie's on Tuesdays," Tordella said. "You show up with your horn or your trumpet, and they get some singers too, and then you jam with the rhythm section that's there. It's pretty cool." Hot Monkey Love Cafe in the College Area also features a jazz rhythm section on Thursdays where musicians can show up and jam together, old-school-jazz style.

I also found mention in the papers and on the Internet of enough jazz happenings in town to give the impression of at least a somewhat lively local underground music scene. There's Jazz in the Park every Wednesday evening at the San Diego Museum of Art. There's the America's Finest City Dixieland Jazz Society, which plays festivals, holds camps and workshops, and plays the third Sunday of every month at the El Cajon Elks Lodge. A few other nightclubs, such as the Grant Grill and Patrick's II, also periodically advertise jazz acts.

Tordella, who has haunted many of these venues over the past few years, plays alto and tenor sax and also the flute. He owns five saxes, a couple of flutes and clarinets, and a piano. "More instruments than I need," he said. But his favorite horn is his vintage 1948 Selmer tenor sax, which he bought used and had to have restored. Sax restorations are undertaken by true specialists who basically overhaul a horn until it looks and sounds like new. Tordella sent his Selmer to a guy in North Carolina for a month and paid over $1000 to get a horn that's basically the same as the ones played by John Coltrane and Hank Mobley on jazz albums in the 1950s.

I was curious about Tordella's lessons with Charles McPherson. They weren't really lessons, were they? What with Tordella being a professional player and all....

"Not lessons so much in the sense of learning the fundamentals of the instrument," Tordella conceded. "But Charles McPherson's been playing professionally for about 50 years, and he has some good stuff to say. So I've been visiting him regularly for a little over a year now."

And what did Tordella pay to play with the master?

"I think he usually charges about $80 for an hour to two hours. He's real generous with his time. But of course he gives me a reduced rate by now, I guess because he kind of likes playing with me too."

And what was a typical McPherson/Tordella jam session like?

"We usually play through jazz tunes with CD accompaniment. And then he helps me critique my improvisation, pointing out spots in the tune that I could play better, or things I might do differently. Sometimes we record the stuff we play, and then we listen to it together."

Could Tordella give me a specific example of a McPherson critique?

"Mostly, Charles gives me new ways to think about chords and harmonic structure. It's kind of an ethereal thing. It's well beyond the notes that fit in certain places. It's more about phrasing, I guess, and how you're making your lines. Ideally, you want the syntax of your improvisation to be just right. You want your solos to make sense, so you're not just rambling on."

Which may begin to explain that strange saxophonist-enunciation thing I mentioned earlier, about how all the gents (and, presumably, ladies) who play this instrument seem to speak so clearly and distinctively. Tordella's words especially were fully articulated, every single one of them. He even laughed with a kind of precision, pronouncing each chuckle: ha ha ha heh heh.

"I'm starting to write my own music now," Tordella said. "And I'd like to develop my writing more and eventually play my own music and start touring with my own band. Or maybe get picked up by someone else's band and start touring with them. That would be good, too."

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