Bob Marsh (1977) Tenor Saxophone
My father had a forest green Slingerland drum set on a raised platform in the basement, my uncle a white marine pearl Rogers in his, which seemed to go on forever, with ‘a host of toms’ of all sizes and a myriad of cymbals. As a small child I was not allowed to touch either of these kits, but I spent long periods taking in the wonder and mystery of them with my eyes. When I went to a neighborhood playmate’s house for the first time, I was eager to get down to the basement to see what sort of drum set his dad had. When I did, I looked around, looked a bit more, then asked my friend, “Where’s your drum set?”
It is late January or early February, 1964. I am four years old. I am in the car with my mother, in the parking lot of Edens Plaza (Shopping Center in Wilmette, Illinois), outside S.S. Kresge’s. A song comes on the radio. I am instantly transfixed. The song was She Loves You. It’s by a group called The Beatles. I beg my mom to buy me the 45-rpm recording – I know about 45s because I have an older sister who has quite a few – which she does, immediately, at Kresge’s, which has everything, including magical lunch counter with mystical fountain drinks. She also buys I Want to Hold Your Hand, for my brother, who is two. These are the first records we will own, first of what will gradually grow into voluminous, ever-expanding collections. The distinctive orange and yellow swirl of the Capitol Records stamp rotating on the turntable becomes as indelible in my mind as the song itself. On February 9, the Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. I don’t know how I know at this age, but I know, that I am witnessing something extraordinary.
I take drum lessons in 4th grade, guitar lessons in 7th. My grandparents have both a Mason and Hamlin grand piano and a Hammond C3 organ in their living room. I fiddle unpromisingly with both. No keyboard lessons follow. Due to indolence, distraction, and a steady diet of ice cream and cake, I make close to zero musical progress, but am listening intensively, in love with what I hear, which, at some point just before high school, happens to be the album Through the Eyes of a Horn, by saxophonist Jim Horn. It’s not jazz, but sort of an instrumental hybrid of R&B and gospel and rock and roll. I fall in love with the sound of the saxophone. Tenor saxophone, specifically.
I’m late to the party. My fellow students in the New Trier West High School music program have been playing their instruments since middle school or earlier. I have been playing for about a year when I find myself as a junior attending Concert Band and Lab Jazz Ensemble for the first time. My first Concert Band rehearsal is highly disorienting. Although I’ve been learning to read music, what I am seeing in that moment is a sea of indecipherable black dots bearing no discernible relationship to what the others around me are playing.
Because I have a free period which happens to coincide with the Recording Jazz Ensemble rehearsal, I attend, daily, sitting in the back of the room, intently soaking up the sights and sounds. The reputation of this august body is already known to me, and Roger Mills, the director, is, to my mind, a living legend. My eyes take in the line of Selmer Mark VI saxophones: alto, tenor, baritone, two of each, played by Brian Ripp, Rick Nathan, Rich Rasmus, John Anson, Larry Tropp and Jules Pomerantz, all 1976 NTW Jazz Ensemble graduates.
I take saxophone lessons with John Vames and dedicate all of my free time to practice. “Listen to Sonny Stitt. Listen to Dexter Gordon,” Mr. Vames tells me. This may be the single most important piece of advice I am given in high school. When I comment on the speed and dexterity of Charlie Parker, Mr. Vames chuckles ruefully. “Yes, he plays fast,” he says, “lots of people play fast. That’s not what makes him a genius.” Senior year, I get promoted to the Recording Jazz Ensemble. I can’t believe my good fortune. Our big event of the year is performing on the WTTW, channel 11 show Soundstage. Whoa, we’re on TV! It is perhaps a sad and telling comment on my dissolute character that I find this utterly intoxicating.
I enter college as a music performance major, switching in my third year to philosophy – in the interest of getting a more practical degree! I keep in touch and continue to make music with a core group of guys from my time in the Jazz Ensemble. We continue to rehearse and do occasional gigs with our little band. After graduation from college, we are still playing together, and getting some interest from shady music business types. We’re getting big ideas. How embarrassing. We persist for some years, while ultimately more or less stalling just one shade to the shy side of complete and total world domination. We play on the NBC Today Show, get interviewed by the impressively kind and down-to-earth Jane Pauley, for a series they are running called, The Stars of Tomorrow. Ouch.
We eventually get signed by an ‘indy’ (independent record label) and release two albums. I release a solo album, as well – or, that is, an album under my name with the same guys from our group, all, but one, NTW Jazz Ensemble alums. We spend more years than I care to count playing clubs and small theatres in Chicago, heading out on the road on occasion, and recording.
My ultimately failed musical ambitions are not failures in the big-picture sense. One can’t help, it seems, going through a jazz education without passing through the ‘Jazz Nazi’ phase, to wit, jazz chauvinism, jazz as superior-to-all-other-forms, jazz as the-only-true-music. Passing out of this constricted, benighted ignorance, music opens up. Music has continued to open up for me over the course of my life, opening ever deeper, deeper, wider – opening into opening.
“Even genuine religious teaching can generate narrowness of vision. Trust only the approach that is utterly vast and profound.” – Tilopa
Sitting on my couch in the evening, by candlelight – 62 years old now – a fire in the hearth, the flames of which flicker into and out of existence, moment to moment, I listen, in succession, to János Starker’s recording of the Cello Suites, The Juilliard String Quartet’s recording of The Art of the Fugue, and Glenn Gould’s recording of the Two and Three Part Inventions, soaking in the subtleties of the sublime and penetrating mind of Bach, until, slowly, and by degrees, I am lifted quite out of the brutal torpor of the everyday and ushered into a transmundane space of exquisite lightness of being, wherein I partake of rich nourishment of the soul. Poetry is the use of language to point to and evoke that which is beyond what language can convey. Music is the poetry, the meditation and mysticism, which dispenses with language altogether, to penetrate directly into the primordial immanent transcendent Is-ness of the Is, the sublime art of cutting through.
I am thankful for having had the opportunity to learn from Mr. Mills and Mr. Vames and the New Trier West High School Jazz Program. For me, it was a formative and highly memorable leg of a journey with no beginning and no end.
December 30, 2021